A Cold Deadness:

In Praise of The Canyons

By Will Sloan

Recently I found myself watching Paul Schrader’s The Canyons (2013) for the fourth time, hoping to finally like it. I first saw it during its initial release in the summer of 2013 when it opened simultaneously in theatres and online—a novelty at the time. I opted for the theatrical experience, out of respect for the legendary writer of Taxi Driver (1976) and director of Blue Collar (1978). I knew the Tomatometer was stalled at 21%, but I sat there watching it with the stoicism of Buddha, certain that Schrader must have made it this way on purpose. I finally gave up about 15 minutes before the end and joined the rest of the audience in laughing. There was no way around it—this was a bad movie. I also disliked it on two subsequent viewings. This time around, I’m uncertain if my opinion has changed. I do know I will eventually watch it a fifth time. Maybe that means I’ve come to appreciate it as… something. I’m not sure what. A conceptual art project? A documentary on its own making? A vibe?

One thing I know for sure about The Canyons is that whole eras have come and gone since my first viewing of it eight years ago. To 2013 audiences, the big draw was Lindsay Lohan, whose behind-the-scenes behaviour was chronicled in a much-discussed New York Times article called “Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan In Your Movie,” and cannily exploited by the filmmakers as a marketing tool. At the time, her trajectory from Disney princess to cautionary tale was still an ongoing media drama. Poor girl—she can’t even get it together for a trashy, Kickstarter-funded erotic thriller co-starring a porn star. Nowadays, all of this is fairly distant in the popular memory… although now that the discourse surrounding addiction and mental health has evolved so dramatically, Lohan’s story is probably due for a relitigation.

Maybe that means I’ve come to appreciate it as… something. I’m not sure what. A conceptual art project? A documentary on its own making? A vibe?

Someone who was a distant memory in 2013 was Paul Schrader. With First Reformed (2017) having elevated him back to the first rank of working American directors, it’s possible to forget that Schrader’s late career was once widely viewed with either indifference or embarrassment. In 2004 he was hired by Warner Bros. to direct a prequel to The Exorcist, then fired during post-production and replaced by Renny Harlin, who re-shot the film from scratch. After that, he made a couple of indifferently-received indies and two Nicolas Cage thrillers–one of which, Dying of the Light (2014), was disowned by its director and star after it was recut by its producers. 

In retrospect, Schrader’s post-Exorcist, pre-First Reformed period can be viewed as an extended conceptual exercise in determining if, how, and where a filmmaker like Schrader can survive in a shifting market. For example, 2008 brought news that he had agreed to write and direct an action movie in India called Extreme City—an unexpected career move for the writer of Raging Bull. In a statement from the time, Schrader framed his decision bluntly: “I take a good look around and what I see is a barren, barren place. In terms of the financial community, in terms of audiences, in terms of distribution. It’s cold out there.”

Extreme City never came, but in 2012 Schrader resurfaced with a Kickstarter campaign seeking to raise $100,000 for The Canyons, a “contemporary thriller” written by another passé brand:  American Psycho author Brett Easton Ellis. Backer rewards included lunch with Schrader and a private training session with Ellis, among other enticements. The Kickstarter pitch stated: “The film is a collaborative effort stewarded by former Lionsgate producer Braxton Pope as a response to the changing landscape of the film industry.” It also included a statement from Schrader a little more upbeat than the one he made in 2008: “We all experienced the frustrations of financing and institutional censorship. But now, with advances in digital photography and distribution, we can tell a story in the manner we choose. Movies are changing and we’re changing with it [sic].” The header image on the Kickstarter page was a photo of the interior of a shuttered, dilapidated movie theatre.

The campaign raised $159,015 from a $100,000 goal, setting the stage for Zach Braff and Spike Lee’s even bigger Kickstarter projects a year later. It stands as one of the more successful moments in Schrader’s wildly inconsistent relationship with the zeitgeist, but it was also the last bit of unambiguously good news for The Canyons. The finished product was greeted with reviews like Mark Kermode’s, which stated that it “merely confirms Schrader as an all-but spent force … and nails Bret Easton Ellis as a one-trick pony.” Reports of Schrader’s artistic death were premature. In interviews tied to the release of First Reformed, Schrader said that a conversation with Paweł Pawlikowski, director of Ida (2013), convinced him it was possible to make a serious American film in the style of his beloved mid-century European masters (Dreyer, Bresson, Bergman, etc.) if he would be willing to work on half the schedule and a fraction of the budget he was accustomed to. It’s hard to imagine him arriving at this realization without first shedding all inhibitions with The Canyons. I also think that the benefit of hindsight helps reveal some of the poetry in the earlier film that was hiding in plain sight.

Here, Schrader announces his melancholy thesis: “My career may be dead, but so is this business.”

The Canyons begins with an opening credit sequence featuring a montage of photos of disused movie theatres, like the one from the Kickstarter page. Here, Schrader announces his melancholy thesis: “My career may be dead, but so is this business”—and unlike Norma Desmond, he’s perfectly happy to get small as the pictures have. The opening scene introduces the film’s four stars dining at a chic L.A. eatery. In addition to Lohan, we have porn performer James Deen (at the time something of a crossover media darling, but now the subject of multiple sexual misconduct allegations), and two unknowns named Nolan Funk and Amanda Brooks, who have the looks and charisma of supporting characters on Vanderpump Rules. Like Ed Wood, Schrader assembles a cast of Hollywood castoffs who, had things gone a little differently, would never have been allowed in the same room as each other. Like Robert Bresson, he employs actors who he hopes will deliver him something more truthful than “good acting.” I think I’ve figured out why I’m starting to like The Canyons: it feels like the missing link between Robert Bresson and Ed Wood.

If I still feel some resistance to The Canyons, that’s because its story, dialogue, and acting are mostly very bad. The plot involves the shifting personal, professional, and sexual power dynamics between four film-industry bottom-feeders. Ellis’s script is filled with clunky dialogue (“Nobody has a private life anymore”), and Deen communicates his character’s malevolence by constantly cocking an eyebrow and pursing his lips like Derek Zoolander. I’d rather not spend more time on any of these flaws, and instead shift focus to the mood Schrader creates, which is strange and powerful.

According to Schrader, South by Southwest rejected the film on the grounds that “There’s a cold deadness to it.” This is what’s good about it. We get scene after scene of textureless mansions and trendy exposed-brick office spaces and restaurants where Lisa Vanderpump is probably yelling at Stassi Schroeder just offscreen, all captured via sterile, affectless digital cinematography. We get to watch Deen park his car and walk up the front steps of various houses and offices while a droning synth score plays. Many scenes were clearly filmed guerrilla-style on the streets of L.A., but when Lohan wanders around Westfield Century City or Funk browses the aisles at Amoeba Music, there’s a disconnect between how raw and immediate the production is and how dead and barren the city looks. Ellis’s lurid script might perhaps have worked a little better if it were given more heat, but there are many competent erotic thrillers and only one The Canyons.

While Hollywood has rigorous class hierarchies, those hierarchies are conditional.

Now, if you’ll allow me a digression, I’d like to tell you about David DeCoteau—another filmmaker working around the same time that Schrader made The Canyons who created a similar mood. A direct-to-video workhorse whose best-known films include Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-o-Rama and Beach Babes from Beyond, DeCoteau was, like Schrader, having a tricky time adjusting to a changing marketplace circa 2013. With the DVD market rapidly eroding, DeCoteau was shooting movies on shorter and shorter production schedules, and they seemed to emerge directly from his subconscious. 

In 2011 and 2012, he made 14 films in a series called “1313,” whose entries included 1313: Hercules Unbound! and 1313: Haunted Frat. Conforming to no previously discovered formulas, these films were nearly plotless gay erotica in which hot dudes in tightie-whities wandered around a big L.A. mansion lifting weights, sleeping, showering, etc. Despite being gay erotica, these movies always prominently featured at least one woman—sometimes an ageing scream queen, sometimes a young unknown. They were also always horror movies, and always rated PG-13, because DeCoteau always hoped his films would get as many clicks as possible. They were called “1313” because titles with numbers would appear first on streaming channel’s search engines.

DeCoteau has made a lot of other movies too, including Hallmark-adjacent Christmas potboilers and family films like A Talking Cat!? (2013). His films feature faded stars and young wannabes and a hash digital aesthetic and long stretches of nothingness. He goes where the market goes, because to create is to live. I don’t think he’s put as much thought into his work as Schrader did for The Canyons, but the effect is the same. To watch A Talking Cat!? or The Canyons is to realize that, while Hollywood has rigorous class hierarchies, those hierarchies are conditional—and by 2013, Schrader, Ellis, Lohan, and DeCoteau were all denizens of the same trash bin. I like spending time in that trash bin, and there’s something inspiring about how Schrader invited us to wallow with him.

By Will Sloan