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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: The Canyons


Paul Schrader is one of my favorite filmmakers. He almost always has something to say and more often than not, he says it in a very interesting, emotionally layered way.

So, when I see something as profoundly worthless as The Canyons, I don’t have the urge to get into a glib contest with other critics. The simplest way I can explain it is… if you ran into this movie on cable, without the names Schrader or Lohan or Easton Ellis connected, you would never get past 10 minutes. Not sexy. Not profound. Not profane. Not well-written (not that the writing has a chance with this amateur show acting). And about as uninteresting as any movie with no familiar actors or behind-the-camera talent you might find on the off-brand channels at 3am, filling the quiet hours. (I am circumspect about that description, lest you run into a great little indie with no one you know involved some late night. Give it 10 minutes.)

The film opens with a series of horribly beautiful images of deserted movie theaters… which really has nothing to do with the film… more so because the images are meaningful. But it would seem to suggest that the filmmakers knew what this film is not and sought a rationalization… an angle that might make it seem to be about something. Or maybe it was in the script from day one and the thematic delusion was with them from the start. Six one way, half worthless the other.

Watching Lindsay Lohan in this is painful. She looks terrible… not, as the film would suggest, a prize amongst hotties, but rather the girl who stayed in Hollywood too long, still trying to use the tricks that worked when she was 22. The make-up is near-Kabuki. But mostly, it’s the dead eyes. It’s not a great performance of irony because the script is not about what she has done to herself, specifically or from a distance. It’s reminiscent of Madonna, hired for acting jobs to act variations of her persona, but unwilling, when push came to shove, to allow the camera to catch any of her truth. Lohan has become an empty vessel.

The sad comparison that sticks with me is Ann-Margret doing Carnal Knowledge at 30, looking all the bombshell that she ever was, only grown up. What drew the Nicholson character in that film is still apparent. But so is a human being underneath, struggling to be more than an object at 30 (which back then was more like late 30s is today). With Lohan, you get big boobs and nothing remotely sexy or interesting about how she uses them. She is neither an object breaking free or one who cannot escape her self-satisfied life. She is, sadly, just an object (in this case, of wannabe box office).

James Deen is the Gretchen Mol’s breasts of The Canyons… which is to say, it’s the thing that people comment on when a great filmmaker has made a film with nothing really worth complimenting. The difference is that Ms. Mol’s busom, particularly in Forever Mine, was indeed special and memorably so (even for women, a number of whom brought it up after seeing the film at Telluride long before I ever saw the film). Deen may be the best actor in porn. But… well… that says it all, doesn’t it. That and the name, an off-brand actor coasting on the almost-name of a serious actor.

I don’t really understand what drew the very bright minds at Lincoln Center Film Society (and Variety’s Scott Foundas, was, I believe, still amongst them when the conversation about this film began) to believe that there was anything to this film and to front its release. That is, aside from deservedly-admired, ofter extremely skilled artists being in the driver’s seat… as they drove this car into the wall. I just don’t get that. But this too shall pass… too much the source of mockery for something so empty, but still quite unworthy of praise.

I look forward to the next work of Mr Schrader and Mr. Ellis, together or apart. There is talent there. Important talent. But there is none of it on display in this particular movie.

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12 Responses to “Review: The Canyons”

  1. movieman says:

    I think we saw two different movies, Dave.
    The “Canyons” I saw was both wildly provocative and almost unbearably moving at times.
    Lohan was heartbreakingly brilliant (her final scene is killer), and Deen impressed like a cross between James Franco and Joseph Gordon Levitt.
    I thought he was exceptionally strong. (And nope, I’ve never seen any of his pornos.) The roughness of some of the supporting performances only enhances the level of naturalism.
    The leit motif of shuttered movie theaters merely contributes an add’l layer of poignance.
    “Haunting” is the adjective that best describes “The Canyons” for me.
    It’s definitely one of the strongest films I’ve seen all year.

  2. David Poland says:

    I think you saw Lee Daniels’ The Canyons, movieman

  3. Chris says:

    I liked it a bit more than you, David, and a lot less than you, Movieman. But I do think Lohan is good in it and that the loss-of-Hollywood theme is fairly consistent (there’s that scene, for instance, where Lohan talks about how no one sees movies in theaters anymore — which is presumably why all those theaters are shuttered.)

  4. Chris says:

    (Oh, and I’d say Deen is more like a combination of Keanu Reeves and Doc Johnson.)

  5. nick says:

    So Scott Foundas is not to be trusted, eh?

  6. Jeffrey Boam's Doctor says:

    I trust Foundas. I’ve only heard interesting good things about the film. All the things DP mentions as flaws other say are what makes it unique.

  7. LYT says:

    I often think when you say “review-ish,” it’s a review. But this one you call a review, and it’s more review-ish than anything.

    Beyond the fact that you think it sucks, I learn nothing about it.

    Maybe it does suck. But maybe you could also tell me the plot, what you think it was trying to do, and why it failed?

  8. Joe Leydon says:

    James Deen is the Gretchen Mol’s breasts of The Canyons… which is to say, it’s the thing that people comment on when a great filmmaker has made a film with nothing really worth complimenting.

    I hope you’re not including The Notorious Bettie Page among the Mol movies that rely entirely on titillation to be memorable.

  9. Don Lewis says:

    I’ve yet to see THE CANYONS but the topic of making something out of nothing is recently very intriguing to me in terms of critics. It often feels like critics feel the need to place the *IMPORTANT* label on trifles in order to try and legitimize a guilty pleasure (for lack of a better word). See also: “vulgar autuerism.”

  10. Smith says:

    It has been kind of touching to see the Film Society honchos rally around Schrader, who is after all one of their own. Haven’t seen the movie yet, hoping it’s good, but not really expecting much.

  11. movieman says:

    “Vulgar auteurism” is Armond White blowing a wad over Neveldine and Taylor and Michael Bay.
    Schrader is old school auteur.

  12. Don R. Lewis says:

    I thought Ebert’s young liege Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and the up and coming kid-crit Neil Labuza were behind it. Although it sounds very Armond.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon