The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.
The Canyons

Written by James Slaymaker.

Photo from the article The Canyons opens with a striking, conversation-starting montage depicting a series of closed-down movie theatres, all deserted and in various states of decay. These aren’t, it should be noted, small, independently-owned arthouses, but mainstream multiplexes of the sort you’d expect to find in large urban centres and filled with large crowds. The rhythm of the cutting matches the tempo of the droning, electronic background music, creating a despairing, almost apocalyptic timbre.

Contrary to popular opinion, what this prologue is mourning doesn’t seem to be the death of cinema as a whole, but the death of the movie theatre as the primary source of image spectatorship, which is intrinsically tied to the death of analog. Of course, for a long period it was the case that the only way to watch a film would be to make a trip to a theatre, and partake in a shared emotional experience with a crowd of strangers; viewing a projected series of celluloid frames on a huge, monolithic screen from a tangible distance. With the introduction of the TV set, the ontological power of the cinema was undercut a little, but the images that this introduced into the living room were distinctly low-grade and clearly no match for the grand, overwhelming audio-visual immersion of the cinema going experience.

However, as a result of the rise of the digital over the first decade of the twentieth century, the cinema has been increasingly usurped as the primary source of movie consumption. Because the vast majority of feature films are now either shot and/or distributed digitally, the very physical act of celluloid passing through a projector that once made the cinema unique has been removed, and theatrical exhibition transformed into an act of simply exhibiting binary code representative of light values. The visual pops and scratches of film prints are smoothed over, rendering the images perfectly clean and clear, in other words, standardized. Therefore, there is little pictorial difference between viewing them in a cinema and staying at home to watch them on a TV, a laptop, or a phone - all of which have become thought of as desirable alternatives in the public consciousness. We have more options of movie consumption than ever before, and, therefore, the activity is becoming an increasingly solitary one, rather than a communal experience. We carry screens around in our pockets, touch them, hold them close to our faces, interact with them directly and near constantly; we can pause, rewind, and slow-down movies at will. Additionally, the development of low-cost, easily portable, high definition digital recording devices has allowed amateur footage to be shot with incredible depth and clarity. It’s now possible for an individual to produce a pretty high quality movie on their phone and upload it straight to Youtube, where it can (if lucky) gain millions of views. The effect of having so much power over the filmic image is ambiguous: it’s liberating on one level, but also frequently isolating and unsatisfying. The cinematic image is so regularly miniaturised or rendered disposable that its power drastically reduced as a result.

Every major character in The Canyons wants to make movies, but none of them have any interest in watching anybody else’s. In one scene, Tara asks Gina to recall the last time she went to the theatre to see a film. She then qualifies that she doesn’t mean a premiere, which is an event in itself of which the actual feature only constitutes a small part. Gina fails to think of an answer, and Tara comes to the conclusion that it’s “just not [her] thing, anymore”. Many have interpreted this as being an author’s statement, as if Schrader and Ellis are using the character to voice their own dissatisfaction with the output of the contemporary film industry. However, I believe that this is a significant misinterpretation. What I think this interaction actually does is provide a key to understanding the characters’ worldview. Filmmaking is, to them, either a self-serving hobby or a means to an end: Christian openly admits that the only reason he produces schlocky B-features is that his father won’t allow him access to his trust fund unless he has a job (He’s not concerned with getting richer, just simply with maintaining his current affluent lifestyle); both Ryan and Tara’s actorly ambitions are driven less by a need to express themselves artistically than a mere attraction to the material and social benefits that come with the profession; Gina seems to view her producing work primarily as a way to support herself until her newly created PR company gets off the ground. None of them demonstrate any interest in the final product. Christian is more interested in the amateur porn movies that he shoots on his phone, featuring strangers he finds through the internet, than he is in his professional output. It’s significant that we never see what Christian does with the completed footage (we don’t know if he distributes them in some way for monetary gain or even if he re-watches them himself), because the likelihood is that he doesn’t even care what happens to the images beyond the moment of their capture. What’s important to him is purely the fleeting pleasure he gets from the filming, the lauding of power and the creation of a totally controllable version of the world in the palm of his hand.

There is only once scene in which a character actually watches a movie: Tara briefly stares with bored half interest at a flat-screen TV that’s playing a black-and-white zombie movie, before quickly switching over to “Text TV”, which she watches with rapt attention. She, like the others, is compelled by the controllable image; glued to their small screens almost compulsively, particularly phones, allowing them to constantly engaging directly with images, using them for personal purposes. Characters actually perceive the act of watching a film made by someone else as a forfeiting of this power. And what appeals to them isn’t just the idea of creating their own movies, but also of documenting themselves while doing so. In one important image, Christian and Tara have sex while being recorded by a camera phone that’s propped up on a nearby chair. There’s no one behind it, and, as has previously been established, there’s little chance that the recording will ever be seen by anyone, what gets them off is simply that they are being recorded. If traditional cinema spectatorship can be viewed as essentially the indulgence of a voyeuristic tendency - the ability to watch others while knowing that they can’t look back - the populace of The Canyons favour a kind of post-observer exhibitionism, in which all the pleasure lies in the sensation of being watched, and, as long as the camera is pointed at them, if doesn’t matter whether an audience exists at all. This desire is, of course, tied into the opportunity for self-documentation offered by the proliferation of handheld devices and social media sites. In other words, the shrinking and personalisation of the screen, the transformation of image consumption from a communal act to a personal one, fosters the characters’ narcissism. Because cameras have been so deeply ingrained into the fabric of everyday life, they are always striking a pose because they always feel that they are on show. These people are certainly hedonists, but they are less characterised by what they consume than what they project. And what could possibly be more insular and isolating than constantly performing for an audience that you no longer care doesn’t exist? Why would you want to see a movie about someone else when you can be the subject of your own?

It’s become a cliché 21-st century adage that increased technological connection has rendered us more disconnected from each other than ever, but what makes The Canyons unique is the extent to which its characters’ thought processes have become warped by the logic of cyberspace. Just as they are addicted to the internet, which provides perpetual instant gratification, but in a kind of superficial, deflating way (you’re always looking for the next link), so too does lived experience become for them merely a string of fleeting, insubstantial highs that must be chased single-mindedly, with the initial pleasure of getting each one quickly settling into their standard mode of boredom and disillusionment. Not only do they demonstrate a lack of interest with engaging with the material world and real experience, their real selves mirror online personas: Just as a social network account flattens lived experience into an individualist quest for the most friends, the most likes, the most re-tweets, so too do the characters long to distinguish themselves by having the most accomplishments at all costs. This becomes their ultimate goal, which is elusive and always receding. Happiness is no longer seen as something achieved through shared emotional experience, but a process of making everyone else around them perceive that they’re happy by asserting themselves above all others. Every win is enjoyed only on an isolated, purely personal level, and always with a degree of muted dissatisfaction.

Just as the nuances of speech are eradicated when communicating electronically, so too do the characters’ verbal speech become stripped of emotion and intimacy, rendered stilted and awkward. In real situations, none of the characters really look at each other, their gazes are distracted, they prefer the ease of focusing on their phones. And their downfall is set in motion by their desire to have the same control over their real lives as they have other the image. The characters have no empathetic interest in each other’s situations, and all view each other as objects to be manipulated to serve their own ends, often by sweet-talking them into doing something good for them; or out of a sense of simple, inertial obligation (“I’m so sorry I didn’t congratulate you on starting your own PR company”) that they need to perform in order to maintain their social standing. The problem that each one of them has to face is that other individuals are unavoidably unpredictable, messy, complex; it’s impossible to have complete ownership over another person and it’s impossible to harness their gaze to ensure that they’re looking only at you. When you look at another person, you can’t know for sure what’s going through their head, even if they appear to be devoting themselves to you entirely, human feelings and motives can only be inferred. No wonder they prefer to interact with others through the ether of cyberspace, where human relations are reduced to algorithms and status updates.

This inability to know, to entirely possess the gaze of another, is what drives Christian crazy. Because of his wealth, it’s not difficult for Christian - a megalomaniac and self-styled auteur, to bend the world to suit his will. He gets off on lording his wealth and influence over others, and manipulating their gaze. He can own, see and experience what he wants with little repercussions, because he has crafted his own ideal life. He sees himself as always being the smartest person in the room, surrounded by adoring employees, friends, and a totally devoted girlfriend. What sets his downfall in motion is the discovery that the newly hired actor of his new project, Ryan, and Tara, who recommended him for the part, used to date. This has the effect of causing him to realize that others can lie to him just as easily as he can to them, thus using language to shape his experience and perception of the world. Extreme paranoia sets in as he begins to wonder what else they could be doing that he doesn’t know about. His extreme feelings are explicitly more motivated by his desire for control and possession than by genuine affection. He’s fine with her having relations with other men (their online hook-ups have sometimes gone that far), but only if it happens on his terms, and he’s able to watch it happen. He views Ryan’s potential courting of Tara to be a total undermining of his authority, because he thinks it’s happening outside his sphere of knowledge. At one point, Cynthia even asks him, when he reveals his fear that Tara’s seeing someone else, “What does that even mean? Considering what you guys do?” It’s an absence of presence in regards to Tara, an absence of emotional transparency, which is exasperated as he continuously prods her but she recurring denies knowing or being interested in Ryan, which drives Christian to start to monitor her behaviour obsessively, as he begins his quest to make her completely “his”. He hires people to follow her around, constantly questions her about her whereabouts, and even encourages Gina to ask her about him privately so she can tell him what her response is.

Ryan initially appears as to be Christian’s opposite - he comes from the opposite end of the social spectrum, and he’s jittery and reserved where Christian is brash and outspoken. But, underneath his veil of benign decentness, his pursuit of Tara is similarly fuelled primarily by male pride and competitiveness. As we soon find out, Ryan believes that Christian previously “took” Tara off him using his wealth and high social value, and now Ryan wants to re-claim her to prove his own worth. Despite having been separated for years, he only starts actively trying to get her back after he has actually seen them together for the first time, at the opening dinner party scene (as he later tells her “last night killed me. Because I finally saw you with him”). Both men view Tara as simply a passive object within a male power struggle, the ownership of whom will be the ultimate marker of position. And over the course of the narrative, they are both constantly trying to out-do each other.

Christian’s first act born out of a desire to subjugate and humiliate Ryan, despite having found no evidence as of that point to suggest that he has ulterior motives, is to instruct his special effects supervisor, John, to tell Ryan that he’s going to be dropped from the film unless he aggress to sleep with him (it’s no coincidence that the person Christian approaches to aid him in his scheme also aids his moviemaking). Christian’s goal is to reduce Ryan to a passive, malleable entity, and he goes about accomplishing it by aggressively reminding him of his inferior status - he’s poor and struggling for work, and must therefore be expected to resort to desperate means. However, in the resulting negotiation between Ryan and John, he manages to turn the tables. He senses that Christian is behind the idea, and refuses to be reduced to a powerless pawn. Instead, Ryan shows a surprising, slightly world-weary awareness of the ways that currency works in L.A. He doesn’t rebuke the offer, but instead reclaims his threatened agency while he does it. Instead of allowing himself to become objectified, he does it assertively, on his own terms, where he chooses, and under his own direction.

What partly makes the film so interesting is that its thematic concerns are echoed in the circumstances surrounding its production. Schrader said in an interview with Film Comment that “I told [Easton Ellis] to write the script as a micro-budget. That is, don’t write a regular script and then try to do it for nothing. Write a script that’s designed for this, which means for instance that we didn’t pay for any locations.” Considering that The Canyons was reportedly made on a budget of $25,000, cast mainly through an online social media service called “Let It Cast”, and financed largely through crowd-funding site Kickstarter, this is a feature that certainly could have only been produced in the, as Schrader refers to it, “post-theatrical era”. All aspects of the production were heavily publicized, from the very public fundraising to Ellis’ prolific twitter output to a lengthy piece in the New York Times focusing on Lohan’s behaviour during the shooting. The two leads themselves have lives that blur the boundaries between public and private: As a former child star, Lohan grew up in front of the camera, and the heavy hounding she’s endured by the press has gleefully turned every private meltdown a public event. Porn star Deen has made a career through the institutional commoditization of the most private of acts. Pornography involves the capturing of carnal desires for mass consumption in order to rake in a profit; the sex act is stripped off intimacy and shared experience and turned into a performative ritual to be consumed by individuals on their own. It’s unsurprising that all sex in The Canyons functions in a similar way. The act has been hijacked of empathy, carnality and sensuality; it’s either a calculated bargaining tool or a way to subjugate another.

Ryan responds to Christian’s attack by convincing Cynthia - a yoga instructor who Christian used to date and still occasionally sleeps with - to meet up with Tara and tell her fabricated story about an abusive incident that he put her through. Tara, revealingly and somewhat unexpectedly, responds that she’s not bothered by this, because, unlike Cynthia, she has control of Christian. Although others see her as being part of a patriarchal relationship in which she has been entrapped by a predatory male, Tara has never been a naive victim or simply allowed herself to be used by others; she is always working towards her own ends. She even says to Ryan at one point after he, slightly condescendingly, asks her why she’s with Christian, “Who said anything about “happy”? He takes care of me. [...] Fuck, Ryan, who’s happy?” Instead of recoiling at Cynthia’s story, she instead tells her that it was her own fault, and that she would never be weak enough to allow something like that to happen to herself. After listening to Christian’s adamant denials that the story is true (“She’s on drugs and she’s obsessed with me”), which Tara thinks are bullshit, she makes the decision to aggressively assert her subjectivity and independence. During the previous hook-ups, Christian had been the primary “director” figure, arranging the locations; directing the action of the players; and either holding the camera or choosing the place where the camera would lie still. In the four-way scene, however, Tara explicitly becomes the holder of power, holder of the gaze, and uses it against Christian by forcing him to receive fellatio from another man. This isn’t a sudden empowerment - Tara had always been an active participant in Christian’s deeds - but for the first time, she actively works against him, causing him to totally lose control. He has no problem with being watched (as long as he chooses the conditions) but here he becomes truly objectified, which Tara rubs in by goading “that’s what I want to see”. This is, essentially, the successful accomplishment of what he tried to do to Ryan earlier, the crucial difference being that Ryan managed to re-assert his agency and turn the situation around to suit his wants, Christian allows himself to become subject to the will of another.

It’s the morning after this that he definitively jumps to the conclusion that Tara and Ryan are seeing each other. Having learned that all of the other major characters have deceived him in some way and feeling that his authority and self-ness is being totally threatened, he then resolves to make his biggest power grab, a go-for-broke attempt to turn everything back into the self-constructed movie of his life that it was at the beginning. He tries to write all of the characters’ fates, thereby stabilizing himself as the centre of his own, self-created universe. As Christian drives over to Cynthia’s place he phones Ryan and leaves a long, second-person voicemail, narrating Christian’s imagined version of Ryan’s experience of L.A., based partly on prior knowledge and partly on speculation (“It all seemed so exciting. You were eighteen and a photographer found you. Sent you from Michigan all the way out to Los Angeles. Yeah, Hollywood. You were suddenly so far away from that shithole town you grew up in. So you did some modelling shoots. Everyone was so encouraging. You even did a commercial or two. [...] Then what, huh? Nothing. Nada. So now you’re bartending with the occasional hotel gig to supplement your income”), even going as far as to assign him motives for future actions (“Then what, huh? You convince Tara to dump me? So you guys can what? run away together? Get married? Co-exist in some dumb little house somewhere?”). When he was confronting Tara earlier his speech was erratic and filled with clumsy repetition (“Are you going to fucking admit it? Are you? Are you going to admit it after I beat the fucking shit out of you? You fucking lied to me. I trusted you and you lied to me”), here his words are slow, deliberate, carefully thought through. It’s as though he’s trying to shape the reality around him with words, and he thinks that if he can say them with such conviction he can turn Ryan into one of his fictions.

His following actions - murdering Cynthia and framing of Ryan for the crime - are directed at making Ryan and Cynthia totally controllable entities, thus removing their ability to assert themselves and pose threats to his power. Christian then blackmails Tara, offering her a clean break from the relationship if she’ll provide him with an alibi for the afternoon. As Christian threatens to kill Ryan if he and Tara ever see each other again, and assuring her that “[he] will get away with it”, he again speaks with incredible conviction and self-certainty, as if by doing so he can shape the future, and proves himself to be a master at manipulating language. Christian repeatedly tells Tara to look at him, and finished by instructing her to “Nod for [him], baby”. His megalomania has crossed fully into the monstrous, as he desires to forcibly command her reactions and the direction of the narrative totally. And Christian actually can get away with it. All the characters have sociopathic delusions, but because of Christian’s social standing he’s the only one who actually manages to realise them. That he and Tara break up doesn’t matter much to him, because they do it on his terms, and she remains separated from Ryan, so she hasn’t been “stolen” from him. Tara accepts Christian’s proposal with little opposition, for she, too, is driven primarily by opportunistic self-interest, and, as many characters iterate throughout the narrative, Tara was going to go back to living in relative poverty just to be with Ryan, anyway. The Canyons purposefully eschews traditional character development, with Tara and Christian refusing to learn from their mistakes to an almost stubborn degree.

The structure is circular - Tara ends up by the side of another wealthy guy eating at a chic L.A. restaurant, settled back into an equally vapid life pattern. Ryan may not be charged for the murder, but he is the only character who ends up ruined, on a material level. L.A. is portrayed as a place that pushes the promise of upward social mobility, but in actuality, locks it off to everyone but a select few (who it would be more accurate to describe those few as the most shameless and lucky rather than the most talented and hardworking), but once an individual has ascended to the level of economic elite, they are free to do as they please without having to worry about repercussions. The final shot is a mirror of the first: a head-on close-up of Ryan’s face looking directly into the camera. However, if Ryan’s first close-up suggests his comfortable command of the frame, the second only highlights his self-imposed entrapment within it. Though every character remains locked in their own narrow, insular perspective, he’s the only one who becomes aware of its limits.

This Alternate Take was published on June 03, 2014.

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