The Voids of Paul Schrader’s The Canyons

Lindsay Lohan in The Canyons (2018)

What did you do first: read the article or watch the movie? It’s an appropriate question in relation to The Canyons. In an extended article in The New York Times called ‘Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie’, the troubled production of the movie, written by Bret Easton Ellis and directed by Paul Schrader, was chronicled by Stephen Rodrick. Those troubles were due to a micro-budget, a lack of insurance, and controversy over casting porn star James Deen, but most of all due to its lead actress, loose cannon Lindsay Lohan. Upon release in 2013, the movie got panned by critics and was largely ignored by audiences.

I remember watching it expecting a train wreck and being surprised to find I like it. Loved it, even. And found that the movie, at least to me, had interesting things to say about the city it takes place in: Los Angeles. Lohan plays Tara, whose in a relationship with Christian (James Deen), but secretly having an affair with Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk) who she dated before she met Christian. Ryan is living with Gina, Christians assistant on a movie they’re making in which Ryan will play the lead role.

City of movement

In his essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen argues that Los Angeles, with its mostly low-rise buildings and expansiveness, is a horizontal city, contrary to for example New York. Consequentially, Los Angeles is all about movement, travelling from one place to another. It’s a motif in a lot of the best LA-situated films, such as Chinatown, Repo Man or Killer of Sheep. And more recently in Under the Silver Lake, in which the main character tries to solve a mystery by following a series of clues through the city, from underground parties to the top of the Hollywood Hills.

In The Canyons movement is also a significant motif. Once we dissect the travelling scenes it becomes apparent that in the first part of the movie the only characters that are seen moving around are Ryan and Christian. We do see Tara and Gina in different places, but we never see them underway and we never see them arriving or leaving. The men, on the other hand, are often seen in motion. It shows that these relationships are, underneath a veil of edginess, are quite traditional in their gender roles. There are even two consecutive scenes in which we see Christian and Ryan arriving home and being welcomed by respectively Tara and Gina. In the case of Gina the domesticity of this scene is emphasized further by her standing in the kitchen preparing dinner.

But more importantly, this pattern also translates into the way the story is moved along. In the first part of the film, it’s the men who set things in motion, while the women are mostly passive or going along. That pattern is broken when Tara receives mysterious texts on her phone from someone wanting to meet her about Christian. She leaves to meet this person, who turns out to be Cynthia, a yoga instructor Christian occasionally sleeps with, and we see Tara driving through Los Angeles. She seems anxious, and the camera movements and the editing are frantic. Where the scenes of the men driving were matter-of-factly, this scene exudes danger. A woman on the move is risky business. The scene is the point of no return in the film. It’s the moment that sets everything in motion towards its violent conclusion.

The Canyons

The Canyons

City of entrapment

Despite the significance of motion in The Canyons, we never get a sense of the spaciousness of Los Angeles. The film focusses on a limited set of locations and the characters’ movements seem to be confined to these few places. Within this huge city, they move in a tiny circle. At one point Christian even remarks ‘how small this town really is’, referring to the way all the characters are connected.

Schrader reinforces this claustrophobia by often placing characters (especially the women) in enclosed or shielded spaces, even when outside. And when they do venture into more open spaces, there’s a constant threat of danger. In one scene Tara meets up with Gina at a lunchroom on the corner of Sunset Boulevard, traffic passing right beside them, and at times seemingly straight at them. Interestingly this scene reminded me of two other movies situated in Los Angeles. The location is similar to one in Todd Haynes’ Safe whereas the way the camera hovers behind the characters mimics the camera movements in the scene at Winkie’s from David Lynch’ Mulholland Drive. Both of those films, like The Canyons, portray Los Angeles as a city full of anxiety, a city that traps people.

Private versus public

These notions of movement and entrapment are tied into the main theme of the film: control. Christian needs to control Tara’s life, and in order to do so he abolishes all boundaries between the private and the public. ‘Nobody has a private life anymore’, he tells her, and he certainly makes sure she doesn’t. The house they live in (his house) defies privacy with its immense windows and absence of inner doors. There is no room to truly be alone. And on top of that, Christian regularly invites strangers over for sexual encounters, inviting them into the most intimate part of their relationship.

But his most notable device for control is the phone. It’s how Christian gets intel from Gina after she’s met with Tara, and from the anonymous ‘hooded guy’ he has following her. In one scene Tara tells Ryan not to text her, because Christian looks at her phone. Phones have become a big part of our lives, but filmmakers often struggle with how to incorporate them into their films. Ellis and Schrader aren’t completely successful either (there is a phone swap that goes unnoticed incredulously long), but they do pose the interesting question: to what space does the phone belong, the private or the public?

The Canyons

The Canyons

‘It’s not the hills’

‘It’s not the hills’, read the tagline for The Canyons, and that pretty much sums up how this film views Los Angeles. Contrary to the idyllic sounding ‘hill’, associated with waving grass and lovely views, the word ‘canyon’ evokes images of sharp edges and the danger of falling into an endless void. The tagline also signifies how the film takes familiar tropes and subverts them. Or maybe subverting is not the right word. What Schrader actually does is empty them out. After the release, Ellis complained that he had just wanted to tell a fun, neo-noir story and Schrader turned it into a bleak, nihilistic film. But for Schrader that’s the point he’s trying to make; it’s not the hills.

Many people have criticized the movie for its blank characters and lack of psychological development, but as Richard Brody aptly stated in his review for The New Yorker (one of the only positive reviews out there), ‘The Canyons isn’t a study in character but a view of the world.’ It’s a view defined by emptiness, by lack. A lack of character, a lack of emotion. The Canyons opens with a series of images of abandoned movie theatres. And whereas many have interpreted these images as Schrader declaring the death of cinema, I think they are a metaphor for how Schrader views his characters: as empty shells. As people mimicking the appearance, the surface of character, while lacking the substance. It helps that most of the actors are mediocre. They go through the motions of acting, but can’t puncture the core of it. The only exception to this is Lohan. She might not be a brilliant actor, but there are scenes in The Canyons in which she taps into something truly and deeply emotional.

Interesting in this respect are the opening and closing scenes, both set at a restaurant. In the first one, Tara and Christian meet up with Ryan and Gina. The article in The New York Times describes how Lohan arrived on set wearing tons of makeup. Producer Braxton Pope complained (not without reason) that her makeup looked ‘like it’s from a different movie.’ To me, that’s exactly what makes the scene work. Tara is hiding. She’s like the only real woman in a gathering of Stepford wives, trying to conceal that she still has genuine emotions. In the final scene, which takes place about a year after her breakup with Christian, she and her new boyfriend meet up with a befriended couple. Tara looks more natural. Happier, you could say. But set off against the opening scene another meaning becomes apparent: she blends in now. She’s become a vessel like the others. A void.

This Framing the City article was published in October 2018