The knives have been out for Paul Schrader’s The Canyons, which starts Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen in a tale of sex and murder in the Hollywood Hills, since the New York Times Magazine ran a wickedly sharp account of the filming titled “Here Is What Happens When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie.” (Hint: Nothing good.) An unnamed source at SXSW leaked the news that the film had been rejected for “quality issues,” a major ethical breach for which festival director Janet Pierson subsequently apologized. The few minutes of footage which turned up on YouTube looked embarrassingly amateurish; if someone on the inside had wanted to sink the film’s chances at a distribution deal, that would have been the footage to leak.
With nowhere to go but up, The Canyons’ fortunes have since lifted somewhat. IFC picked up the movie, now scheduled for an Aug. 2 day-and-date release; critics Kent Jones and Scott Foundas lent supportive quotes for the press release, and now Schrader has written a brief but fascinating sketch of Lohan for the new issue of Film Comment, a reminder that before he was a great filmmaker, he was a great critic. Where the Times Magazine piece paints Schrader as a desperate filmmaker looking for a name, however tarnished, to buoy his sinking fortunes, Schrader’s piece shows a keen awareness of Lohan’s weaknesses as well as her strengths, and how they are intimately intertwined. In the opening paragraphs, he riffs on the oft-drawn parallel between Lohan and an earlier starlet with self-destructive tendencies: Marilyn Monroe.
Similarities? Tardiness, unpredictability, tantrums, absences, neediness, psychodrama — yes, all that, but something more, that thing that keeps you watching someone on screen, that thing you can’t take your eyes off of, that magic, that mystery. That thing that made John Huston say, I wonder why I put myself through all this, then I go to dailies.
Monroe and Lohan exist in the space between actors and celebrities, people whose professional and personal performances are more or less indistinguishable. Entertainers understand the distinction. To be successful, a performer controls the balance between the professional and personal, that is, he or she makes it seem like the professional is personal. It is the lack of this control that gives performers like Monroe and Lohan (and others) their unique attraction. We sense that the actress is not performing, that we are watching life itself. We call them “troubled,” “tormented,” “train wrecks” — but we can’t turn away. We can’t stop watching. They get under our skin in a way that controlled performers can’t.
The Canyons may turn out to be a fiasco. But if nothing better than Schrader’s essay comes out of the process, it will have been worth it.