Friday, September 6, 2013

The Canyons (2013)

The greatest professor I ever had was Sebastian David Guy Knowles.  I had the distinct pleasure in taking three of his courses at the Ohio State University, as well as him being the faculty coordinator for the study abroad I did in England in 1996.  He’s absolutely brilliant.  One of the courses I took with him was an honors seminar called Time in the 20th Century, where we looked at how time factored into literature throughout the 1900s.  It was an awesome class (in fact, the three honors seminars I took at OSU were the best classes I ever took – nothing in graduate school came close).  For our final paper, I didn’t do an analysis so much as a synthesis, combining lyrics from 1980s pop songs, lines from Alan Moore’s The Watchmen, various news stories from the 1980s and quotes by characters from Bret Easton Ellis novels.  My thesis was that the 1980s were the world’s apocalypse, and we’ve been living in a post-apocalypse ever since.  Ellis was (and still is, to some degree) my favorite living author.  When I turned the paper in, Seb grimaced.  “How could someone as intelligent as you like someone like Bret Easton Ellis?!?” he seethed.  I was so utterly euphoric about him thinking I was intelligent that I missed the last part of the sentence until hours later.  To Seb, and honestly, quite a lot of people, Ellis is dreck.  There’s plenty of hatred and dismissal about his works.  Misogynistic, vapid (I’m seeing that word come up a lot in reviews of The Canyons), depraved, and a host of other derogatory adjectives are associated with Ellis.  He’s a social satirist.  I don’t think this is lost on many people, but it doesn’t seem to make Ellis any easier to swallow for everyone.  Everyone, that is, except for his fans.

Me & BEE at a book signing in DC 9/14/2005.

But I’m not totally ga-ga for him.  While I love his first four works (Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction, American Psycho and The Informers, all of which have been adapted into films), I haven’t really liked his last three (Glamorama, Lunar Park and Imperial Bedrooms), although I like his social essays and tweets.  But enjoying his work does make one question oneself the same way one would for enjoying anything that is mostly considered socially unacceptable.  Why do I like him?  I think he has a certain strain of honesty about humans and what they are or can be capable of.  The characters that populate his stories are often very concerned with the way the world perceives them and on materialism (very 80s Reaganomics).  They frequently use each other or are used, mostly for hedonistic pleasure.  Characters drink, do drugs, engage in casual sex, and inflict pain in an attempt at pushing whatever perceived boundaries may be out there, sometimes to find that there really are no boundaries, no one or nothing to hem in their conduct.  This frequently leads to momentary despair, isolation, abandon.  But then, the characters consciously or unconsciously return to their lives, not making any adjustments.  It’s very like the end of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable.  “I can’t go on.  I’ll go on.”  There is a level of absurdity to Ellis that, like in Beckett, is tragicomic.  One of the other classes I took with Seb was a class entirely on Beckett.  I don’t think Seb gave Ellis a chance.

So when I heard that Ellis was working with Paul Schrader to make a film called The Canyons, I was giddy.  Schrader directed one of my all-time favorite films, Mishima:  A Life in Four Chapters, and then there was Ellis, who increasingly seemed, in his last three works, to take a very filmic approach to his writing (even so far as to include camera directions in Glamorama and Lunar Park and to have a meta-discussion of the film version of Less Than Zero in Imperial Bedrooms).  What was also new about this project was that it was to be funded mostly by Kickstarter, so that the filmmakers could function outside of Hollywood constraints and make the movie they wanted.  That’s very much in keeping with the sort of content Ellis writes.  The adaptation of LTZ, in my estimation, the WORST adaptation of all time, killed off a character and changed the ending in order to sanitize and present an anti-drug message.  AP’s adaptation, while good, really pushes the idea that Patrick didn’t do all the things we saw him do, which I really never felt came through in the novel (the mixing up of who people are and their relationships is something that is clear and an important part of the book).  I agree with Ellis that the best adaptationof his work was RoA, but the book, with its many narrators, was treated like a film and not just retelling a plot.  It’s great (watched it again last night).  I really like the way the film plays around with time (reversing the film, split screening).  But out of all of Ellis’s works, RoA is the most approachable.  TI has an impressive amount of star power but ultimately doesn’t gel (too much emphasis on connecting the stories together, which isn’t a big deal in the book).  Also, they left out what I think is the best short story in the book, about the vampires (weird, just tried to look up the table of contents on Amazon, and the book appears to be out of print?).  But, it’s difficult to try to reproduce Ellis in film form accurately.  So, going studio-free with Schrader sounded like a good plan.

WhileEllis said the article was exaggerated, it is a pretty good idea to read the New York Times article where a reporterwas allowed on the set to be a fly on the wall.  The biggest concern about TC was not the limited budget or the Ellis-generated material or even that the main character of the film, Christian (great choice of name) was to be the first non-porn film for James Deen (who has been in, I kid you not, over 1000films [IMDb him] – that’s a lot of porn, people).  The real fright was that the film would also star Lindsay Lohan, fresh from rehab.  She’s a bit of a train wreck and playing a character that seems to not stray too far from her real life.  Does she do a good job?  Yes.  Could any number of female actors have played the role as well, if not better?  Yes.  I guess the name here added to the salability or potential audience appeal, and as noted by both Ellis and Schrader, the film was completed on time and under budget, so it couldn’t have been too bad.

I would really like to see the film again before posting this, but I’ve been thinking about it often since only one viewing, and I don’t want to wait until the end of November for the DVD.  There are several great aspects to the film that I want to discuss.  It is by no means a great film, but it comes very close to getting several things right.

The first item, which I feel is the most important and biggest missed opportunity, is its commentary on the film industry today.  In the beginning of the film, the audience is shown a montage of defunct, dilapidated movie theaters (you can see some of this in the trailer above).  This just on the tails of Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, StevenSoderbergh and other big name directors saying how film is dying.  The practice of going to a movie theater as a shared cultural experience is being traded in for watching movies on your iPhone.  Big budget box office superhero films dominating the landscape while smaller, story-driven films are harder to fund and distribute.  Oh, woe is they.  But there’s another side to the story.  Go to a website like Box Office Mojo and see that other than a few years (admittedly, the last two are part of it), ticket sales have been going up since 1980.  And to look at films that are being nominated for Oscars, they are still of the character and plot driven ilk.  The Avengers and Iron Man are not winning Best Picture any time soon.  Since the digital revolution of the late 1990s, it has become much easier to make a film on one’s own.  Anyone can upload to YouTube.  So, what is the reality?  Are movies on their way out or thriving?  I think that Ellis and Schrader making this statement early on in the film is brilliant, because it is a film about making films (Christian produces movies, Tara works in films, Ryan’s an actor in Christian’s film, Gina is Christian’s production assistant – all the main people in the film, aside from Christian’s psychiatrist, are in the film business).  There are also the hand-held video phone films Christian is making.  The film is drenched in film.  But, TC doesn’t take this idea far enough.  It is later revisited when Tara and Gina have lunch and Tara asks when was the last time Gina went and saw a film in a theater (not a premiere, but a film that she really wanted to see, on her own, sans professional obligation).  I think for the questions to be raised and dropped is disappointing, because the question is important and will continue to be addressed, especially within the next 10 years of movie-making.  And it’s a low-budget Kickstarter film that is both raising the question but also being nostalgic about it at the same time.  Schrader certainly can recall a time that Hollywood reigned supreme.  He’s part of the cultural elite, AFI-member critic-gone-filmmaker coming up from the late 1960s / early 1970s Hollywood that was the period of the auteur, until that fire engulfed itself in the early 1980s and control was pried away from directors and back to the studios (and more specifically, the big name stars in the 80s).  And there are so many references to film in the works of Ellis.  Are they sad or happy about the journey Hollywood is on (willingly or not)?  Poignant stuff, but not resolved.  Was that the point?  It doesn’t seem right.

Another thing that is wonderful is to see Ellis’s first real screenplay (not adaptation, but original screenplay) feel and sound so “Ellis.”  These characters sound and act like Ellis characters.  And the male actors, James Deen and Nolan Funk, do an excellent job of being male Ellis characters.  I guess to a certain degree, Lohan does a good job at being a female Ellis character, but other than Lauren in RoA, Ellis doesn’t do a very good job with female characters (Blair from LTZ and IB definitely doesn’t count).  The climax of the film, as Tara is leaving Christian, and Christian forces her to be his alibi, is classic Ellis form.  “Nod for me, baby.”  I got chills watching it.

And the film looks good.  It does not look cheaply made.  There are many films out there with much larger budgets that look like shit.  TC was made for $250,000.  The Room (2003), arguably one of the worst films ever made, had a budget of $6,000,000.  I wonder what Schrader could have done with six million.

As of August 29, 2013, TC has only made $50,000 (it’s only been released in nine theaters so far).  I do not know if this includes VOD (I don’t think it does, as that number is derived from box office figures).  I know I watched it on VOD.  If and when it gets international distribution and DVD / Blu ray / broadcast rights, it may have a shot of at least breaking even.  The press about the film has been mostly brutal, and reviews have pretty much panned it.  That’s really too bad, on all fronts.  It’s too bad that Schrader couldn’t make the comeback film he wanted (he hasn’t worked as a director since 2008’s Adam Resurrected – anyone seen that?).  It’s too bad that Ellis’s reputation will keep viewers from checking this out.  It’s too bad that the film doesn’t follow through on some great ideas.  If you check out the interviews from the Venice Film Festival on YouTube, you get the feeling that Schrader and Ellis are apprehensively pleased at what they accomplished, as am I.  I just wish it could have been more.

One thing, and I’m probably opening up a can of worms unnecessarily here, but this film is often labeled “erotic.”  I’m assuming this is because there are sex scenes in it.  Does that make something erotic, just by showing people having sex?  Humans obviously get turned on by a variety of things, and perhaps chiefly among the stimuli is watching other people.  I’m assuming this because of the rabid popularity, throughout all ages and eras, of pornography.  And I must admit, given that James Deen is such a porn star, I was wondering if I would get to see his dick in the movie (answer, yes).  But, and perhaps I’m an anomaly, but simply showing people, however many, copulating isn’t titillating.  There have been plenty of examples of on-screen meltdowns, especially during the Hayes Code, pre-1966, when filmmakers had to suggest but not show, and how oftentimes directors admitted to having to get creative.  Some of those scenes do far more to arouse than just watching a foursome go at it.  Maybe it is because imagination has to be involved, but one of the things discussed in my adaptation class is how when we read a work, we get to fill in all the blanks about characters, setting, etc. inside our minds.  Once someone takes that license out of our hands and directs us to their visions, then we lose our agency.  But I think it’s cheap to say something is erotic merely because it shows fornication.  And in this film, especially with the foursome that Schrader had to disrobe himself in order to get Lohan to agree to participate, it is not hot.

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