The Canyons, an independent film written and directed by Bret Easton Ellis and Paul Schrader respectively, was one of the most anticipated American movies of 2013 within the cineaste community. Here was Paul Schrader, the legendary writer of Taxi Driver and director of Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, collaborating with the acclaimed writer of gritty dramas like Less Than Zero and American Psycho. And they were making a largely self-financed film with some crowdfunding, purportedly freeing themselves from the death grips of the likes of Harvey Weinstein. Other tidbits surrounding the movie further titillated the cinephile community, like the casting of the troubled but talented Lindsay Lohan in a possibly career-altering role and the real-life adult film actor James Deen, every hipster girl’s favorite pretty boy porn star.
In his long and esteemed career, Schrader has not only been a screenwriter and a director but also a highly respected film scholar-critic. And in the September-October 2006 issue of Film Comment, Schrader penned a long article titled Canon Fodder, the byproduct of his abandoned effort at writing a book about a cinematic canon, modeled on the literary scholar-critic Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon. As a compromise, he listed his film canon arrived at as a result of the effort. He also offered in the article the prediction that the “human narrative” as we know it would end: “The demise of Art’s human narrative is not a sign of creative bankruptcy. It’s the twinkling of changes to come. Such thoughts fill me not with despair but envy: I wish I could be there to see the curtain rise.”
In spite of making such a prediction, Schrader went on to make two conventional narrative films in Walker and Adam Resurrected in 2007 and 2008. Both were critically panned, but in his defense, these were studio films. These failings and the extensive research that went into his aborted book may have pushed him to want to make a non-studio film. And many held high hopes for The Canyons. What can two acclaimed artists create outside the constraints of Hollywood? Both Ellis and Schrader stated in their Kickstarter campaign that the primary motive behind the self-financing and crowdfunding was artistic liberation from the studios.
But their partnership resulted in an inert void of a film that tried to pass off its nothingness as somehow embodying the nihilism in today’s zeitgeist. Even Lindsay Lohan’s inspired performance that sublimated her real-life troubles was not enough to offset the terribly pedestrian script and a predictably deflating performance by Deen. At best, it was a fluff attempt at creating a gripping pulp noir. So what happened? Was Schrader correct in predicting the end of the human narrative? Is that why he tried to fill the gaping emptiness of The Canyons with the large erect penis of a real-life porn star?
The hard truth is that Schrader simply has run out of ideas. Schrader was incorrect in 2006 when he said that the human narrative is on the verge of a demise. But ironically enough, The Canyons revealed in its chasm the creative bankruptcy in Schrader’s own film, and by extension that of much of American three-part narrative cinema.
The human narrative as Schrader sees and understands it may seem exhausted, but cinema will adapt by expanding on that old limited paradigm. There has been an increasing praise for films by people like “Joe” Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Hong Sang-soo and Claire Denis. And that might mean a decrease in influence for the traditional Western patriarchal narrative structure which Schrader obviously favors, but to say that this trend forebodes the demise of the human narrative is well…to be patriarchal and Eurocentric.
Schrader missteps further when he states that aesthetics itself, like the three-part narrative structure he deems to be the sole human narrative, inherently has a beginning, middle, and an end: “Aesthetics, like the canon, is a narrative. It has a beginning, middle, and end. To understand the canon is to understand its narrative. Art is a narrative. Life is a narrative. The universe is a narrative. To understand the universe is to understand its history. Each and every thing is part of a story—beginning, middle, and end.”
Does Andrei Tarkovksky’s The Mirror have a beginning, middle, and an end? Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou? Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and At Land? Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil? Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century and Mysterious Object at Noon? And what about Hong Sang-soo’s entire body of work?
Schrader is fatally caught up within his rather provincial view of art and narrative. He seems to believe that the landscape of contemporary cinema is arid. But while the current state of the American three-part narrative cinema may provide slim pickings, this could not be further from the truth in terms of global cinema in all of its manifestations.
But even in a time of such originality and daring, as a prisoner of the strictly linear three-part narrative, Schrader simply fails to see all that is out there. He would not suffer from envy for the curtain rise of this newly evolved form of humanity and the accompanying narrative if he were not so blinded by his own biases. Instead, he could see and revel in all the exciting things going on in the world of cinema.
He refuses to concede his own limitations—which, by the way, have not been caused by any kind of an intellectual shortcoming but an unwillingness to look beyond the cultural paradigm in which he grew up. Much of the world does not even believe in the linearity of the universe or life. For example, the belief in a more cyclical order of things is at the heart of Apichatpong’s films. The genius of his cinema is that he is able to convey such millennia-old belief not in the stories themselves but also in the narrative form.
What Schrader’s aborted book project and the residual article ultimately remind me of is the German literary scholar Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Mimesis, while an absolutely towering work of scholarship, fails miserably in its final chapter. As a man whose life spanned the end of 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, Auerbach could not understand and therefore mercilessly panned the modernist literature of Woolf, Proust, and Joyce. He argued that Western literature more or less exhausted itself with Flaubert—a perspective eerily similar to Schrader’s end-of-the-narrative argument. In the end, both Auerbach and Schrader, in spite of their intellectual brilliance, seem to be limited by a rather myopic adherence to a paradigm.
In the end, Schrader’s own provincial musings on what cinema has been and can be were a precursor to and a predictor of his failings with The Canyons. The mere escape from the constraints of the studios does not automatically lead to the more daring escape from the limitations of the three-part narrative cinema which has too long been reliant on the forms of the traditional Western novel. Cinema can be experiential, sensorial. It can jar our idea of temporal dimensions. The art form of cinema is most definitely not dead, and certainly not because Paul Schrader has run out of ideas.