The Canyons (Paul Schrader, 2013)
Schrader’s latest already feels like a misunderstood film-essay. A sort of crash-landed L.A. neo-noir about the death of film that manages to feel exactly like the death of cinema through a variety of very deliberate choices (the first of which is an opening and closing slideshow of abandoned cinemas — on-the-nose, perhaps, yet as one finds out, mostly unrelated to the plot, and easily dismissed as aesthetic fluff by anyone who isn’t paying attention).
To that effect, it is furthermore a) brilliantly cast (what better to convey the uncinematic than a washed-up, botoxed, yet shockingly competent actress playing opposite an excellent, superstar pornstar, let alone a Glee prettyboy, or what many would hesitate to call proper actors); b) beautifully, but digitally photographed (in hues of heavily manipulated yellow and greens that recall recent, shot-on-digital Soderbergh; also haloed like a lot of softcore pornography) and c) directed by Schrader as to feel as cold, and plastic as possible, while at times undeniably beautiful despite having the absolute opposite texture of what is conventionally thought of as cinematic, in the analog sense of the term.
It’s a film about the future as a vapid, ugly and uncanny place where people text using their TV and record not-quite-amateur porn on their cellphones, except all of that is already here. Ellis’ script is solid, if expected, but it’s Schrader’s handling of his usual themes (and his turning of the material into a very cinephile-inclined movie) that makes the film what it is. And like Spring Breakers and its ensemble of Disney starlets did earlier this year, all of these elements (the cast, the Gossip Girl-like vapidity, the sleek aesthetic) acts as a lure; common film-goers, celebrity and/or porn fiends going to The Canyons expecting one thing and getting something completely different in the form of an almost aggressively unconventional film, a bait-and-switch reflecting on the death of a medium and the transition to a new, deplorable era of cinema, however holding all of the drama, the glamour and the mystique that we insist on going to movies for…
Indeed, The Canyons is a mostly glacial, jarring exercise in filmmaking from a director working outside the system, looking at the mutating Hollywood that once enabled Taxi Driver and Raging Bull and American Gigolo, at noir (as a mode), at celebrity and at the future of film through the prism of a deliberately “bad”, less deliberately low-budget film. As a result, it is at times hard to watch, at times pleasure-less (like Birdemic, or The Room…or 90210), but very witty, and incredibly controlled (ie. the opening scene alone, and its constant subversion of the habitual shot-reverse-shot patterns of conversation; eyeline matches and faulty angling recalling Ozu and Kiarostami in equal measures). Although a shame, it makes perfect sense to me this isn’t getting a theatrical (in these parts, at least) — a film made for, dumped and perhaps best consumed on VOD or, god forbid, torrented, with all the probabilities of it lagging and/or corrupting as you go; its landscapes and faces appropriately melting as the data is beamed from the Hills to your TV/computer/iPhone.