So Post-Empire It Hurts
If you’ve been following Bret Easton Ellis for the last few years, you know he’s obsessed with the idea of “Empire” and “Post-Empire.” His idea of living in a Post-Empire world involves the Hollywood old guard disappearing, a move away from stars trying to seem remote and self-serious and toward a world where they’re available and poke fun at their own personas. “Nobody has a private life anymore, Tara,” the James Deen character tells the Lindsay Lohan character, apropos of nothing but Bret Easton Ellis’s obsession with being Post-Empire. (And yes, they use each other’s names A LOT).
The Post-Empire world, in Easton Ellis’s view, is characterized by the death of the traditional entertainment power structures – possibly even theater-going itself – and a decentralization of media in general. Basically, an end to all the old fakery and the silly dance of publicists/press tours/carefully guarded and distributed information, and an end to those vestigial gestures of a bygone media age. I’m with Ellis on all of these things, by the way, but even more so, I’m amused by the Post-Empireness of Bret Easton Ellis trying so hard to make “Empire” happen in the first place. He is both his movement’s loudest proponent and its avatar, which is so beautifully seamless. As the writer Allan Weisbecker once told me, the root of comedy is obsession, and Bret Easton Ellis is nothing if not loudly and frequently obsessed.
The Canyons began as a Kickstarter project, well before Veronica Mars/Zach Braff/Spike Lee made it a talking point, was released on VOD at the same time as theaters, and was discussed openly by the creators and actors at every stage of the project. In general, it was produced in as Post-Empire a way as possible. Hell, Bret Easton Ellis spent the weekend tweeting commentary and spoilers, and I don’t know what could be more Post-Empire than spoiling your own movie and then apologizing for it. But as much as I love the idea of a Post-Empire world, The Canyons is less an ad for it than a cautionary tale.
One of the tenets of Post-Empire is that the movie theater itself is on its way out. It’s not hard to make this leap, considering The Canyons opens on one of the countless shuttered theaters that litter the LA sprawl, and each day of The Canyons is presented with a title card (“Wednesday,” etc) superimposed over another abandoned theater. (Why we might need to know that it’s Wednesday or Friday or Thursday before the next stuff happens is entirely unclear, but that’s another story). At one point, Lindsay Lohan asks “Do you really like movies? Like when was the last time you actually went to a movie and enjoyed yourself?”
Did I mention this is how I was experiencing this movie?
I don’t want to review my own charmed method of screening movies for free like some movie-world Peter King, but in this case I think it’s relevant. It’s impossible, trying to watch a film about the death of theater-going on a 13-inch laptop screen where the picture is five inches tall, not to note the irony of it all. There was no full screen. The controls never disappeared. I couldn’t zoom. The sound was low, and because I have a team of laborers currently banging away at the exterior of my apartment building with hammers, I had to watch the whole thing with my headphones in and my laptop on my lap. I realize a normal, paying customer wouldn’t be experiencing these same difficulties, but I still think it’s worth noting some of the complications of a Post-Empire world.
Right, the movie. Sorry, it’s easy to forget that The Canyons is an actual movie, partly because it isn’t much of one. “More like The CanYAWNS,” would read the easiest review ever (how has no one made this joke yet?). It’s difficult to say whether The Canyons is ugly because it’s dull or dull because it’s ugly, but it’s certainly ugly and dull. Bret Easton Ellis has written about love tangles between over-dramatic young people with ambiguous sexuality and sociopathic tendencies before, notably in Rules of Attraction, which was turned into a pretty great Roger Avary film starring James Van Der Beek in his best role. But Rules of Attraction was sexy to look at, whereas The Canyons sort of looks like the desaturated “before” flashback in an infomercial. I know it was low-budget, but Jesus Christ, how many times are we expected to watch a character get out of their car and walk inside a building shot from across the street? Even Lindsay Lohan’s bare breasts come off bloodless and banal, and I’m rarely bored by bare breasts.
Bret Easton Ellis is famously obsessed with 50 Shades of Grey and was a big proponent of casting James Deen in the lead, so it makes sense that Deen would be playing a rich sex fiend named “Christian” in The Canyons (the male lead in 50 Shades is named Christian Grey, for those of you who unfamiliar with the work of Snowqueens Icedragon). Obviously, the best parts of The Canyons are when you can feel Ellis’s obsessions bleeding through. After years of writing compelling novels, he’s become, like Harmony Korine always was, his own most interesting character.
Coldness. Amorality. Deadness. Vicious and Unsympathetic Characters. Endless Nudity. Violence. I like these things in movies… #thecanyons
— Bret Easton Ellis (@BretEastonEllis) August 3, 2013
Oh, Bret. I do too! I loved it in American Psycho and Rules of Attraction and Less Than Zero! But a key element of those films were directors with a visual style, and The Canyons doesn’t seem to have that. The director is Paul Schrader, famous for writing (not directing) Raging Bull and Taxi Diver, and he just… doesn’t shoot a pretty scene. I know it’s a low-budget movie, but so was The FP. A low-budget movie can still have a look, but you can’t make a movie that’s supposed to be sexy and stylish without any sense of set or costume design. The sets, the outfits, the make up that Lindsay Lohan did herself – they all pretty much look like crap. I’m fine with movies about disaffection and alienation, but not when it feels like the people who worked on it seem as bored as the characters.
With no visual style, you’re left to focus on a story that seems like it’s supposed to be about the breakdown of social mores in the decadent Post-Empire millenial era (just like American Psycho was about the breakdown of social mores in the decadent eighties), but ends up feeling like an edgy afternoon special about a weirdly obsessed boyfriend. I won’t get too bogged down summarizing the narrative, but suffice it to say, every character is f*cking or has f*cked everyone else, and all the drama derives from that. Christian is this character who’s supposed to not care about boundaries or old-school morality, yet all of his monstrous acts occur apparently out of… jealousy? Really?
I’m not asking for humanism, like so many Bret Easton Ellis critics, but imagine American Psycho if Patrick Bateman only killed because he was angry about other dudes banging Evelyn. Also, Patrick Bateman (and Sean Bateman in Rules of Attraction) took a certain joy in acting out, whereas James Deen’s Christian just feels dismissive and bored. Sexy serial killers aren’t sexy if they’re just sullen and cunty.
Lindsay Lohan’s Tara is about as vacuous as Evelyn, yet we’re asked to believe that people care so much about her that she drives an entire narrative of backstabbing, intrigue, and murder. What? Why? Is it the cat’s eye make up? The collagen-ravaged Joker smile? Her acting is fine, but her character, as it’s written… no way that many people could care this much about her.
In The Inventor and the Tycoon, which I was reading a few weeks ago, there’s a section about early motion picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge, and Thomas Edison stealing elements of Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope for box-like devices that the viewer could look into to watch moving pictures. The fad ended up being short-lived when they figured out that people liked the social aspect of seeing a big image projected onto a screen and watching it as an event, more so than the solitary act of watching motion pictures like a peep show. It’s hard to deny the general decline of movies in terms of entertainment market share, but has human nature really changed that much since the 1890s? I’m not quite convinced about the whole end-of-movie-theaters thing.
Though it might be partly accidental, The Canyons, in its rush to declare the end of Empire, seems to have thrown out elements of the Empire that we still need. Like the part where movies are compelling and nice to look at. You might be able to convince me that the end of theater-going is nigh and the traditional studio release process is hopelessly outdated, but you’re not selling me on VOD taking its place with a movie that looks like shit and where everyone’s bored. The Canyons feels like it’s about a bunch of rich white people who care way too much about who everyone else is f*cking. At least, way more than me.