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canyons poster

Paul Schrader (Hardcore; Cat People) delivers a characteristically decadent study with this, his eighteenth film as a director. Scripted by Bret Easton Ellis of Less Than Zero and American Psycho fame, The Canyons is at once tawdry, elegant, and meanspirited, and one of the most notable films of the year.

An extremely frank narrative revolves around repulsively spoiled trust fund wastrel Christian (James Deen), who whiles away his days corrupting the people around him and manipulating them like so many toys. So as to satisfy his father that he has an occupation, he dabbles in movies as a producer, which brings him into indifferent contact with handsome, aspiring actor Ryan (Nolan Gerard Funk). Christian professes to like to keep his openly open marriage with slut wife Tara (Lindsay Lohan) comfortably “loose” and “complicated”, but finds more complication than he probably desires when he discovers that seemingly wholesome Ryan has a previous history with Tara.

A constant doom hangs over The Canyons, its title both geographically and thematically descriptive of this sun-baked but gloomy experience. Punctuating the film are images of the empty marquees and ruined interiors of once-glorious, now abandoned movie theaters serving at once as commentary on an industry and on the characters’ inner desolation. Hollywood’s stories about itself, from Sunset Boulevard, In a Lonely Place, and The Bad and the Beautiful through Day of the Locust, The Player, and Hollywoodland, have tended to be downbeat affairs, and The Canyons continues in that tradition – less gothically or spectacularly, perhaps, than the more grotesque entries in the genre, but no less despairing by any measure.

Classy in execution if totally tacky in subject matter, The Canyons is well worth seeking out. James Deen is perfectly detestable as Christian, Nolan Funk’s male beauty is appropriately vapid, and luscious but fading Lindsay Lohan is exquisitely cast as jaded but sympathetic hussy Tara.

4.5 stars. Ideological Content Analysis indicates that The Canyons is:

5. Anti-drug. “Why are you drinking tequila at noon?” The danger of date rape drugs receives mention.

4. Anti-gay. Homosexuality appears as a predatory symptom of personal and cultural decadence.

3. Class-conscious. Inherited, unearned wealth like Christian’s gives rise to degeneracy and arrogance.

2. Technology-skeptical. Y appears as a generation rotten in inception and already gone to seed, at once precocious and empty-headed, and incapable of conversing over drinks without texting or sexting simultaneously. One suspects that Schrader holds handheld and streaming technology to be at least partly to blame for the murder of those stately old movie houses. Technology, too, has contributed to these young ones’ flippancy with regard to sexual morality. “Nobody has a private life anymore” and “We’re all actors, aren’t we?” Identity theft also looms as a threat in the world of online everything.

1. Crypto-traditionalist/anti-slut. For all its blatant depravity, male frontal nudity, and other marks of deceptively casual nihilism, The Canyons views its characters through a detached but quietly tragic, judgmental, and conservative lens. “I’m just sick of the old school shit about fuckin’ propriety, etiquette, and all that crap [. . .] It’s like when you’re at your family dinner on Sunday and everyone’s just lying, lying . . .” Christian explains – and he and his peers suffer to the degree that they deviate from the outmoded norms. Christian’s name speaks for itself as a sarcastic commentary on an utterly godless generation given to hedonistic materialism and soulless egoism. The only thing missing from The Canyons is the compounded case of venereal pestilence these little horrors would (hopefully) catch if they lived as depicted for very long.

Sofia Coppola’s latest effort is very much her own. Bright, punchy, or ambient music, an elegant eye, and a sardonic sense of humor imbue yet another examination of rampant girldom with Coppola’s trademark sensibility. Unlike Lost in Translation or Marie Antoinette, however, The Bling Ring features no strong or particularly likable central protagonist, and is consequently a much more detached and ironic study than its predecessors.

The Bling Ring opens with shots of the Facebook pages of characters Marc (Israel Broussard), Chloe (Claire Julien), and Rebecca (Katie Chang) – an appropriate means of introduction in this true crime story set in an amoral teenage order founded on trendiness and popularity. All attending a high school for affluent problem kids, these are the more sophisticated and fashionable counterparts to the hedonistic nihilists in Larry Clark’s Bully, operating out of the sinister psychological intersection of thug chic and a privileged entitlement mentality.  Along with like-minded recruits Nicki (Emma Watson) and Sam (adorable Taissa Farmiga), the group combines its vapid interests in celebrity, pop criminality, and haute couture by committing a series of casual burglaries of the homes of Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and others.

An odd feature of these young people’s lives is how little concerned with love they appear to be. Tawdry apparel, dirty dancing, sex, and group acceptance interest them plenty, but these new teen creatures bear almost no resemblance to their grandmothers, the malt shop loiterers of old, with their puppy love crushes and idealism. The new teen queen is a kind of ravenous beast sustained by a constant regimen of dope, dainty baubles, irresponsible escapades, and protected from introspection by forbidding walls of abrasive music preoccupied with self-determined fabulousness.

It is difficult to watch The Bling Ring and not be reminded of another group of young Californians who targeted celebrity victims – namely, the Manson Family. In both cases, pathological fascination with the rich and famous, coupled with peer pressure, drugs, and an unhealthily violent cultural diet, result in celebrities being simultaneously venerated as idols and dehumanized as potential victims. Marc, reflecting on the meaning of his acts in the aftermath of his arrest, confides that after the story of his involvement hit the news, he received over 800 Facebook friend requests, suggesting that it is criminality itself as much as fame that attracts the adulation of the unsavory masses.

If The Bling Ring has any discernible shortcoming, it may be the dearth of surprising event, as the film proceeds along a fairly straight, predictable line as far as the plot. Apart from the signature Sofia Coppola seal in terms of color, design, and atmosphere, the film’s most attractive strength must be its delightful cast. Israel Broussard, featured in what, for lack of any real hero, is The Bling Ring‘s lead role, has a Byronic look and an enigmatic vulnerability that complements the Coppola aesthetic nicely; and all of the damsels in dissipation, from Katie Chang to Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, and Emma Watson, are irresistibly vile, divine, and luscious.

4.5 stars.  Ideological Content Analysis kisses Sofia Coppola’s ring and indicates that her most recent flourish as a dependable writer-director is:

11. Multiculturalist/pro-miscegenation.  People of different races interact as without the least consciousness of their physiological or cultural differences. One of the girls has a thug Latino boyfriend. The camera lingers longingly over untouchable Katie Chang.

10. Anti-wigger.  Pop veneration of the ghetto mentality goes hand in hand with nihilism, crime, and self-destruction.

9. Pro-police.  Authorities conduct their investigation and effect the necessary arrests professionally and without inflicting unnecessary harm.

8. Anti-religion.  Modern woman’s faith is junk spirituality, “the philosophy of the Secret”, a kooky, relativistic melange in which words like “Lord” rub shoulders indiscriminately with new age talk of “karma”.

7. Anti-gun.  Privately owned guns, this film appears to want to convince viewers in one very frightening scene, make homes less safe and endanger the mentally deficient.  However, the fact that one of the girls steals a gun and gives it to her thug boyfriend demonstrates that criminals are not above obtaining their guns illegally and that gun control legislation is therefore futile.

6. Philanthropy-skeptical.  One suburban family claims a commitment to charitable causes in Africa, but cannot identify the specific country where they are active.  This pretended philanthropy is played as a sympathy card after the girls are caught by the police.

5. Statist.  The pitiable demonstration of home schooling as practiced by one ditzy mother (Leslie Mann) is an implicit endorsement of public education.

4. Anti-drug.  Drinking and driving results in a non-fatal accident, which, however, fails to prevent the girls from going out and behaving just as carelessly as before. Accelerating substance abuse parallels the girls’ increasingly poor judgment and carelessness in their criminal endeavor.

3. Pro-gay.  Sexually ambiguous Marc shares his girlfriends’ interest in fashion (including high heel shoes) and refers to a male schoolmate as “hot”.

2. Class-conscious.  Coppola (perhaps responding to the criticism that Marie Antoinette depicted a self-absorbed aristocrat sympathetically without taking into consideration the economic plight of the French peasantry?) depicts moral decay as in part deriving from wealth and privilege (cf. Billy Madison).

1. Pro-family.  The horror wrought by permissive or absentee parenting is the unstressed theme that haunts The Bling Ring.

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