Digital Sleaze Auteurs: Paul Schrader’s ‘The Canyons’ and Brian De Palma’s ‘Passion’ Examine Post-Cinema Cinema
During a 35th anniversary screening of Taxi Driver at the Indiana University Cinema in 2011, Paul Schrader stated that studios stopped making movies like Taxi Driver a long time ago, and moreover, studios weren’t interested in making movies for adults anymore. Judging by his collaboration with novelist/screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis in The Canyons, it seems he believes Hollywood isn’t interested in making movies anymore.
The Canyons portrays an entertainment industry that has collapsed into the things that its product has afforded for its participants: lifestyle and status. The Lindsay Lohan’s Ghost-starring flick envisions a Hollywood in which its movers of money have stopped even pretending to care about the product peddled, instead spending all their time and efforts on the social capital afforded. The stylish restaurants, isolated mansions, cold XXX-capades, and even the privilege of getting away with murder.
The Canyons opens with (and features interludes of) closed-down cinemas and multiplexes in what appear to be post-apocalyptic, depressed hellscapes. What has taken the place of these once-dominant churches of entertainment? The prominence of second-screen entertainment ‐ i.e., the use of cell phones and online media as the defining means of socialization, communication, and entertainment.
Hardly an insightful, prophetic revelation in 2013, but it’s interesting that two veterans of new Hollywood ‐ Schrader and Passion director Brian De Palma ‐ each released B-movie sex thrillers on VOD that are decidedly invested in the possibilities of new media.
The Canyons is hardly Schrader’s strongest work, but (without suggesting that the film is some masterstroke of subversive genius) that seems entirely part of the point. Ellis’s tired brand of narratives surrounding hedonistic rich young people hasn’t gained insight or revision since his Reagan-era Less Than Zero. But in the hands of franchise-mentality-fatigued Schrader, whose work constitutes a lifelong study of the moral trials and failures of white men, The Canyons’s portrayal of psycho-sexual games of dominance is perhaps most shocking in the fact that none of it is at all shocking. In a landscape of shuttered and not-at-all-missed movie houses, the drama that the film’s central quintet of young, hot-bodied sexual conquistadors create for themselves seems borne out of a disorienting boredom, a series of time-killing genital rubbing with no real endgame in mind.
Despite Schrader’s reputation as one of the least compromising filmmakers to emerge from New Hollywood, and despite his frank reporting of his own past sexual conquests, there’s a strange conservatism that lies deep in much of his work, an adaptive sex-negativity that informs his otherwise nuanced treatment of complex characters (and Schrader’s films are nothing if not character studies). One gets a sense that we’re expected to watch Schrader’s films like George C. Scott in Hardcore. A.O. Scott put it best in his review of Schrader’s Bob Crane biopic Auto Focus:
“…there is [a] severe, powerful moralism lurking beneath the film’s dispassionate matter-of-factness. Mr. Schrader is indifferent to the sinner, but he cannot contain his loathing of the sin, which is not so much sex as the fascination with images…To argue that images can corrupt the flesh and hollow out the soul is, for a filmmaker, an obviously contradictory exercise, but not necessarily a hypocritical one. There is plenty of nudity in Auto Focus, but you can always glimpse the abyss behind the undulating bodies, and the director leads you from easy titillation to suffocating dread, pausing only briefly and cautiously to consider the possibility of pleasure.”
In The Canyons, Bob Crane’s hidden video camera is replaced by James Deen’s smart phone, the only option in a mediascape where the porn theaters Travis Bickle frequented are long closed down and thousands of mainstream theaters look to fall in their stead, collateral damage of the digital revolution. Deen and his many sexual partners never look back at the footage they shot; that it’s used to set up and realize the sexual meet-up is entirely the point. What Schrader and Ellis stage here, as means of criticism, is essentially the phenomenon of digital masturbation. The source of titillation is the knowledge that the apparatus is looking back, and looking back at you. Why watch movies when movies can watch you instead?
Schrader is justifiably known for his work with actors. He has led Richard Gere, Ken Ogata, Natasha Richardson, Willem Dafoe, Nick Nolte, and James Coburn to some of their most-recognized performances. It only seems by matter of choice, then, that the acting in The Canyons is comprised of animated particle board. As indicated by the film’s Facebook/Kickstarter campaigns (which seemed groundbreaking in 2011 but is now the stuff of routine), The Canyons was never interested in casting actors familiar with a motion picture camera. The casting of porn star James Deen is no doubt an important part of this opposite Lindsay Lohan, whose scant output since 2007’s I Know Who Killed Me hasn’t been interpreted as anything but camp efforts winking at an institution of celebrity that has so little to do with what public figures actually make.
Appropriately for a film that stages a dismissive burial of cinema’s ashes, The Canyons employs a form of acting totally alien to conventional English-language filmmaking. It’s a vision of movies from the vantage point of people who have presumably never seen any.
Where The Canyons stages a bleak after party to cinema’s wake, De Palma’s VOD-released Passion (which opens in theaters August 30th) sees digital technology as a set of new tools that can be utilized for cinema’s exact purposes.
Like The Canyons, Passion explores sexual psychodrama in the insular culture of a cosmopolitan industry, in this case a Berlin-based ad agency. Both films feature smart-phone-based acts of interpersonal one-upsmanship between sexual encounters. Unlike The Canyons, Passion does not use this setting to stage “the end of cinema.” Instead, in the same way that Schrader and De Palma’s 1976 collaboration Obsession retooled Vertigo, De Palma is more interested here in exercising cinema’s continually revisited narratives, this time with a 4G update.
But De Palma no longer seems interested in aping Hitchcock, Eisenstein, Antonioni, and the like. Instead, De Palma retools De Palma, complete with split-screens, double crosses, mysterious impostors, canted angles, and fluid movements between a character’s subjectivity and “actual” events. The totally batshit and surprisingly fun (il)logic that informs Passion’s beautifully convoluted narrative is purely, exclusively cinematic: a $30M Europe-funded film like this could not possibly be made through any other medium-specific set of tools and conventions. Pair this fact with Passion’s status as a remake of Alain Corneau’s French thriller Love Crime, and you have a film that is deeply, seriously invested in itself as a particularly cinematic object, a thriller that is cinema as much as it is about cinema.
That neither The Canyons or Passion were funded by Hollywood money, and that both were released on VOD in tandem with limited theatrical releases, speaks to Schrader’s 2011 observations about a conspicuous lack of moneyed interest in adult drama. The summer movie season can be a frustrating place for a cinephile. Furthermore, despite their achievements and privileges, one can only imagine the frustration of a Schrader or De Palma type, who have witnessed so many drastic changes in the American filmmaking landscape. And it’s easy to sound the death knell about the closing of movie theaters, especially when one unwittingly encounters card-carrying members of second screen culture.
But Passion offers an alternate interpretation, a vision of the same cinema with new tools, and a notion of cinema that isn’t relegated to the cinema, but persists fluidly across trans-Atlantic financiers, Kickstarter campaigns, an encyclopedia of influences, and through digital delivery systems. These dog days of summer VOD selections are a reminder that we can still watch the things that watch us.