“Andy Warhol, Silver Screen
Can’t Tell them Apart At All”
Cinema, Persona, Perception, and The Canyons
by Pablo D’Stair
If you happen to be me, you first became aware of James Deen via his seduction of and subsequent fornication with Mrs. Lexi Simone on the venerable adult film website My Friend’s Hot Mom. If you happen to be me, you first became consciously aware of Lindsay Lohan while you were stealing product and grifting cash from the register at Hollywood Video, her face in duplicate on the box for The Parent Trap, always just out of the corner of your eye. If you happen to be me, those two things happened in the same year, though the former piece of film post-dates the latter by more than a half decade.
And now, another half decade has passed, and Lindsay and James are in a film together. But that might not mean what you’re thinking from those remarks, above.
The film is The Canyons, penned by l’enfant terrible novelist Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, Lunar Park) and directed by Paul Schrader (Affliction, Auto Focus).
We need no ghost come from the grave to tell us that Warhol’s idea of ‘being famous for being famous’ has taken such root in the psyche of modern American society that it is not only the status quo for legitimized ‘fame’, but has, paradoxically, also become the idealized apex point of it for many aspirants, especially those with eyes set on the silver screen.
At a basic level: once, the idea was to have a talent and be known to excel at it; then this became that the idea was to have no talent, particularly (or at least not a practiced talent) but a persona which could replace the value of X talent in the equation; then the idea became to, quite literally, excel at having no talent and, really, no persona, in itself, of particular note.
But beyond this basic level (which will play itself out, revealed to be the big yawn that it is, every time, before repeating) much more interesting things, singularities, anomalies, start cropping up. Because in the current climate, what is to be done when there is talent, practiced talent, but it must traverse the temporary tower guard of talent being seen as something quite close to a handicap? And how does Art—especially art trying to exist outside of traditional commercial bounds—deal with presenting an actualized idea, let alone a philosophy, to a world which thinks that only not having such things is having such things?
Well, let’s have a look, using our two friends from before, as Lindsay Lohan and James Deen represent two very particular and peculiar examples of non-balancing Warhol-ian algebra.
Lohan, it might be said, is a very pristine example of the mutation of ‘being famous for having once been famous.’ Now, I use such phrasing not in a pejorative sense, as Lohan is certainly far from without talent. But the average half-informed, tabloid-common knowledge of various goings on in the actress’ life, it cannot be denied, has in the last few years become the far more identifying trait she bears, as far as ‘persona’. Indeed, it is the un-deniability of actual quality, actual talent that makes such commentary not fleeting, but, in our current economy, substantive.
We never hear of the on-set exploits of background performers, whether they involve hissy fits, drugs, shut-ins (or all of the above) and we seldom are concerned if Jane Nobody accused of Crime Something-or-Other shows up to court in Bumblefuck, MA wearing a designer dress which really shows off her toned legs. Those people have not showcased a talent and so their falls seem to be of the ‘prat’ variety, not nearly as interesting as falls from Icarus-ian heights.
Lohan has shown talent and so her humanity is more of the poetical sort, such that Dylan could well have been referring to her when he sings ‘she knows there’s no success like failure/and that failure’s no success at all.’ And so while her presence in any film is, surface level, understandable (at least as much as any working actress’ presence in any film), there is a particular question begged when we know she was distinctly sought out for a role in this specific film.
At a snap, it seems simple enough to theorize an answer in the artiste vein. After all, if Jorgen Leth cast Patrick Bauchau in his third re-filming, at von Trier’s prompt, of The Perfect Human due in part to Bauchau being interesting on the strength of his seeming ‘well bruised by life’ why not the same of Lohan? It is, after all, life and particulars wrought from it that draws writers to write, actors to act, and expressers of the world to express in all forms. It is, it might be said, only the peculiarities of a contemporary American culture seeking to reappropriate such things for more base and flaring-out purposes that keep truly nuanced and interesting lives relegated to loose speculative fodder or ‘Where are they now?’ narratives to sell ad space. Perhaps it is commentary through art on this aspect of the ‘collective unartistic us’ which brings Lohan to the top of the pile, a statement of celebration at what made celebrity celebrity to begin with, when celebrity still had its roots in the term ‘celebration’ rather than a bastardized sense of setting apart those who have achieved something we have not as the ‘reprehensible them.’ After all, La Rochefoucauld (and others before and since) so rightly pointed out that ‘It is not enough to succeed, a friend must also fail’ so why not look at Lohan as exemplar of the ultra-American reimagining of this, perhaps ‘It is not enough to succeed, we must make that success a failure.’ Indeed, as long as I seem keen to throw quotations at this, it is irresistible to suggest that Lohan personifies in a most singular fashion—or should—what Hal Hartley mouthed via Henry Fool, that ‘We know we have fallen, because we know who we are.’
But, at more of a long drag than a snap, I think Lohan, in particular, has to be looked at less idealized and more as product, here. Because it is the very fact that she is not looked on as what I above theorize, generally, that seems at the heart of her presence, anywhere. After all, she does not shrink from the limelight—as The Canyons does not—to pursue the art of acting in film in the unadorned fashion of Ferrara’s The Driller Killer or Carter’s The Creeper, and has, we can’t but admit, intelligently and resiliently trod the tabloid-cum-artwork genre of much of modern ‘theatre’. Here, there is (as much as anything) a sense of acceptance of Brand-as Persona—to take a role in this film is because it fits a recognizable form of her, as much as her being offered the part could likely be due to the same. The unavoidable truth is that typecasting now takes place from life rather than previous performance, as life, itself, largely, has to be seen as performance if one wishes to perform for a living.
Now, gone are the days when Bresson could use so called ‘non-actors’ such as Martin LaSalle particularly because they are that. And largely the use of non-actors in modern films seems to have shifted to the philosophy that ‘they don’t need to act, because they naturally are what we would want an actor to do’ as opposed to the earlier philosophy of ‘we don’t want trained actors, because we want the cinema to perform for them.’ Lohan, perhaps, is here because she is a unique commingling of actual and artificial, a prototype before we knew the engineering was desirable of the acting-of-reality as the reality-of-acting.
In any event, she is poised to be one of the more interesting examples, if not the stand-alone one, of an unbalanced Warhol equation. She will be a control built of variables. Instead of achieving ‘fame’ (which may or may not exist in a state any more surely than does a neutrino) she will carve out the new Mobius Strip of Warhol-ian physics, in which she achieves the state of ‘being famous for being famous after being famous for having once been famous’.
I, personally, can only hope that such a thing is at the heart of her, particularly, being desired in the film, as it would be shameful to think that the most she could have been offered was a chance to get back what she had before it was taken away for the fun of being able to hand it back.
A lesson that we collectively have learned (or should have) most recently from Steven Soderberg’s The Girlfriend Experience, (some little time back from Catherine Breillat’s Anatomy of Hell, though that is the stronger film) is that casting a pornstar into an art-piece film does not, in and of itself, mean or do anything. Indeed, it might be said to do the opposite (that is to say, it does and means nothing) as when I find remarks such as the following, from critics, I cannot help but shift oddly in my seat, take a deep breath in through my mouth and let it out my nose: ‘Through [Sasha] Grey, Soderberg succeeds in making prettiness devastating.’ After all, if this is meant to be a thoughtful, critical remark, I must take it to mean that, sans pornstar (Sasha Grey or otherwise) we have no film and, so, no comment on the ‘devastatingness of prettiness’.
So, what does it mean to cast a pornstar? And what does it mean to cast a pornstar as the lead in a self-declared, outside-of-the-mainstream, very nearly l’art pour l’art film, written and directed by such known, hep quantities as Ellis and Schrader? It means, at least for my purposes, another interesting Warhol-ian anomaly.
Pornography, itself, is rich with paradox from all angles.
On the one hand, it would be easy to consider pornstars folks who have attained fame (I would say ‘their version of fame’ but, come on, it’s ‘fame proper’) for the most obviously and overtly superficial reasons—really, some might say, for nothing. Yet if one were to take just a moment to investigate even ‘casual porn viewer-culture’ (let alone ‘hardcore viewer-culture’) one would find the exact opposite to be true. There is a lowest common denominator in porn (it is apocryphally said that some directors are so disinterested in interacting with their performers they merely hold up illustrative flash cards from behind camera to let them know when to change position) but like in all cultures it is shunned by those ‘in the know’—it is in subtleties, deviations, and uniqueness that lasting presence or impact is made.
And furthering this line, it may seem that the very activity on display in pornography (let’s not pretend modern porn cares much for ‘the set-up’) is pint’s-a-pound-the-world-around, no real ‘performance’ to speak of. But just try to phone it in on a porn set, try to think you’ll have a following just because you keep a flat tummy or a false chest—dear me no, you can phone it in easier at Warner Brothers and keep a lasting stardom than you can at Wicked, at Brazzers, hell, even on the Bang Bus.
Then there is the paradox of why we respect a pornstar (and we do, we know we do). On the one hand, it seems to almost be as simple as ‘Well, they’re inventive, energetic, and get paid to have sex.’ But on even quick examination, this turns to the other hand, the realization that ‘They’re told what to do, utilize multiple takes, and, in effect, are only paid to have sex with people who are paid to have sex with them’ (which, that last part, is a curiosity, in and of itself, and the strongest argument for the true difference between adult film performance and prostitution).
It is impossible (and would be silly) to ignore the obvious: that casting a pornstar is done (not said cynically) as a badge of more-or-less riskless ‘bad-boy pomp’. It’s not the same, certainly, as saying ‘I cast the gigolo I picked up at Caesar’s Palace last night’ as there is an (we all know it) antiseptic sense of only faux-edge to pornography. It is enough to raise eyebrows and, if emphasized correctly when discussed, can seem like an injection of ‘rawness’ into an otherwise stuffy and artificial business.
Because we cannot forget, in this case—as in most—it is the non-porn-filmmakers who approach the pornstar, never the other way around.
So perhaps it is a straight on admission of the superficiality inherent in the ‘Hollywood’ system, a skewering of the old school version of every young man’s dream. In this case, after all, it is well known how romanticized is the notion of James Dean getting discovered while pumping gas, what really then is the difference in James Deen being discovered while pumping ass? And in a way, nothing could be more fitting, a real life extension of Paul Thomas Anderson’s adroit exploration of the hairline that separates performer from instrument in the eyes of both artist and audience. For really what is Deen if not a Dirk Diggler figure realized, at once interested in the willful indulgence his position allows him, yet someone concerned with ‘making sure it looks sexy’?
And extending this to the notion of casting only serves to reinforce the possible explicitness in the choice—any audience Deen would bring (a consideration which it is ludicrous to think is not largely why he is here) would be brought to see ‘a pornstar in a real movie’ and not an actor giving another on screen performance. He allows for a hyperconscious focus on the illusion of the cinema, this very illusion meant to be centerpiece—the hep movie audience knows it’s watching something fabricated in the same way the porn movie audience ignores it. It is as much Chesterton-ian as Warhol-ian, in that the masks of Purpose and Product serve not to conceal each other, but reveal the actual nature of film’s alchemy.
Without question, James Deen, regardless of who he portrays in the film, is meant to portray ‘James Deen in a film’ more than anything else. His presence outside as much as inside, so to speak, is meant as a kind of bludgeon (a jolt akin to hearing someone behind you suddenly yell Cut) and as an injection of noia (a suggestion that someone, somewhere, called Action, whether you overheard it or not).
Filmmaking auteurs such as Michael Haneke have long relished in the process of indicting the audience in the cinema they view, making what is on screen aggressively about the very nature of individuals watching cinema on screen, delineating the morality of non-involvement, distance, regard. Rémy Belvaux, André Bonzel, and Benoît Poelvoorde, in Man Bites Dog, with equal parts irreverent mischief and dread sobriety, indict Art itself in the subject matter it investigates, suggesting flatly the upper hand of subject-and-experience over creator-and-participant.
This is Cinema capital C, though, and despite its plumbing the more grotesque desires of a viewing individual, it nonetheless could never be said to have a viewer in mind to be witness who did not want to regard what they are made to regard, who was not keenly involved in their distance, their non-involvement, their ‘place.’
But things have come to a point (through a process organic and untreated) in the modern landscape of interface with art, that far less erudite audiences take such things for granted, never have to consider what the conscious aims of any filmmaker are, never have to consider, indeed, the difference between a film and an audience to it. The lay audience—and even the more astute, eager one—these days comes pre-indicted, more than willing to accept that they are involved. Indeed, audiences today have, without a guiding hand, evolved in to an entity so keenly aware of their necessity in what is presented to them, they almost expect a process to be conversational, patronizing, directly about their reviews more than they, themselves, are even about their reviewing.
The very idea of meta-cinema has turned inside out. And this can be handled by artists in one of two ways.
As always, there is lowest common denominator, so often on display whether named or considered. Nowadays, we hear John Big and Jane Starlet are rumored to be in a film together and the first, unabashed thought is ‘Oh, are they getting married?’ Or we hear Jake Hollywood and Cindy Hotlist are going to share the screen, prompting the immediately reaction of ‘Oh, I bet one of them will be divorcing either Jack Superstar or Janet Darling, pretty soon.’ And so a cinema is created for the life and lifestyle of those uninvolved in it, the notion of ‘vicarious experience’ now having fuck all to do with the celluloid spectacle-as-access-point-for-something-outside-of-oneself, everything to do with the orchestrated literature of synchronized tabloid presses, reissues (with commentary) of His/Her’s breakout performances—this new spectacle as access-point-for-having-no-need-to-consider, just to concur or agree-to-disagree.
But then there exists the more rarified handling, the one based on seeing this current state of unwitting participation not as full reality, but as an aspect that could be incorporated into not the easel, not the canvas, but the pigments the brushes are dipped in. An audience so self-conscious of itself, psychology would tell us, must at once be unaware of itself—an audience so in-the-moment that the past and future are never considered that way.
To incorporate in the art a consciously participatory aspect from the moment of creation is not that same as gimmick making. It is a way to make the ‘subject’ into the ‘subject matter’ in an evolved sense of how this was classically meant. The artist can conspire to make the audience not concerned only about either the film or only their reaction to it (the old school ideas of Film-viewer versus Film-lover versus Film-buff versus Film-aficionado) but of the very vulnerability of Film if these two things become so coalesced.
I mentioned before my reaction to one critic’s remark of Soderberg’s film, a reaction, I feel, that showcases the nowadays very fine line between something-worth-something-else and something-only-worth-itself—if Sasha Grey’s presence was essential to the very message of the film, can the film be said to have a message? Perhaps and perhaps not. If an unknown actress played the role, would our (the audience’s) unavoidable lack of real-world anchoring alter the very nature of the film? Perhaps and perhaps not.
It is becoming less foreign to think of the performers as part of the writing, to think of the directors as part of the scripts—whether they were considered so at inception of a project or not. Once it is ‘a film by Paul Schrader,’ it is no use asking audience to consider what bit was birthed by cinematographer, which bit by composer, editor, best boy electrician. Once a film is ‘starring Lindsay Lohan and James Deen,’ it is no use asking what part of their starring came from savvy agents, iconoclast producer, temp workers in marketing wanting to take a stab at something outside of their station. And audiences of DVDs with behind-the-scenes segments twice as long as the films and readers of the trade papers aware of a film before there is even a script are getting larger and larger, are becoming ‘Audience’ writ large. No longer is casual viewership of cinema casual, at all, even if to each individual viewer it seems like just that.
Both Schrader and Ellis, of course, know this. They have both, for decades, been an active, integral hand in forming the now general and unconscious ideology of what is American Cinema, what is American Culture and have both created works of wide acclaim exploring the nexus point of the two. But all of their conscious, concerted effort has so embedded itself in these ideas, that to anyone approaching their work (new or old) the results of said work is, to them, a priori.
So now, Ellis, Schrader and their ilk are left to take what they helped to create as merely the muddy building blocks everyone now thinks have been around forever. Now, they are left to do what all creators do: take what they already created and turn it freshly new for themselves.
I remember wandering a labyrinthine secondhand bookshop and finding a beat up, mass market edition of the screenplay for Taxi Driver, by Paul Schrader, and realizing just how much more I admired the thing on the page than even the pitch perfect presentation of DeNiro, Keitel, Foster through the interpretive lens of Scorsese. Those pages, to me, from that moment have always been Taxi Driver, the film an interpretative print of the original whole. It’s funny, how when we think about the writing of a film, we think about the things that we see, the things that we hear. ‘And the award for Best Screenplay goes to…’ we hear and only maybe or maybe not wonder if those who gave the award gave it based on reading stacks of printed words or gave it, really, based on watching reels of image, light, hearing voice, orchestration. It’s just one of those things—the writer of the film’s work is so often considered only through the conduit of the finished collaboration.
Considering the literary influence Bret Easton Ellis has had in my life, it is odd to think that the only reason I became acquainted with his work was because of a brief snippet in an Entertainment magazine about how Christian Bale would be playing ‘a wealthy axe murderer,’ a role, according to this snippet, that originally was thought to be either for Leonardo DiCaprio or Tom Cruise. An ‘axe-murderer’ fan from way back, I looked into the novel this film was based on, a little book called American Psycho—which turned out to be as much about a ‘wealthy axe murderer’ as Taxi Driver was about a ‘vigilante cab driver,’ as I’d had it described to me before my first viewing.
That secondhand shop Taxi Driver, that Entertainment magazine, that shopping-mall SuperCrown American Psycho, those things happened on the same day, along the same bus transit line, me with a morning to kill before work at Baskin-Robbins.
In David Mamet’s film State and Main, Joseph Turner White (Philip Seymour Hoffman) asks, ‘What’s an Associate Producer credit?’ and gets as reply, ‘It’s what you give your secretary instead of a raise.’ I was not a secretary and my Associate Producer credit on The Canyons was not in lieu of a raise but instead came from my giving cash money as part of the film’s open source method of financing. This was something I did for the usual combination of reasons—eyes as big as city moons set on the constellation of participating in something that might get me breathing the same as air as two figures who influenced my own art in ways I cannot name, and the more base fact that incentives were offered which would get my words in front of eyes belonging to these self-same figures, whose words have taken up not only so much time in front of my eyes, but space inside of my head. A thing is always more than one thing, as I have been saying.
But there was another reason, still.
If you happen to be me, an author, someone who never needs to hear another human voice if I don’t feel like it to do what I do, it’s funny that the idea of Literature always seemed so participatory, but the idea of Cinema always so individualized, as though what adorned the television screens I’d stay up until all hours watching leapt, full formed, from the will of some single figure, from the breath of Art itself.
If you happen to be me, when it turned out that Paul and Bret, Lindsay and James were all involved in making a film—a fact I became acquainted with only by happening to glance at someone else’s Twitter feed at random, some unknown-to-me person who had ‘followed me’ for Lord-knows-why—it seemed that there was something missing.
Me was missing. Me as modern audience, acting properly, the last glitch in the Warhol-ian string that is the ultimate balancing out of a new, variable cinema.
I am glad to have been there. Things just wouldn’t work, otherwise.
Pablo D’Stair is a novelist, essayist, and interviewer. Co-founder of the art house press KUBOA, he is also a regular contributor to the Montage: Cultural Paradigm (Sri Lanka). His book Four Self-Interviews About Cinema: the short films of director Norman Reedus will be re-releasing October, 2012 through Serenity House Publishing, International.