Shopping and Fucking: “The Canyons”




Shopping and Fucking: “The Canyons” by Naomi Fry

Looking beyond a world of affectless, trust-funded sexual libertines.

August 17th, 2013 reset - +

THE PAST FEW MONTHS have been a banner period for a certain type of movie: the type in which bored yet covetous youngsters are shown performing some variation on the quintessentially American, pleasure-mad rituals of partying, shopping, and fucking. In March, Harmony Korine’s Florida bacchanal Spring Breakers portrayed four hardhearted but foxy co-eds, “wanting penis” and excitement, who stick up a fried chicken shack and, with the spoils, finance a voyage to St. Petersburg, where the nights are always young and the keg-stands never end. Hooking up with the novelty rapper/drug dealer Alien, two of the co-eds, having shed their softer friends, embark on a robbery and murder spree, armed only with neon-colored bikinis, pink balaclavas, and semi-automatic weapons. Though there’s more fucking and partying than there is shopping in Spring Breakers, the commodity, fleshly and otherwise, is still God here. When, in a scene that has already become a cult classic, we see the flush Alien showing off his St. Pete’s manor and demanding that the girls “look at all [his] shit!” we know that despite the moment’s overt ludicrousness, they are looking, and that they’re already counting on Alien’s end and the onset of their own moment of possessive individualism. After all, these are the girls who, after robbing the chicken shack, mash the ill-begotten gains against their impossibly toned bodies and claim that “seeing all this money makes [their] puss[ies] wet.”

Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring, which came out in June, continued Spring Breakers’ preoccupation with insatiable kids behaving badly by adapting the true story of a group of well-to-do San Fernando Valley teens who, in the late 2000s, robbed celebrity homes for luxury clothes, accessories, and jewels. Where Korine’s neon-hued acid flashback of a movie is impressively, almost fascistically overwhelming, Coppola’s movie is slighter and more conventional. Still, the two films focus on parallel, often overlapping themes — in Korine’s case, the protagonists’ bodies and the things they do with them; in Coppola’s case, the protagonists’ things and the things they do with them — and both critique their subjects only to the extent they indulge in and share their obsessions, and self-obsessions. The role played in Coppola’s movie by a shiny, lovingly displayed row of designer heels in the soon-to-be-looted Paris Hilton’s closet is filled, in Korine’s movie, by starlets Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson’s bikinied posteriors, as the girls saunter away from a crime scene in lockstep. In both scenes, these things look really good, really iconic; in both cases, too, they’re supposed to augur some sort of dystopian, menacing near-future, heavy on selfies and light on psychological interiority.

And now, we have The Canyons, the much-talked-about indie “micro-budget” collaboration between Paul Schrader, who directed, and Bret Easton Ellis, who wrote the script. Initially, it would appear that this pair’s film would fit right in with Korine’s and Coppola’s. After all, the world of affectless, trust-funded sexual libertines has been a kind of fixation for Ellis over the past three decades, while Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980) famously kicked off the 80s by showing an incredibly handsome man — so handsome he could sell his body for a living — select Armani threads from a blonde-wood cabinet while rubbing coke on his gums. Adding to this zeitgeist-y impression was the filmmakers’ choice to not only finance the movie via a social media campaign, and cast some of its actors through virtual auditions (the future is here! We’re together alone!), but, most notably, to select two especially controversial performers as the movie’s leads: the legendarily troubled actress Lindsay Lohan (one of the real-life Bling Ring’s celebrity victims, as well as an occasional alleged shoplifter of luxury merchandise in her own right), and the so-handsome-he-actually-does-sell-his-body-for-a-living porn star James Deen.

The opening scenes of the movie seem to affirm the sense that for better or worse, The Canyons, like Korine’s and Coppola’s films, will continue to situate us in a miasma of commodities and interpersonal estrangement. We see Tara (Lohan) and Christian (Deen), a good-looking couple, having drinks at the Chateau Marmont with another attractive pair, Ryan (Nolan Funk) and Gina (Amanda Brooks). Christian is that familiar Ellis staple: a jaded, sexually debauched manipulator and cokehead whose grandparents “own like half of Thousand Oaks.” The slightly worse-for-wear but still “hot” Tara is Christian’s girlfriend, who participates in loveless threesomes and foursomes at his behest, partly, it is understood, to continue to live the good life in his Malibu mansion. (Her involvement in Christian’s indifferent attempt to produce a low-budget slasher movie is described by another character as a respite from the boredom of “shopping and fucking.”) Like Tara, Gina and Ryan are lesser planets pulled into Christian’s moneyed orbit. Gina is Christian’s assistant, and Ryan is the quintessential beefcakey young actor just looking for a break, who, we soon discover, managed to score the lead in Christian’s B-movie thanks to the affair he’s having with Tara on the DL.

Later, back at Christian and Tara’s handsome house, the two welcome “Reed,” a guy Christian scored off an online hookup app, a scene that can be taken as a “look at all my shit” moment for Christian. “She’s hot, right?” he asks Reed leeringly, motioning towards Tara — her extensions lush, her black-patent Louboutins high and spiky — and Reed answers approvingly, “Way hotter than the pictures you sent me.” But something else — and weirder — starts to happen here. Small, inoffensive expanders in his ears, his Abercrombie & Fitch-esque distressed jeans low on his hips, his hair frost-tipped, Reed isn’t ugly exactly, but he’s also not really handsome, certainly not movie-star-material handsome. He is what we might call “mall-attractive.” For once, we’re not looking at what Schrader has described as Ellis’s forte: “Beautiful people doing bad things in nice rooms.” Told to “get comfy” by Christian, Reed takes off his clothes and sits down to watch Christian and Tara have sex, tugging reflexively, monkeyishly, on his flaccid penis. “I like the idea of someone looking at something they can’t have. It’s a guy thing: power, control,” Christian says to Tara, explaining why he’s begun inviting “dudes” rather than girls into their ménage. “But sometimes they do have me,” Tara says, confused. “It was just those two times,” Christian mutters defensively. “You didn’t seem to mind.”

While Christian is still thinking in terms of spectacle here — of retaining the envy-inducing distance of a desiring stranger, watching rather than having — Tara can see beyond that moment: Abercrombie & Fitch–wearing dudes can look at her, and they may not actually even get fully hard, but if they do, they can have her, no problem, especially if Christian is still paying for her shoes, lingerie, and much else besides. Christian, for his part, has some power, but he’s starting to lose it. There are too many Reeds, and once you let them in, what will end up happening? This, of course, fits in with The Canyons’ striking if somewhat heavy-handed opening-credits sequence, which features images of old movie theaters that have fallen into disrepair. The point is clear: spectacular Hollywood movies are dead; long live the Kickstarter-funded shoestring production, where looking can, increasingly, turn into touching. Tara’s no-big-deal sexual willingness evokes the half-mercenary/half-intimate economy of crowd-funded endeavors (while it’s true you probably didn’t get to have sex with Bret Easton Ellis if you pledged to give the production $3,000, you did get to work out for a week alongside him and his personal trainer). It also recalls the anti-spectacular, almost sluttishly easy viewing practices that are encouraged by on-demand movies such as Schrader’s: on the laptop in bed, on the iPad in the bathroom, on the iPhone on the subway, and so on.

But I think that there’s something significant here beyond new ways to make and watch movies, and that is The Canyons’ highlighting of the anti-spectacular as a model for what capitalism in America feels like right now. In fact, I’d argue that The Canyons is an important movie because it identifies how desperately many of us still want to believe that the larger-than-life, commodified good life is still available to us, and how much we yearn to repress whatever and whoever punctures this hope.

One thing that has been notable about Bret Easton Ellis’s work up until The Canyons was his concentration on a world that seemed largely unconcerned with social stratification. Certainly, the near-exclusive focus on a wealthy but morally bankrupt milieu could be taken as its own comment on class relations; nonetheless, representations of a more wide-ranging social panorama have figured only on the periphery of Ellis’s novels, mostly as a way to throw his affluent protagonists’ characters into higher relief (the homicidal disgust American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman feels towards the poor and homeless is one such case in point). Economic struggle is never part of the picture in an Ellis novel; as the rich, drug-dealing-for-kicks teenager Rip says with a laugh in Less Than Zero: “The trust is keeping things steady for now. I might go back [to deejaying] when it runs out. Only problem is, I don’t think it’s ever gonna run out.” (When we encounter Rip in Zero’s 2010 sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, we see that he is, indeed, still as wealthy as ever).

The Canyons’ screenplay, however, is notable for Ellis’s uncharacteristic engagement with central protagonists who have, so to speak, “run out.” Tara used to date the broke, perennially bartending Ryan when she, too, was still a struggling actress, but left him because she couldn’t take the drudgery. And now, even though she loves him, she can’t be with him, since she needs “someone to take care of [her].” Meeting Ryan in the blandly unglamorous Century City shopping mall, Tara insists on her unwillingness to leave Christian for him, since she’d then be forced to once again “[tend] bar for eight bucks an hour.” “I’m not going back to that,” she whisper-yells. “We couldn’t even pay the fucking rent!”

While it’s true that Spring Breakers and The Bling Ring are both, in a skewed sense, tales of attempted upward mobility and the price paid for it (in the former, bloodshed; in the latter, incarceration), the two movies rely on the understanding that there is still a spectacularly glorious position one can aspire to move up to. These movies’ critique — or even just their representation — of the crass desire for money and the things it can buy hinges on the belief that American commodity culture, in this day and age, is still as iconic and robust as it ever was. Whether the kids are shown robbing 2000s idol Paris Hilton’s dream pad in The Bling Ring or mock-singing decade-old Britney Spears and Nelly mega-hits in Spring Breakers, it’s almost like the recession never happened. The Canyons, however, is not a movie that pretends we’re still living in the early 2000s. Manohla Dargis suggested in her review in The New York Times that the film’s budgetary limitations are “painfully apparent” in “repeated scene-setting images of Christian’s Malibu mansion,” but I’d argue that while the movie’s relatively reduced look may derive from its low production costs, it also dovetails exactly with the story it’s trying to tell. Christian’s mansion is indeed the only big-ticket location shown, but its uniqueness bespeaks its anomalousness. The places we get to see besides are Ryan and Gina’s nondescript apartment, with its IKEA throw rugs, chintzy prints, and luxury-on-a-budget backyard Jacuzzi; or failed actress/yoga instructor Cynthia’s “eastside” place, with its New Age paper lanterns, sad, flapping Venetian blinds and random hat rack. The objects in this movie are non-delectable. Even the supposed private-jet-owning layabout Christian is shown occasionally wearing a Bluetooth device, just one of a number of cheapish mass-produced accoutrements the film employs.

Christian’s violent obsession with not letting Tara go — and his hounding of Ryan and, subsequently, his friend Cynthia, for conspiring along with Tara against him — speaks to a murderous need to annihilate those struggling near-haves on the margins who threaten to storm the mansion gates. And yet, the storming has already begun, and can’t easily be impeded. In yet another hookup mid-movie — a foursome that includes a man and a woman this time — Tara encourages Christian to kiss the man, and then tells the man to suck Christian off. “I didn’t feel in control. I felt objectified. Usually I direct the scene,” Christian complains afterwards to his therapist. There’s something else here, apart from the palpable gay panic: Christian prefers to look, to observe the actors that, crucially, he could have — in this case, Tara and the nameless woman cavorting sapphically — and here, he suddenly finds himself in the thick of it, not having but being fully “had.”

But in the words of X-Ray Spex’s Poly Styrene, “I like to consume, because if you don’t, it consumes you,” a lesson Christian remembers well as The Canyons reaches its denouement. “Nod for me, baby,” he tells Tara as he pressures her for an alibi that would cover his seemingly random murder of the striving Cynthia. Tara nods, automaton-like. She knows which side her bread is buttered on, and the end of the movie sees her sitting at the side of another rich man at yet another dinner, speaking of the recent trip she took with him to Dubai, where she “shopped [and] laid out.” Going to the restroom, one of the women having dinner with Tara pulls out a cell phone and calls Ryan, sitting alone at home, to report back on his former paramour. “She looks happy, even if she’s totally faking it,” the girl says, as Ryan listens miserably, tensely. With this, it might seem as if the Christians of the world have won, while the Ryans have lost: the former shopping and fucking in Dubai, the latter sitting alone in a shitty, darkened apartment, a poster that looks like something Ed Hardy could have designed on the wall above them. But in the movie’s final shot, right before the screen goes black, Ryan turns to the camera and abruptly stares right at it, at us. He’ll be back, his gaze suggests, and somebody is going to pay. Occupy Malibu!

¤

Naomi Fry has written for The London Review of Books, n+1, Frieze, and many other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.

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