Actors aren’t the characters they play (duh!), but a lot of times we pretend they are. Whoever they happen to be off-screen can dictate the lens through which we experience them on-screen. In The Canyons, Paul Schrader’s raunchy and malevolent dark-side-of-L.A. thriller soap opera, Lindsay Lohan, in troweled-on ’60s makeup (think Elizabeth Taylor meets Tura Satana), plays a Los Angeles hanger-on named Tara who always seems a thin step away from falling apart. The character, in many respects, is worlds away from Lohan herself, yet we can’t help but notice the similarities. Both exude attitude and vulnerability in equal measure, and both are damaged beauties who have clung to their sexual allure as a kind of hard-edged final option. They’re both party girls who have begun to run out of gas.
A lot of what the old Hollywood gossip magazines — I’m talking fifty, sixty years ago — printed about movie stars was fluff and baloney, but the manufactured stories served a purpose well beyond the routine stoking of fan frenzy. Those stories were contrived to reinforce the stars’ on-screen images, to bolster them with a shot of “reality.” Today, we live in a privacy-violating media culture that really does capture jagged little fragments of who celebrities are. And so, in some cases, it may become necessary for a star to acknowledge and exploit, on screen, aspects of her off-screen behavior. That may be the only way that we’ll buy her.
In The Canyons, Lindsay Lohan’s Tara is a vamp, a liar, a weeping mascara-stained lost girl, and a gold-digger who has fastened herself to a man who’s obviously (at least to us) a dangerous and disturbing creep. His name is Christian, and as played by James Deen, a 27-year-old veteran of 4,000 adult videos, he’s like a trust-fund-brat version of the Antichrist: a budding movie producer who lies nearly as often as he breathes and is mostly interested in trolling for sex partners on-line (men and women) and shooting amateur cell-phone porn of them hooking up with Tara. It’s an activity she complies with because 1) she genuinely sort of likes it, and 2) she may not totally like it, but she does like shacking up with Christian in his hillside mansion, because it so beats having to scrape by with no money in a town where money and status are everything.
There’s a scene in which Tara explains to Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk), the boy toy she used to live with and is now sleeping with on the side, that she hated their life of quasi-poverty (having to dig around for the next rent payment, etc.), and Lohan makes you feel those anxious, threadbare emotions from the inside out. If these two had been cohabiting in the hipster oasis of Williamsburg, Tara might have seen herself as a “bohemian.” But the showbiz obsessiveness of Los Angeles shoves the culture of glitz and stardom right in your face. It’s like a daily slap to the have-nots. Tara’s description of the lifestyle she craves made her sound, to me, like the fame-whore version of an Edith Wharton heroine, and I bought Lohan’s performance entirely. I bought the side of it that sounded “just like Lindsay Lohan,” and I bought the side of it that sounded not like Lohan at all — that sounded like a woman who has never, ever known stardom.
The Lindsay Lohan we read about in the tabloids is also a lost girl, but what’s been special about her descent is the degree of talent that she’s thrown away. Her self-destruction is jaw-dropping in its totality. Paul Schrader shrwedly exploits that quality of Lohan’s by casting her as a spiritual wreck who will allow herself to be used by a stone-cold sociopath like Christian because that’s how little she believes in who she is. In that sense, Lohan truly exposes herself — not just her body (though she does that, too) but a bit of her soul — in The Canyons. It’s acting as naked desperation as fanciful projection, all served up as an audacious act of career/image management. And in The Canyons, at least, it works. But will it ultimately work for Lindsay Lohan?
Here’s how it hasn’t worked. The instantly infamous Jan. 10, 2013, New York Times Magazine story on the making of The Canyons inspired a lot of interest in the movie, but as it turns out, what most readers took away from that article was the perception that everything to do with The Canyons — Lohan’s diva tantrums, the attempt by a once-powerful Hollywood filmmaker to make a “real movie” on a Kickstarter budget of $250,000 — was basically a sordid joke. That aura of sniggering contempt has carried over to the reviews of the film, as if The Canyons, now that it’s finally here, must be something icky and laughable and inept. Ever since the film opened last Friday, it’s been knocked around in the press, treated as junk, as a desultory porn exercise in low-budget indie clothing. But Paul Schrader remains what he has been since he wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver – the film artist as vital voyeur. The Schrader who, in The Canyons, is hypnotized by a bottom-feeder version of movie-colony vipers isn’t so different from the Schrader who was hypnotized by the violence and “scum” of Taxi Driver, by the sordid triple-X demimonde of Hardcore, by the twisted suicide of Yukio Mishima in Mishima, or by the video-fueled sexual addiction of Bob Crane in Auto Focus (one of the most unjustly overlooked films of its era). Schrader wants to understand — to know — people who are driven to the edge of compulsion, and The Canyons, scrawled in the movie-set blood of Bret Easton Ellis’s stylized nastiness, offers a catchy pulp version of Schrader’s obsessions.
Does that make it a good film? I would say that makes it an addictively watchable film. One that just might work as the opening chapter of a Lindsay Lohan comeback. (The second chapter begins tonight, when she guest-hosts Chelsea Handler’s talk show — an even ballsier move than co-starring in this movie.) IFC Films, sensing the train-wreck fascination that has gathered around The Canyons, but also knowing that the grimy buzz of sleaze/porn/failure that hung over the Times Magazine story may keep people away, opened the movie on Friday with a newspaper ad that marketed it, in essence, as a video-on-demand phenomenon. An unintentionally hilarious line in the ad read: “See it now in the privacy of your home.” I would call that the advertising equivalent of a brown paper bag, a way of telling moviegoers that this is the sort of lethal smut you don’t want to go out of your home to watch. The VOD revolution was made for a movie like The Canyons, and if people end up watching it at home, fine. But that doesn’t mean that the film deserves to be marginalized by the press as if it were something unclean. The Canyons is a movie made by smart people who knew (and meant) what they were doing, and Lohan, attempting to reignite her career with a nearly confessional performance, enacting an on-screen analogue of her off-screen downward spiral, is the beating heart of its trashy/urgent fascination. People have a right, after all this time, not to take Lohan seriously, but in The Canyons, she’s really trying for something, and she doesn’t deserve what I’ve been reading between the lines of the damnation of this movie: a desire not just to be done with her, but to throw her away.
So did you see The Canyons this past weekend? If so, what did you think of it? And are you eager to see a movie like this one in a theater, or was it made for home viewing?