“But you don’t know what it is
do you, Mister Jones?”
A little The Canyons Interlude
by Pablo D’Stair
As Tom Stoppard had Guildenstern remind us, ‘There is an art to the building up of suspense.’ And quite like the play-inside-of-a-play that is Stoppard’s sly and masterful philosophical riff on the Shakespearean tragedy Hamlet, the pre-release period of any motion picture has a delirious intrigue and absurdity to it. A stage is to be set against expectations, enticements offered, and usually a somewhat solicitous tone is what the soon-to-be viewing public appreciates—“Okay,” audience in abstracto is saying, “you made something, now tell us what it is and why we’d want to see it. You depend on us, starting now.”
But more and more in the contemporary climate of cinema, audience is a factor already plumbed and taken into account before cameras roll—mystery is not the same as it used to be and secrecy has to cloak itself in exposure. Most of the time, this is done by a lot of wink-wink and calculated slips of foreknowledge, getting folks on the side of a film by allowing them to understand the intended result, the stakes, going in. But in other cases, not at all—in other cases, the tease begins, full on, the filmmakers allowing the audience to define a thing unseen, to set the terms of what will mean success, what failure, the filmmakers then doubling down on this, feeding fuel into whatever stance the fire tilts.
For an example of this latter case, I refer to the forthcoming film The Canyons, directed by Paul Schrader (Affliction, Auto Focus, screenwriter of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull etc.) and penned by novelist Bret Easton Ellis (Lunar Park, American Psycho), a film I have already spent time here and giving some peripheral investigation to. The film has, by now, been shot, wrapped, locked and is in the period of semi-existence before public eyes can give it a look—it is done and ‘is what it is’, no hand can change it.
As has been well publicized, The Canyons stars Lindsay Lohan and adult film-star James Deen, in his first hep-role (as “post-empire” a hepness as it may be) and for many these two seem positioned as a proxy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the supposed full-knowledge of an awaiting public. By this time in the game for The Canyons, audience opinions have largely been formed, many crystallized and much of the public seems to be waiting for nothing more than to see the central stars piteously ramble through a film that will ultimately lead to a very sad demise of career, a demise everyone but them knows is unavoidable.
But to my philosophical slant, the filmmakers have deftly reversed the roles, leaving the audience—both the hyper-critical portion and bold-enthusiast portion—in the position of flipping the same coin endlessly to the same result and postulating on the nature of what they are mere participants in. Because ‘participants’ they are, performers in the larger drama of modern film-making
The above trailer is the first teaser released since filming wrapped (if rumors are true, it is the first of several to be done in mimic of trailer styles of various eras) and furthers the gambit already flatly undertaken by the folks behind the motion picture. Since the beginning, this has been a project built around public participation, not a project doing its thing behind-the-scenes only to emerge fully formed. In this, a certain tenacity has taken hold in the public concerning the ‘how’ and ‘why’—even the ‘what the motherfuck?’—of The Canyons being made actual. Such personal (however figmentary) investment made, a sense of genuine and rabid ownership has taken hold, both pro and con. Folks seem to want to be the first to either find the crumb of evidence that proves they have been right—all along and first and foremost—that the film will be ill conceived claptrap or else to be the first to have a solid piece of evidence to point to which justifies a fervent faith that the film will reveal itself as the end-all-be-all of cinematic verve.
Soon-to-be-audience members are all looking for indication of what The Canyons will be, so the filmmakers give them Occam’s razor and giddily throw them every shaving of what it certainly, potently, aggressively will not be, knowing this will only reinforce what everyone, simply, thinks it already is.
Here, we have a teaser tailored to the haters and tailored to the devotees, all at once, a glimpse that gives nothing but a reinforcement of both sets’ already avowed stances. To the haters, this is mere gimmicky drivel reinforcing that the most that can be expected is some tossaway grime, a B-movie pile of grindhouse turd; for the devotees, it is an in-your-face finger-bite to those who think that “beauty has to be pretty” or that film-making needs studio and marketing support, is an astute and irreverent reminder of the basic place even the most polished and serious-minded thriller has its roots, that ‘mainstream eroticism’ is a Country Music love-ballad to the ‘dirty truth’ of a Punk Rock romance.
That is, the trailer lets some people scoff, “See, this is going to be fucking Driller Killer, at best” while it allows others to enthuse “This is going to be fucking Driller Killer, Jesus Christ yes!”
But the film proper, when released, will receive neither of these responses. Which the filmmakers know. The trailer is not a salvo in a debate, it’s an extension of the talking points everyone else has taken so much time and trouble developing, an excuse given to them to go on saying the same things and to say them more frequently and in more forums. It is an admission—neither bold nor defeated, just truthful—that the film is the film and our thoughts affect it neither one way or the other.
The trailer has let the audience flip their coin again to fall just the same as it ever will—heads or tails the only difference, but no different to each camp. And like to Stoppard’s poor duo, this will make no difference with regard to Shakespeare’s determination of where things have and will always end.
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.
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