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The Canyons Oscillates Between Gay and Straight

Bret Easton Ellis, famous for creating louche, amoral characters, has created some fabulously reckless film industry folk in his smart screenplay for The Canyons, now available on VOD. The writer deemed the film–which is both seductive and sinister–a “neo-noir,” perhaps because it is a sordid tale of sex, betrayal, and violence set in Los Angeles, 2012.

Christian (James Deen), is a film producer romantically involved with Tara (Lindsay Lohan). This fun-loving couple frequently invites guys over for sexual activities that range from voyeuristic masturbation sessions to a fourgy. But despite this arrangement, when Christian suspects Tara of cheating on him with Ryan (Nolan Funk)–an actor in his new movie whose girlfriend, Gina (Amanda Brooks), is Christian’s assistant–he becomes hell-bent on revenge.

Yet one could look at The Canyons not as a noir per se, but as a dark comedy of manners–albeit one where anything goes except lying and betrayal.

“I was thinking about this notion of transparency,” Ellis insisted at the suggestion. “There is this struggle between this old guard that thinks it’s dangerous, and this new guard that thinks transparency is a good thing. You can’t get away with things you once got away with because of technology. And in Hollywood, with its ‘anonymous sources’ and stars keeping lives private, and this dying of cinema…there’s no going back. There’s too much information out there, too many people wanting transparency.”

As such, the film makes Tara and Ryan strivers who, despite having romantic feelings for each other, lie to their lovers, whom they use to better their lives. In contrast, Christian is an intriguing, flawed protagonist who may do unsavory things, but he is always honest. He is never apologetic, or ashamed.

“That’s who James [Deen] is! That’s how I am!” Ellis said. “Why do I write these characters? I don’t know. They just resonate with me. I think for every script to work, there has to be something personal in it, something you identify with. People talk about the surface amorality of my characters, but I do not approach them that way.”

He continued, “I identify with Christian. I don’t think he has to be likable. Christian does care about Tara. It is an important relationship, and I think he loves her. And though he can do whatever he wants (sexually, in their assignations), he feels deeply wounded and betrayed.”

Ellis added, “The ‘audience identifier’–to use the industry term–is Ryan, because he’s so trod upon. He has the least power in the film. I thought of actors I know [to create Ryan] and they do hit a level of desperation and get f—ed over. A lot, and that’s based on someone I know well.”

For the writer, the suspicious Christian reaches his breaking point “after Tara has him make out with another dude” during a fourgy. Ellis finds this moment to be the most shocking scene in the film. He defended it. “I don’t believe you can force shock. You have to have to be drawn to this material. I wasn’t thinking about being shocking. It was: this is what is going to happen. I don’t think you can effectively get to someone if you are faking it.”

The three main characters display a sexual fluidity that, like Ellis’, oscillates back and forth between gay and straight. He claimed, “That’s how I am and how I’ve always been. I relate to that, and I like it, and I want to see it. It comes from an emotional place. You write the book you want to read. You write the movie you want to see. I’m not trying to make a statement about sexual fluidity. I like to present (queer sex) in my work. I think it also brings a tension to things and complicates things. And I like to see if the actors go for it.”

While they do, both on screen and off, The Canyons offers enough titillation for viewers expecting a salacious film.

As for the actors, the writer holds Deen in high esteem. He acknowledged, “I was thinking about Deen when I was writing this. I thought of this nice-looking guy being dark. I see that in his porn: a goofy guy next door in one film, who shows a vastly different side in another.” The actor is incredibly magnetic here, and yes, he does have a full frontal scene that viewers unfamiliar with the porn star’s talents will appreciate.

Although Tara was written for another actress, Ellis admitted he didn’t have someone in particular in mind. “Lindsay came in and changed the character. The girl in the script was more vulnerable. I imagined Tara softer, not aggressive and challenging Christian. Lindsay gave it a spin and it worked.” He praised Lohan for being professional–knowing about lighting and angles–despite reports in the press to the contrary. And perhaps the rumors around The Canyons are just one of the industry’s ways of cutting this micro-budget film down to size.

Ellis revealed that the screenplay is “a summation of everything I’ve been through (in Hollywood). Working on indie films–and they’ve more often than not gone off the rails–it’s been frustrating and exhilarating. The Canyons became the expression of that.”

The “moribund film industry,” as Ellis referred to it, is referenced in the fantastic opening and end credit sequences that feature closed movie theatres in various stages of disrepair. The Canyons is as much a film about the decline of cinema as it is about the decline of love and the decline of trust. In fact, one of the best moments in the film has Tara ask Gina, “When is the last time you went to the movies and it mattered?” It’s an important question for serious moviegoers–the kinds of folks who should see and appreciate The Canyons.

Getting on his soapbox, Ellis stated, “I see 5 movies a week, and have for a couple of years. American cinema was a place for auteurs, and unless you have a patron like (producer) Megan Ellison, it’s difficult to do that. And while more movies are being made, this idea of the great films of the 1970s happening again–we’re never going back to it. It’s been a depressing summer. There’s one usually good studio tent pole, but not yet. The spring was weak, too.”

However, Ellis remained optimistic. “I still have the urge to go to a movie, and I like to go to the theatre. It could change, but overall, it seems to be that people don’t care as much about movies. They gravitate to TV. Being swept away by a wall of images, what does it mean anymore? I wrote that credit sequence as a response to that.”

Ellis also indicated that he wrote The Canyons in response to the new trend of making films. “The studio system is dead, so now we have to move to this new way of–I can’t call it filmmaking–but content creation. It’s devised to be watched on your laptop. We’re selling the film by tweeting about it. In the end, it was a great experience. And it does reflect everything I felt about Hollywood–my switch from entering into the high-end indie world, which is dying, to this new world of do-it-yourself. It’s been the best experience that I’ve had after projects not happening or happening and going badly. I never wrote a script so fast, and writing it knowing it won’t change gave me freedom. I realize I can never do this any other way.”

© 2013 Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of the forthcoming “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” You can follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.