There is a passage in Adrian Martin’s review of the book “Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible” that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately—especially this week, in relation to Paul Schrader and Brett Easton Ellis’s “The Canyons”. Martin refers to a section of the book in which its author, Chris Dumas, describes his struggle to take the film “Blow Out” entirely seriously. Dumas believes the film is “plagued with strange tonal shifts, narrative inconsistencies and attenuations, and conceptual gestures that look like (and could be) mistakes.” The response offered by Martin is worth quoting at length:
“Now, I ask you: is the person capable of writing this painfully inadequate account of the aesthetics of ‘Blow Out’ really the right guy to be ‘rehabilitating’ De Palma? Actually, it is a question not only of ‘Blow Out’ here, but of pop cinema—maybe just cinema, period—in general. Dumas reveals in this passage how cringingly normative his evaluation/appreciation of films truly is. Look at what he finds dissonant: sudden mood changes, modes of stylized acting, artifices or contrivances of plotting, stereotype and cliche, juxtaposition of comedy and tragedy … Let’s pray he never turns his attention to ‘Johnny Guitar’ or, indeed, most films by Jean ‘earnest’ Renoir. Or, let’s face it, most films.”
If the complaints registered by Dumas sound familiar, it is because they are nearly identical to the ones currently being lobbed at “The Canyons”, which has rapidly become a target for nearly unanimous derision. Like De Palma, Schrader is a filmmaker whose aesthetic predilections rarely align with modern conceptions of good taste, which is why approaching the work of either director seeking things like naturalism and dramatic realism can lead only to bafflement and disappointment. And yet many credible, thoughtful critics have for some reason taken to dismissing the film on grounds it has clearly chosen for itself, simply pointing out its most deliberate qualities as if they were inherently flaws, impossible to configure as virtues.
IndieWire’s Eric Kohn, in one of the more vitriolic pans to be published of late, variously describes the film as “utterly soulless”, “lethargic”, “insipid”, and twice in as many paragraphs calls it “poorly executed”. Kohn observes that it “awkwardly shifts into a thriller”, calling out its “gratingly lo-fi production values and lifeless atmosphere”. Some of these claims, particularly a passing mention of the film’s “glaring technical issues”, are difficult to reconcile with the film itself, which, though produced on a comparatively low budget of $250,000, nevertheless looks at all times like precisely the film it is intended be. Other claims are merely odd: deferring momentarily to straw men defenders, Kohn concedes that “apologists could easily make the point that the prevalent emptiness is a canny reflection of the filmmakers’ intentions”, and yet he does nothing to actively counter this point. If it seems apparent that, far from falling short of its goals, “The Canyons” is achieving the effect it sets out for, how can you justify criticizing it as if its basic qualities were fundamental shortcomings?
Terms like “lethargic”, “insipid”, and “lifeless” are not criticisms in and of themselves—these are aesthetic decisions, configured for a reason, and to reject them means doing more than simply observing their presence. It would be like castigating a Bresson film on the basis that its performances are not expressive. To do so would be, as Martin might say, to impose a cringingly normative evaluation upon a film that has no interest in the norm—precisely the opposite of what criticism seeks to do. Elsewhere, reviews echo the same sentiments: Lou Lumenick lambastes the film as “the most boring” film he has seen this year, an “eyeball-gougingly ugly” “cheapie” whose “technical ineptitude” makes its badness self-evident. Interested readers will find no shortage of reviews whose primary focus is the trifecta of abrasiveness, vapidity, and cheapness. These descriptions, as accurate as they are critically useless, offer nothing in the way of insight into how the film actually functions, and in fact they are about as meaningful as saying that "Pacific Rim" is in color and 3D. Nothing is being acknowledged here that cannot be discerned by two working eyes. Kohn and Lumenick are not wrong: “The Canyons” was inexpensively made and looks harsh and ugly. But they have not addressed an obvious follow-up question: So what?
“The Canyons” aspires, to an almost stubborn degree, to reflect the emptiness of its Los Angeles milieu by voiding itself of apparent depth and texture. This alone is hardly a novel idea: posing as superficial in order to comment on superficiality has been done before and done in L.A. Where “The Canyons” differs in its commitment to seeing the idea through: insofar as its emptiness extends to every level of the production, from performance to composition to editing, it adopts a rigor that is peerless and, in a perverse way, commendable. Kohn’s claim that the film has “no subtext” is correct: the film takes as its subject a group of people for whom motivations and emotions are constantly being worked through and explicated, texted and analyzed and articulated bluntly. These people have no psychological shading because they have been sculpted culturally to be perfect ciphers: when our protagonist tells us, apparently clumsily, that “nobody has a private life anymore”, the point isn’t the sentiment but that somebody would make it. Nobody has a private life and everybody feels qualified to diagnose it.
The best review of “The Canyons” is also the one published earliest. Phil Coldiron, writing in the most recent issue of Cinema Scope, observes that “The Canyons is a film without psychology, even interiority, one where an individual is defined exclusively by whom they’ve f*cked and whom they’re f*cking.” How much mileage this concern has for you will vary, of course, but the important thing is that the film not be dismissed merely because of what it chooses to lack. The absence of psychology is not a fault so much as a principle. Same goes for its artificiality: the film is constructed from artifice because artifice is the nature of its world. In that way it would make a good double bill with David Cronenberg’s “Cosmopolis”, also dismissed upon release for what were perceived to be its “fakeness” and its failures in constructing a naturalistic world. (You have to wonder sometimes if those criticizing a film for looking fake would be disappointed to learn that films generally are not real.) Or, for that matter, De Palma’s “Passion”, which comes out at the end of the month and will inevitably be misunderstood. That is a film which embraces the conventions of the erotic thriller self-consciously, and in so doing brushes up against the limits of taste—elements of it are silly, stylized, and exaggerated fondly. It is easy to identify those elements as necessarily “bad”. It is also wrong.