You can’t hold a world premiere event for a film inside a television, or over the Internet, or as ordered through a remote control. Sure, you can stream it, or you can record it to watch later, and you can even have someone FaceTime you in, but you can’t hold a true event for a film without getting some butts into some seats, some snacks onto a tray, and a movie onto the big screen. Director Paul Schrader may have made his The Canyons alongside screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis and producer Braxton Pope with the full intent to bow the film on the VOD-enabled small screen, but that doesn’t change the fact that the film was entered into film festivals, or that later this month you can see it in a theater near you in limited release, or even that its world premiere was held in a theater. Last night actually, at the Walter Reade Theater at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, a real theater for real cinephiles, and I was in attendance to take it all in.
There was a lot to take in.
Attendees were greeted upon arrival with free snacks – small buckets of popcorn and even more Lilliputian sodas, followed by a table overflowing with different kinds of chips and plastic bags of caramel corn (perhaps the best caramel corn I’ve ever eaten, it has to be noted), and a single usher holding a tray of plastic cups of Stella Artois (the official beer of just about every major film festival on the planet, making the proceedings feel oddly familiar). The pre-showing buzz was interested but not overwhelming, quiet enough that I could clearly make out a conversation behind me that included lines like, “Are you in this film circle stuff?” “Tangentially.” “How tangentially?” and so on and so forth.
Schrader amicably greeted the crowd alongside New York Film Festival Program Director Kent Jones, despite needing a cane after a very recent knee operation. In pre-show remarks, Jones commented that Schrader is “building a new model for himself,” and that may be true. When the project was first announced back in the spring of 2012, its crowdfunding aspect raised interest, not ire. I even reported on some of the film’s Kickstarter campaign rewards, simply because it felt like a novelty at the time. Now, of course, the tide has turned, with other filmmakers hopping on the bandwagon to increased displeasure from the peanut gallery. (Schrader is unfazed by this, however, and even mentioned later in the evening that he had been exchanging emails with Spike Lee, another recent Kickstarter adoptee, earlier in the day. Schrader shared that he had suggested to Lee that the pair make a movie together next – one about Clarence Thomas and, God help me, even after the recent experience of seeing both Red Hook Summer and The Canyons, I’d still love to see that film.)
So how is the film itself? While our own Scott Beggs will weigh in on this surprisingly complicated matter later this week with his own review, I struggle to sum up my thoughts on the film in a concise manner. It’s not “bad” and it’s not the campy outing many people may be anticipating. But it’s an overwhelmingly self-aware affair, and there’s never a moment when any of the film’s actors, including Lindsay Lohan, porn king James Deen, and supporting star Nolan Funk, don’t seem blazingly aware that they are on camera. That may be the point of the film, but it may also just be a lackluster production in general. I didn’t “enjoy” the film much, and I found the acting universally poor, and it only served to remind me how much I don’t miss driving in Los Angeles, and that’s not the sort of takeaway anyone would want from their own film. But if someone wanted to make the argument that The Canyons is a brilliantly self-aware masterpiece, I wouldn’t be able to call them crazy. I’d want to hear more.
The film is crammed with lines that are ham-handedly obvious, oddly funny, or perfectly suited for use in mocking reviews of the film. Actually, many of the lines in the film meet all three requirements, seemingly on accident. Deen comments to Lohan, “Nobody has a private life anymore, Tara” and Lohan later goes on a tear to the silly Ryan (Funk) that includes the humdinger “This dumb little movie isn’t going to do anything for you!” before repeatedly inquiring of his girlfriend, “Do you really like movies?” and dismissing her answer about going to a recent event with a “premieres don’t really count.” The irony.
The Canyons is unmistakably about the death of cinema – even removing Schrader’s comments about how he sought to make “cinema for the post-theatrical era” (a term he used months ago and one he brought up in a post-screening Q&A), it’s obvious – to the point that a patron sitting behind me actually sighed as the credits came up, “movies are dead.” In case you weren’t sure that movies are actually dead, or that movie theaters are dead, or that maybe we’re all dead, The Canyons is peppered throughout with shots of dying, decrepit, abandoned, crumbled movie theaters. Movies are dead. Theaters are dead. Long live VOD. Also, you’re sitting in a movie theater right now.
Co-star Nolan Funk, who people may recognize as the male lead from Nickelodeon’s play for the High School Musical market, Spectacular! because that’s what I recognized him for, was the only one of the four principals in attendance at the premiere. Despite gamely saying and doing a bunch of cringeworthy things in the film in service to his character, Funk himself noticeably cringed while watching some of his scenes on the big screen. He wasn’t called on stage to chat after the film with Schrader and Jones, despite standing off to the side, somehow looking both eager and bored at the same time.
After the screening, it took little prompting for Schrader to comment on two of the more widespread dramas surrounding the production in a longer Q&A led by Jones – including its weirdly publicized rejection from the SXSW Film Festival (when comments as to why exactly the film was rejected were leaked to THR) and the publication of that New York Times Magazine article. Schrader still seems stung by both, particularly the SXSW leak debacle (which, uncomfortably enough, he pinned on festival honcho Janet Pierson during his chat with Jones [a claim I personally find bizarre for about a million different reasons, the least of which being that Pierson is a seasoned professional]).
Schrader’s take on such matters is that “the phenomenon of Lindsay Lohan makes people do stupid things.” Things like chatting about why a film was rejected from a festival by its artist-friendly leader, things like writing hit pieces about notoriously troubled productions for a publication like the New York Times, things so bizarre and defensive that it’s difficult to really see them from Schrader’s perspective. Even Schrader had to concede that, at least when it comes to the Times piece, he had hoped that a reformed Lohan would show up and give writer Stephen Rodrick something nice to write about, though “unfortunately, the new Lindsay didn’t show up.”
Seated next to Dina Lohan and two similarly coiffed friends, an exceptionally tan man stood up in the middle of the Q&A and boomed a question ostensibly asking if the ends justified the means when it came to casting Lohan. It was an obviously sympathetic, pro-Lindsay query on its own, but coming from a man who conferred with Mama Lohan before and after the asking, it simply added to the low level strangeness of the entire evening. Schrader’s answer was basically in agreement, the ends justified the means, and that he would “work with her again in a heartbeat.” Schrader is still a big Lindsay supporter, and while it’s admirable that any director would feel that strongly about his leading lady after an undeniably bumpy road to the screen, it was also hard to take his claim that “she is magic” seriously after watching her slink around on the big screen for two hours, void of most of the magic and charisma she used to possess. At the very least, it’s a start, and maybe one day the “new Lindsay” will come out to play.
Schrader’s newest film may not be his best (fine, scratch “may,” it’s very clearly not), but the filmmaker is adopting visionary practices when it comes to creation, production, and distribution, and when he calls the leaders of the studio system “dinosaurs,” he does it without malice and with a clear understanding of why and how he feels that way. Yes, we might be approaching that “post-theatrical era,” but we still all watched The Canyons inside a movie theater, and The Canyons will still show inside other movie theaters and people will still make movies just for theaters. There will be dinosaurs and Kickstarters and “cold” films starring sneering porn stars and rejection letters from film festivals and jaw-dropping pieces in the Times and lots of free Stella Artois, but there will still be movies (even if you don’t always want to watch them).