A Freeform Analysis Of Paul Schrader’s THE CANYONS

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC A Freeform Analysis Of Paul Schrader’s THE CANYONS

“I had to rearrange their faces

And give them all another name”

a freeform analysis of Paul Schrader’s THE CANYONS

by Pablo D’Stair

A Brief Introductory Note: I was a Kickstarter contributor to this film, way back at the get-go—before any cast was on board, any frames were shot, and before the film came to be viewed only through increasingly narrowing pigeonholes—my several essays in various styles from before production, during, and after can be found at this site here, here, here, and here to anyone interested. I note this only to be clear that the below is nothing to do with the current trend in writing about this film as a product, is not a “review” of any kind, but an essay minutely exploring my personal take on the result of an Art Film I am proud to have a personal association with.

It has been said, and certainly it is true, that the line between a film being “auteur-ed” and a film being “a turd” is often razor thin—indeed, the very nature of Art Film not only necessitates this hair’s breadth between Cinema and Claptrap, but the tension, the discomfort (be it in the form of confusion, cringingness, or stifling yawns) of an audience member in forming an opinion based solely on their individual experience with a work rather than through a cobbling together of various this-and-that (be it the individual opinions of others, the—though I say this dubiously—“communal opinions” presented by movie reviews, or even encounters with director and writer interview/commentary) is the necessary fuel to making Art Film pictures move in any meaningful way.

This, yes, differs from even very fine Cinema that I lay outside the realm of “Art Film”: We Don’t Live Here Anymore (the first example of fine Cinema, though not Art Film, that springs to mind—My Life Without Me or Take This Waltz being two others that quickly follow via free association of Mark Ruffalo and Sarah Polley) seeks not to voyeuristically focus the audience’s attention on their own experience as audience, but to transmute the fictive reality, rendered full and emotionally, of the Cinema-on-screen into the lived experience of the viewer and does so in (though harsh) humanistic and sympathetic ways—that is, the Cinema gives life to the figures it presents and asks the audience to understand them in a symbiotic/vicarious way. The Canyons, like all firmly Art Film, asks the audience not to be moved to a suggested contemplation or to empathize, but to out-and-out Invent—and it does so while giving no emotional prompt to do any such thing, no rhetorical suggestion as to why one should even bother—it presents itself and all that lies within it as pure-cipher—cipher not in a “I just watched Eraserhead and what the fuck did any of that even mean with regard to the wider world!?” way, but in the sense that it sets each and every of its component parts to zero, to mute, and says to the viewer “If you want this to work, you’ll have to toggle with the knobs and adjust the tracking” much in the way Abel Ferrara’s The Driller Killer does (that being an Art Film I, personally, truly do love, though would have trouble giving one convincing reason to another party why so, let alone why they ought to, as well).

 No bones, The Canyons is ready to be looked at as not even crass but simply as crap, to be seen as (this I overhead someone say after a viewing and, while not the most apropos, I feel it nonetheless bears being immortalized in print) “something like a Tele-novella dry-humping a Justin Bieber poster,”— it is Static Art that does nothing to solicit the continued attention of a viewer, that welcomes disengagement as a perfectly honest reaction.

Now, emphatically I want to note that I am not trying to flim-flam around anything—surely it is true that if one were to give meticulous attention to any film, even Paul Blart: Mall Cop, one would find all of the ins-and-outs of it thoughtful, logical, interesting in their own merits, while this doesn’t mean for one second that Paul Blart is “any good” or “worth the consideration”; and, yes, it is true that if one wants to love something a way will be found to make this love justifiable (the same true in the reverse or in the ambivalent middle) so I state here, true to the nature of Paul Schrader’s film, itself, that this particular essay will leave it to the audience to determine where the opinion of the author rests with regard to quality and worthwhileness.


To the film itself (maybe stop here if you haven’t seen it, because without knowing the film the following will make zero sense), the ciphers begin with the title:

Especially to anyone familiar with the The Canyons’ tagline (…it’s not The Hills) this title could easily be looked at as a glib (not even satiric) bit of snark in the direction of a certain pseudo-reality television series—but it is to those not familiar, or interested in, such external and peripheral things that the title might also speak. Much as Bret Ellis’ infamous American Psycho begins in such a way as to let the reader know the material being read is set behind the gates of Hell (“Abandon all hope ye who enter here is scrawled in blood red lettering on the side of the Chemical Bank…), The Canyons is titled as a photonegative to the traditional notion of The Hollywood Hills: that place where dreams, egos, passions, indiscretions, geniuses and ham-fists collide to produce majesty, temples, art and iconography that excuses all of the petty and self-serving backdoor games the adoring world knows go on to get a film from script to screen. Schrader’s film is not set in, nor is it an exploration of, “The Hills” (nor, I make so bold as to say, is it a suggestion that The Hills have become The Canyons)—the title is a fact of place, the name of a particular world, and is there as signpost to indicate that for audience to look for clues or meaning pertaining to another place inside its recesses is folly.

And this cipher of photo-negativity continues to the film’s motif (book-ended at opening and closing credits and littered throughout at pace-car intervals) of shuttered and decrepit movie houses:

Yes, it is tempting (and even warranted) to take these images as meta-commentary, as angst and dismay on the part of the film-maker, as a statement that “film is dead” or some such trifling and chop-logical thing; but tempting (in equal measure or not, depending on one’s wont) is to set the images in the cinematic language of only what is being presented by the artist and to assess them there, no armchair detective work of reading movie-magazine interviews et cetera at all necessary.  Imagine, if you will, the reverse of these photo-montages: theatres bustling, temples of art (not even necessarily of fame and entertainment) theatres in pristine glory, frequented by countless pilgrim audiences who passionately travel to pay tribute to the dream-makers and to their own dreams; picture these theatres made alive as they would be in the glorious Hollywood Hills and think of that which would be elicited in us, the viewers, were we to see a film illustrating the backstabbing and self-aggrandizing figures whose names are set in stars and cement, the troubled and dark-artist souls and the dollar hungry financiers we would all forgive of their every trespass for allowing us Academy Awards and the spectacle of Blockbuster Red Carpet affairs, for gifting us with immortalized beauty made perfect, beauty whose behind-the-scenes ugliness we would gladly ignore to fawn over and elevate its successfully transcendent result, its larger-than-life, falseness-made-more-than-true.  Picture all of this while you watch the nothing, the absence, think on it while you see the power-games, the megalomania of the listless no-ones (the players in The Canyons) who know how only how to pay dullard lip-service to terms like “movies” and “actor” and “producer” without even a single desire amongst the lot of them to go beneath the surface of such terms—this is the world Schrader’s film poetics render, the world of all that is not and peopled by all who are nobody. We are in The Canyons, the cinematic language reminds us as the title first introduces, and let us not, the audience, truly think for a moment we are not, as do the poor wraiths who we observe littering the purgatorio.

And the cipher of the film’s interior components, next. First our players:

The cavalier bastard of Christian, who is nothing of what his glazed on persona suggests, who is hardly a cut-throat Producer ready to power-play to get his ship from port at any cost (as in Hollywood such a figure might be), but instead is a producer-of-nothing, less than a dilettante in the “movie-business,” just a bloated tick already smug and set-in and desireless of its already strained belly; the wide-eyed, “just off the bus” actor Ryan, the innocent who got off at the wrong stop and just doesn’t know it, poor lad who cannot see that for all of his (perhaps) wide-eyed desire at immortality (or even just stardom) the most he can expect for his humility-cum-vainglory is a hoodwinkery disguised as a “role” in a movie that doesn’t exist (and even if it did would only just hardly); the earnest Gina, working diligently, tirelessly, as Christian’s assistant, the very portrait of one who believes in that genuine “indie spirit,” who thinks that through some unseen hand an alchemy will occur that could make a “shitty movie about teens being slaughtered by a pissed off ghost in a factory” into Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre if only enough faith is applied; and Tara, the false ingénue, the actress who (for all the film actually shows us) never was one, the less famous than a Factory Girl personage dully going along with the role of being a (if only relative to her direct surroundings) meaningful presence, the one who wants not the reason for notoriety (or even the notoriety) of the struggled-Starlet-made-good, but who is contented (and make no mistake, the film shows us she is) with the trappings and suits of her faux-woe.

These blanks, taken as they are presented by Schrader and Ellis and by the performers in the roles, are Nothings and they dredge from viewers not a tinker’s damn for their wrung hands and cocksmanship in and of themselves—they are proxy-suits to be tried on or left on the hanger, the film itself a kind of Choose-Your-Own-Ennui to be played, replayed, or not played at all. Yet to a purpose (how much of one is the name of the game for each observer to determine) in that were the characters that which they are not, were their interiors at all a match to their facades—were Christian a young man concerned with film (or even sex), were Ryan a fresh face really on the cusp of what could be a big break, were Gina correct about instead of mercilessly blind to the reality of the world she feels she is a part of, were Tara an actual artist invested in something she feels an earnest sense might be lost (were those cinema houses shiny and boisterous with not only films but with eagerly awaited coming attractions)—every tick and tock of The Canyons would urge from us, the audience, a dread attention. Again: think of these people as the photo-negative of what we see them being on screen, think of them as what they could seem if not regarded in the language of the film in particular—like with jazz, be reminded of the notes that are not there.

Breaking in on myself with a particular, with a codex to the cipher, let us note the scene in which Schrader and Ellis have Tara put the question to Gina: “Do you even really like movies? I mean, really like movies? When was the last time you saw a movie in a theatre? Something that was really important to you?” Now, taken at face value, in the roil of landscape and people-scape we as audience have been introduced to by the time this little speech crops up, it is tempting (and again, even warranted) to guffaw and dismiss this all as, at best, silly blather, and, at worst, a misfired and ill-placed mouth-piecing on the part of writer or director, as a meta-chat about the “state of contemporary film”; but again, we must think of where we are and who is saying this and what it means for such a nonentity to spake thusly (and, therefore, what it means for us to listen). There is no hint that Tara ever was passionate, that she ever loved movies, that she ever went to a theatre to see something important to her (not unless we assign her this virtue, of our own invention—the film does not) not a stitch of The Canyons shows us that the persona making these lamentations is even capable of feeling them as such, but the film, itself,  knows we, as audience (by the very fact we are watching—and some of us helping produce—the film at hand) understand only all too well—and so this is presentation of the falseness of Tara (and those around her) and of the depths to which this falseness runs. Again, were Tara a Michelle Williams figure toiling undiscovered in Hollywood, burning with ambition and talent, earnestly attempting to get Take This Waltz made while under the thumb of some dickhead who was only concerned with sex and money, were that Tara making these same mournful statements it would mean something. But here the film shows us it means nothing—there are no movies in The Canyons, no feelings, no laments, just surface level sayings meant to give false appearance to whomever is in front of the speaker (let us not forget that in this scene both Tara and Gina are wantonly being deceitful with each other at the behest of other parties, trying to get clues to each other’s true states-of-mind to report back with—not a note of their “little chat” is earnest at any level, according to the filmic world they inhabit and we are peeking down into).

Returning to our ciphers, let us take the stylistics of the film:

First, the pornography that is not pornography, that is the dry and flaccid appearance of that which should be salacious, dirty, arousing of something base (artistic and base, meant to urge audience to release)—no, by the language of this film we get neither stiff nor wet (at least not without our own effort) for the fornication and the shifts in power it presents are, we know, inside of a world that has no mind on result, that values neither arousal nor climax: the sex, as full frontal, masturbatory, coupled, threesomed, foursomed as it might be, is just the same as squinting idly at the icons on any random internet porn-tube (Will this get me off? Will this? What’s going on in this one?). So again, this seems it could be a misfired fault, but just as much, again imagine we were privy to A-Listers volunteer cuckolding with each other and share-and-share-aliking with random strangers and then (to borrow some dialogue from the film) BAM! we see full to capacity cinema houses and see these same A-List Hyperions on magazine covers and glad-handing with rabid fans behind tape lines—why, this would be fascinating! The sex of those who are triumphant, the sleaze of those who also offer celluloid arête! Were we watching a film of such people, their every lick to moisten hand to cock, every girl-on-girl forcing guy-on-guy would be riddled with meaning and intrigue and would somehow speak to things higher. But Schrader’s film in not set in such a world, but in one that does not speak (at least not directly) of things higher, it speaks of those who only value the gloss and half-heartedly dry tug themselves to sleepy malaise, desiring, if anything, nothing more than they already have and (maybe) just not to lose those crumbs come morning.

Then, the cipher of the Thriller persona of the script (which I find the most intriguing thing of all):

Inserted into this lackluster nega-world found on the underside of glorious Hollywood’s foot heel we have a classically, slow paced rise to an “eruption of violence,” a meticulous drip-drip-drip of façade cracking and power finally being taken in the form of life-and-death, control desperately snatched in the aftermath of lack-of-control. Set in a world where there are circumstances and humanist consequence, where there is some higher calling to something (Art, Ethics…anything) the gradual disintegration of all present into bloodshed and the subsequent forced-to-soldier-on in complicit silence would be disquieting, even harrowing (shit, it would be Eyes Wide Shut, Knife in the Water, or Unfaithful) and that Ellis’ script plays a take-your-time Highsmith pace with the noir cannot help but, again, suggest to an audience all of the absence they are seeing. “Murder, now? Who cares?”  is the surface reaction the film almost demands of an audience—indeed, taken as a plot-point-by-plot-point result of what came before, the (pointedly off screen) butchering of a peripheral cast figure borders on ludicrous (indeed, taken without considering it in the full expanse of the film, up to the final frame, it is quite ludicrous) but taken in the whole arc (looked back at once the end of the film is known and can give retro-meaning to what lead to it) the very discombobulating presence of such violence (and at the exact figure the violence is visited upon) comes from the flat fact that “Nobody cares—inside of the film or out.” The death of a peripheral figure (as I see Cynthia, though some may disagree) of someone really not-of-the-world-except-by-association of the main cast, is the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, is the death of one of us poor hump observers, and it cements not our distance from the people and events and amorality we are watching on screen but their (and its) distance and intense aloofness from us—nothing matters down there in the Canyons, least of all who keeps breathing. Again, a reverse-imaging of The Thriller—a film that, from the very writing, instead of doing everything to make you care about violence aimed at innocents is perfectly contented that no one viewing might well bother to, in any empathetic way, process the randomness and cruelty of the death.


Now—all of that being said, it remains to touch on a few elements that seem integral to the language of this specific Art Film.  Firstly, it is (not surprising considering both the writer and director at work) a film that is not “first viewing hearty” one that is not written to explain itself as it goes along and to be summed up in a final moment, no harm no foul if never viewed again. Like most slow burn material (regardless of whether one likes it or not) the film has a soberness and a hyperconsciousness that it is going to need to “be viewed more than once” to work at all—one has to see what happens in order to go back and see what is happening. And with this aspect, it is conscious also of the fact that…well, that may well not happen, because, Art House to the nth, it flagrantly gives nothing but further cipher to point an audience back to its beginning (the final shot, before the abrupt cut, a return to the initial frame of the film, the character of Ryan directly turning to look straight down the barrel of the camera, expressionless, as though out at those in voyeuristic attendance to him—the abrupt cut itself, indeed, an indicator that “nothing here or further will help you understand: if understanding is your desire, you must go back”).

And secondly there is the absolute dishonesty in all central characters (save for perhaps Gina, though she is a kind of semi-foil, a false-match to Ryan who reveals himself ready to trade innocence for Tom Ripley head-games if it all comes down to it while she, in the face of seeing the truth, turns her “violence” inward, ready to degrade herself to “keep the movie going” if things break that way…a side point, though one I need to bring up on the periphery, here)—this dishonesty that is completely permeating to the point (and the film blunts this so we know) we must understand that the characters could not show honesty if they wanted to, as the elements necessary for such a thing exist neither internally nor externally to their environment. They have no perspective outside of their habitat—all tears are crocodile (remember: Tara cries for Ryan before he makes love to her—in perhaps the films only nearness to sex-as-balm or comfort moment—and cries just as much and with as much seeming earnestness for Christian before he coerces her into alibiing him for his killing); all betrayals are just the same as the simple misunderstandings they play-act (Christian confesses his worry that Tara is cheating on him while in bed after half-way fucking one of his many lovers, insisting he “cares…a lot” about Tara’s “infidelity” despite the couples sexual proclivities, but he takes his revelation of worry no further than to say it is there); all moments of victimization (between the leads) are entirely and with consideration agreed to, all parties victim and victimizer, complicitly and at once (Christian uses the sex acts with other couples as a control over Tara who, in turn, lets herself be used in order to, inside the same sex acts, exert control over Christian). There can be nothing but deceit in The Canyons because each character knows they, themselves, are lying (even Gina, in a sense, though this is more of a self-deceit by inaction, a wanton self-blinding) and so cannot proceed as though anyone else is not—each character sees themselves as centerpiece and so by default feels all parties around them must be behaving appropriately in reference to their perverse slant of centrality (in a sense, they all think they are in a movie and being analyzed, that “supporting characters” only mean things in relation to their “starring role”.)

The film (as both a script and the presentation of it visually) could be summed up, thusly: imagine an atom in which each electron thinks it is the nucleus, in which these figures swirl around each other, each imagining itself to be the still point around which the others go—and like with an electron cloud, our perception as audience is one of Heisenberg uncertainty: things only looks how they look when we select a point of focus, but, in fact, the charges we are observing are just as much nowhere as they are omnipresent as they are in the precise point we chose to make our regard from.

With The Canyons, the film experience is far more petri-dish than humanist (again, not surprising as Schrader once, in celebratory tones, exclaimed it to be “all ice and elbows”)—which is fitting and what Art Film is meant to be. For there is a certain solemnity in thinking of eyes peering down a microscope at a single dot of some fungus we all know is growing around us, a kind of dignity in thinking that specimen could well be looking straight back at us, patiently thinking “Yes, you’re right that I am mold, that I’m feeding on decay…but I’m also Penicillin, if you take care to figure out just what that means.”

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