The bubbling-over sexuality of Paul Schrader’s The Canyons is surely tongue-in-cheek, amusing in its semen-splashed excessiveness.
By Gerald Peary
Paul Schrader has been tagged forever as the estimable screenwriter of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), but I’ve been equally a fan of his oeuvre as a filmmaker. Several years ago, I taught a Great Film Directors course at Suffolk University in Boston and fourteen films made by Schrader, from Blue Collar (1978) through Affliction (1997) were the subject for the 14-week class, which was well-received by my students. I did something most unusual before the semester: I e-mailed my syllabus to Schrader and asked his endorsement. He approved it, I think, but suggested that I substitute another film for Hardcore (1979). I obeyed.
Not everyone loves the cinema of Paul Schrader. His biggest commercial hit, American Gigolo (1980), occurred fifteen films ago. Somehow, he’s squeezed out financing ever since for artsy movies with the slimmest chance of a financial recoup. Schrader’s tainted protagonists are invariably what the public regards as sleazy, creepy, immoral, and, worse, completely uninterested in happy-ending regeneration or salvation. Roasting in Hell for eternity is a given.
Thanks this time to a Kickstarter campaign, and his willingness to make a low-low budget feature, Schrader is back on screen again. It’s an erotic neo-noir, The Canyons, which opened theatrically in New York on Friday, with same-day Video-on-Demand. If you got pleasure from Schrader’s devilish ensembles in his earlier movies, The Canyons should be checked out VOD. It’s definitely more of the Schrader same, with its prime gallery of execrable personages absorbed in the kinkiest of sex games, and, more, screwing each other over. The setting is satanic LA, and everyone in the movie works in movies, though they don’t have a drop of concern about cinema. There’s a slasher flick in the background, and one character is producing it, and another is set to star in it. Nobody gives a hoot if the film is a decent one. In today’s Hollywood, quality isn’t on the table.
What is? SEX! The Canyons begins with an extended dinner scene, involving two couples meeting for the first time. There’s a jaded, cynical, erotically adventurous duo and, across the table, a bland, younger Dick-and-Jane pairing, who seem hopelessly square. But ever since Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, watch out about what you assume. We quickly discover that this quartet secretly all know each other, are clandestinely enmeshed, and that the good-hearted boy scout on one side of the victuals is, unknown to his girlfriend, sleeping with the decadent lass across the way, unknown to her surprisingly jealous perv boyfriend. Behind backs, everyone in The Canyons is doing it. There are a bunch of soft-X sex scenes with hetero couples, and then a hearty foursome with a bit of bi action.
The Canyons has a woeful 24% reviewers’ approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Critic David Denby in The New Yorker is among the naysayers. He condemns Schrader for the solemn tone the director used when dramatizing the rampant boudoir-hopping. Denby suggests that the proper way to traffic sex is comedic, á la Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1985). Denby, an astute reviewer, misses the boat. The bubbling-over sexuality of The Canyons is surely tongue-in-cheek, amusing in its semen-splashed excessiveness. Novelist Bret Ellis Easton is the screenwriter (a meeting made in Hades with Schrader), and I’ve found his infamous novels, Less Than Zero (1985) and American Psycho (1991), likewise as witty as they are transgressive and outrageous.
Schrader salaried The Canyons cast members $100 a day, and, with his two lead performers, he received impressive payback. Porn star James Deen is excellent in his semi-crossover to almost-porn as “Christian” (sic), a spoiled, brash, cruel, libidinous film producer; and Lindsay Lohan is right-on as his has-been, on-the-edge-of-fat, wreck of a girlfriend. Only today’s thirtyish Britney Spears might have been as effective.
I could have done without a poorly motivated murder, and the actors playing the young couple, Nolan Gerard Funk and Amanda Brooks, are dullards. But there is a great third character in The Canyons: its setting, a sublime modernist house, perching fragilely on the side of a Malibu hill. The best such domicile since the cutting edge mansion in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 North by Northwest.
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.