Film Review: “The Canyons” — Yucky But Likeable
By Tim Jackson
I recently read a colorful New York Times Magazine article about director/screenwriter Paul Schrader’s efforts to convince his star Lindsay Lohan to straighten up and fly right for his new, low-budget feature, The Canyons. Then I read Gerald Peary’s guarded review of the film for The Arts Fuse, calling it an “erotic neo-noir.” My curiosity got the better of me. My kids, visiting for the summer and both in their late 20s, sat down for some family movie time. I mentioned a few movies that I was interested in. The name Lindsay Lohan caught their imagination. After all, we had all enjoyed her perky friskiness when we snuggled up to Parent Trap 15 years earlier, and, a few Lohan melt-downs aside, how bad could this one be? So despite my understandable doubts about The Canyons as a family film, we put our money where our remote was and paid the $6.99 to PPV.
As The Canyons plodded on with its dreadful dialogue and wooden acting, my reputation at home for picking indecipherable art films soon became the topic of conversation. I was forced to field comments like “What is going on?” (that was a tough one), “Are we watching family porn?” (who’s asking—family services?), “Dad? You think this is a good movie?” (I always balk at that far too general question), and, inevitably, “Can you explain why you like this?”
OK, I’ll do that. I always tell them (to little effect) “like” is a strong word. Can you “like” a film that makes you feel really creepy and a little soiled? It’s not really a sexy movie at all. It’s relentlessly pathetic and downtrodden. Every scene makes you cringe. But the cumulative effect does provide some insight into what it could be like to live in a city where beauty is capital, talent often questionable, and success depends on the luck of the draw or knowing and/or sleeping with the right person. Backdoor deals, wealth, sex, drugs, surgically-enhanced beauty, a lot of bad movies, and the production of porn are the vapid coin of the realm.
Of course, there’s a lot of real talent in Hollywood as well, but you wouldn’t know it by watching this film. At times the lighting looks haphazard and rushed. The compositions are often cheap and random. The nudity is yucky. The lead actors look like a bunch of college boys hoping to get a break. X-rated film star James Deen, who complained that he needed to get back to a porn film set and make some real money, purses his lips and delivers some of the smarmiest and most unconvincing dialogue this side of a college video production. Lohan, who can actually be a good actress, is for some reason willing to reveal herself (and her breasts) in all their (apparently) worn and tacky fleshiness. But I guess that’s the point. She is prostituting herself to Schrader’s dreary vision of a Tinseltown shorn of even flickers of glory. And I like that. And I like her for doing that. The opening and closing credits are set against black and white photographs of rundown and trashed movie houses and empty marquees. Wink, wink . . . point taken.
After watching The Canyons, I turned the channel to some irrelevant TV drama, and the entertainment felt a little tackier and phonier. Schrader has always been a moralist, and in this film, he decided to give the town he so despises a dose of its own medicine. I like that, too.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.