The Canyons: Simulacra
Understanding Paul Schrader and Bret Easton Ellis' prophetic 2013 neo-noir bomb.
When Bret Easton Ellis' grim satire of 80's yuppie culture, American Psycho, was released in 1991, it came off the heels of massive protests and calls for the book's banning. Before its publication, New York Times critic Roger Rosenblatt called the novel "pointless," "themeless," "worthless" and "everythingless" in his article entitled 'Snuff This Book! Will Bret Easton Get Away with Murder?' It was protested by groups like the National Organization for Women who objected to the book's alleged misogyny, describing it as a "how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women" and accusing it of "bringing torture of women and the mutilation deaths of women into an art form." Numerous critics cited its flat tone and lack of overt condemnation of Patrick Bateman's actions as proof of the continuous degradation of literature, art, media and the culture as a whole. At best it had nothing insightful to say about capitalist excess and male violence, at worst it celebrated them. The media storm grew so intense that the original publisher, Simon & Schuster, dropped the novel, citing "aesthetic differences," before it was eventually picked up by Vintage.
Even Norman Mailer's thoughtful piece in the March 1991 issue of Vanity Fair, "Children of the Pied Piper", ultimately came down on American Psycho. "If one is embarked on a novel that hopes to shake American society to the core," he wrote, "one has to have something new to say about the outer limits of the deranged – one cannot simply keep piling on more and more acts of machicolated butchery." He ultimately laments that "it is too much of a void, humanly speaking, to be termed evil, but it does raise the ante so high that one can no longer measure the size of the bet. Blind gambling is a hollow activity and this novel spins into the centre of that empty space."
While this level of controversy has never accompanied another release of his, many of the criticisms have followed Ellis throughout his writing career. It's easy to see where his detractors are coming from: the world of Ellis' fiction is incredibly bleak. It's a cold, dead wasteland filled with cold, dead characters doing horrible things with little to no repercussions. It's a world of hyper-capitalism, greed, drugs, boredom, ennui, rape, violence and murder – a world where not even the most outlandish acts of depravity shake its characters awake. It's hell and the characters are demonic. What eludes a lot of people's views, however, is that Ellis is indeed a moralist. His works are nothing if not indignations of the way our upper classes, and especially their young, live. His writing is thick with a contempt that belies an incredulous fascination and intimacy with the kinds of people he writes about. Far removed from Tom Wolfe's elitist disdain for the underclass and its advocates, Ellis renders them more or less invisible, a reflection of their invisibility to the class that characters like Patrick Bateman (and Ellis himself) belong to. For better or worse both Ellis the writer and Ellis the person are immersed in the very world he so searingly mocks. Subsequently, he has never been afraid to point the finger at himself as much as anybody else. American Psycho was, after all, mainly about himself. According to Ellis, the book "came out of a place of severe alienation and loneliness and self-loathing. I was pursuing a life – you could call it the Gentlemen's Quarterly way of living – that I knew was bullshit, and yet I couldn't seem to help it."
While the novel's 2000 film adaptation drew a polarized response at the Sundance Film Festival, Mary Harron's American Psycho would go on to earn positive reviews, with many critics lauding it for making the humour more palpable and stifling some of the excessive misogynistic violence of the unwieldy text by toning down both the gory details and the number of victims. It was even called a "mean and lean horror comedy classic" by the New York Times. Ellis himself was on board with the film although he has since contended that "the movie was okay, the movie was fine. I just didn't think it needed to be made."
The Canyons is a different story altogether. Written by Ellis, directed by legendary Bresson-disciple Paul Schrader and funded through a Kickstarter campaign, the film was rejected by both Sundance and SXSW, the latter blaming the rejection on "quality issues." The critical reception wasn't kind either, with one critic describing it as "a howlingly bad soap-opera-meets-soft-core-porn mash-up." It was widely seen as the low point of Schrader's ever-weakening filmography, an(other) embarrassing turn for Ellis and the final nail in the coffin of what was left of Lindsay Lohan's drugged-fueled, controversy-laden career. It was released, mocked and then promptly forgotten about.
At a quick glance, the reaction makes sense: the writing is janky, the performances are a decidedly mixed-bag and the digital cinematography looks garish and cold. It's a film completely devoid of emotion or warmth. Everything about its world seems alien, wrong somehow. It's marked by a vapory strangeness often reserved for so-bad-it's-good fare or even straight-up pornography. A work so lacking in depth, so obsessed with surfaces, so comfortable with veering into schlocky melodrama it seems to embody the very depthlessness that critic Frederic Jameson says, "finds its prolongation both in contemporary 'theory' and in a whole new culture of the image or the simulacrum" in the postmodern age. A stilted, artificial work comprised entirely of surfaces. A film pretending to be a film.
And yet, there's an odd magnetism to The Canyons. In it, Hollywood is a harsh, blown-out hellscape, littered with billboards for awful movies, industry people who don't like the medium they've dedicated their career to and simmering violence dwelling just underneath its glittery exterior. There is no such thing as authenticity, everyone is pretending to be something they're not and, arguably, there isn't even a true self to hide anymore. It's characteristic of Ellis' work where no character has an inner life or moral compass to speak of and grotesque violence is as incidental as making dinner reservations.
It makes sense to compare The Canyons to a work like Nicolas Winding Refn's 13-hour behemoth Too Old To Die Young. Both explore the "post-empire" decline of American life, the void left in its wake and the people trapped in it. But while Refn offers catharsis in vicious bursts of violent libidinal release, Ellis has never offered such a relief. For all the brutality and depraved sex acts he has conjured up, they are jarring in their detached, icy matter-of-factness. In the film, a grisly murder is eventually relegated to gossipy dinner table conversation, tied up in relationship drama, talk of who is who, and eventually, the entire conversation is revealed to be a way to gather information on an unsuspecting subject. The means to an end, yet another transaction.
Dark studies of Hollywood like Wilder's classic Sunset Boulevard or Lynch's nightmarish Mulholland Drive have always possessed an eerie intrigue but The Canyons amplifies the darkness to a near-apocalyptic level. The rot has enveloped everything, every institution, every relationship, every interaction. It slowly drained the world of all life until the only thing left were ghosts haunting a soundstage. Schrader and Ellis utilize this zombified backdrop to reflect on the slow death of cinema as a meaningful presence in American life and associate it with the cultural decline of what Ellis calls the "post-empire" age. Ellis has often described the waning relevance of the novel in interviews and here he comes to the same conclusion in regards to cinema. There are several shots of rundown movie theatres which reflect this thesis: decrepit, boarded-up, abandoned husks, sad reminders of former glory days. Sitting in a café on, appropriately enough, Sunset Boulevard, one character asks her industry friend, "Do you really like movies?" She never gets an honest answer. What may have sounded vaguely defeatist in 2013, now sounds downright prophetic.
Schrader, no stranger to chronicling cultural and spiritual decay, augments Ellis' cynicism with an intensely artificial approach that not only communicates his interest in studying the simulacrum but also adapts the writer's grim vision with severe accuracy, a far cry from Mary Harron's cordial interpretation of American Psycho, which amputated its most venomous moments of black comedy and hallucinogenic derangement. Schrader understands Ellis' hell. He also uses some of the script's shortcomings and intensifies them as part of the themes he's exploring. The dialogue should sound unnatural, fake, the acting should feel put-on and the lighting should be cold, the look digital. The choices are deliberate. "I went through this argument with my cinematographer on The Canyons," Schrader said, "because he's one of those guys who's yellow from this direction, green from that direction. That's all it is. I felt that the Bret World was colder than that. Lighting gels are the wrong way to go with this material. So we went for a much cleaner look." The Canyons is a graveyard where not even the promise of glitz and glamour exists anymore. The Hollywood dream has morphed into a horrible nightmare and all that remains are the ruins of a society which has done away with privacy, personality and meaning. Schrader and Ellis' Los Angeles is purgatory and its souls are trapped there by mere habit and ritual. And the film's look, feel and performances reflect that.
Lindsay Lohan brings a complicated, layered quality to Tara, the failed-actress-turned-quasi-producer-turned-full-time-girlfriend of real-life pornstar James Deen's sociopathic Christian. Lohan's past as a child star resonates throughout her jaded, seen-it-all facade, a complex vulnerability not unlike the one Marilyn Monroe brought to the silver screen during Hollywood's Golden Age. Her towering performance shines all the brighter for the sea of mediocre ones that surround it. And though he can't match Lohan's raw talent, Deen believably pulls off Christian's transition from narcissistic trust fund kid to a jealous, violent stalker – an ice-cold, slightly ridiculous villain for Lohan's frightened Tara to play off of. There's a bizarre, "rehearsed" quality to the interactions, even from Lohan, not unlike the one found in reality TV but it's easy to see it as Schrader heightening the artificiality even further. Whether or not the actors were in on it is completely irrelevant to the film's power as effective simulation cinema.
The reputation this film has is unfortunate. The attempts at canonizing it as part of the midnight movie pantheon miss the point entirely, as that particular audience so often does. The Canyons isn't so-bad-it's-good, it isn't even bad. It's a strange, austere study of postmodernity that might fall short of being a masterpiece but still has a lot more to offer than The Room-level schlock or most of what currently occupies the intellectually and creatively barren blockbuster landscape of pandering self-referentiality and cynical pastiche. It's a film that's easy to misunderstand and even easier to dislike but, then again, so much interesting and worthwhile art is.
"And as things fell apart/Nobody paid much attention"
― Talking Heads