Indian audiences know Paul Schrader as the man who wrote Taxi Driver, which is a bit like praising Buster Keaton for being the Marx Brothers’ best gag writer. Ranking among the best of the most marginalized American auteurs, Schrader has nonetheless had great cultural impact as a screenwriter – not only Taxi Driver, but other films with Scorsese (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, Bringing Out the Dead), and other directors (The Mosquito Coast for Peter Weir, The Yakuza for Sydney Pollack, Obsession for Brian DePalma, and the early draft for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind). As a director, Schrader is different from all of them, especially from Martin Scorsese. His works are more playful, sly in its parody of narrative and genre, and in dealing with sex and especially in portraying it, he has one over his great collaborator.
Never a critics’ darling, Schrader’s The Canyons nonetheless attracted the worst notices of his career, the American press, no doubt distracted by the star Lindsay Lohan’s off-screen behavior, savaged the film. Some of the local audience, expecting another Taxi Driver from a man with a forty year directing career had their own separate feelings of disappointment, though the response seems to have been favorable on the whole. Indeed the film played to a full house. Shot in digital, Paul Schrader’s film could make a neat double bill with Monte Hellman’s Road to Nowhere, dealing as it does with the politics behind the making of a film and the blurring between fictional and real. Where Hellman dealt with independent film production, Schrader’s film is set in what can be described as whatever’s left of Hollywood that runs these days.
The Hollywood we see in this film is glamorous and consumerist, yes, but it feels like a dilapidated ghost town filled with dead movie theatres(which plays over the opening and end credits and in the inter-titles that mark the progression of days). Lindsay Lohan’s Tara asks Amanda Brooks’s character during lunch, “Do you like movies? When was the last time you liked seeing a movie in the theatre?” She responds by discussing a premiere she attended but Terra quickly corrects her, “Premieres don’t count.” The thrill is gone as the song goes. This is ironic because The Canyons is suffused with “movieness”, which Schrader, who started as a film critic, is very aware of and which he treats with a great deal of humor.
The “movieness” becomes obvious in the shot of Lindsay Lohan, clad in hat and glasses walking down Los Angeles – this moment is shot like a documentary because Schrader foregrounds the fact that the actress is Lindsay Lohan herself, the setting and shots is not different from many of the promos on tabloid channels. Lindsay Lohan’s casting as a young and confused actress who is not excited by movies obviously suggests her off screen tabloid profile. This self-reflexivity extends to the film collaboration between auteur-actresses which the film variously suggests – Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, Godard and Anna Karina, and, closest to home, Sternberg and Dietrich whose collaborations, dealing with morally compromised women and men engaging in sexual power-plays, finds many echoes in this story.
The Canyons is an incredibly intricate story. We never lose sight of the characters and their movements in the course of the short stretch in which the film takes place. Indeed the theme of surveillance, the presence and use of cell phones and social media websites which this film accurately engages with, makes it impossible for people to truly stay out of sight. The characters openly discuss the lack of private life, but the film differs from other films in the approach to this fact of 21st century life. The lack of privacy extends even to intimate moments, the running theme in this film is the false, artificial dialogue where characters try to get each other to confess to some secret which they then report to a higher power. This paranoia is enshrined as the primary means of communicating messages, something which even Ryan(Nolan Funk), the closest to a “good guy”, indulges in. Within this, the only one with some sort of purity is Lindsay Lohan’s Tara, who is the one being spied on and reported to by the people around her.
Yet Tara is herself a fascinating creation. There are few morally compromised yet emotionally compelling character roles for actresses these days, and Lindsay Lohan explores her with relish and authority. She is alternatively innocent and narcissistic, bitchy and doe-like and also impressively cruel, as in the film’s orgy scene(a kind of homage to Donald Cammell’s Performance) when she forces her boyfriend to receive oral sex from a man, triggering his breakdown with an amazing close-up to her cruel smile as neon lights strobe around her. In an article for Film Comment, Schrader compared her to Marilyn Monroe for being incapable to not be herself at any given time, an actress who gives everything to all her film roles and her life. It’s a shame that Lohan seems to have backed away from promoting this film, it’s a role that few actresses ever get and even fewer can actually play.