The Canyons vs Blue Jasmine
Refereed by Norman Douglas
Production Credits for The Canyons Production Credits for Blue Jasmine
Directed by ........................... Paul Schrader Directed by............................. Woody Allen
Written by ......................... Bret Easton Ellis Written by............................... Woody Allen
Produced by ........................ Braxton Pope Produced by......................... Letty Aronson
.................................................. Amine Ramer.............................................. Edward Walson
................................................. Michael Turner Music by.................... Christopher Lennertz
Tenille Houston ............................ CynthiaSally Hawkins.................................. Ginger
Peter Sarsgaard........... Dwight Westlake
Michael Stuhlbarg..................... Dr. Flicker
Tammy Blanchard............................. Jane
Max Casella...................................... Eddie
Alden Ehrenreich................ Danny Francis
Movie theaters have become plush, luxurious halls that approximate traveling first class on a cheap airline, complete with seats one can sink into and outsized cup holders on the arms. In his latest film, The Canyons, director Paul Schrader places a montage of defunct and abandoned cinemas behind the opening credits and the interstice titles that announce the story's three-day timeframe—Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday—reminding us that a gloom of mounting collapse outpaces these creature comforts. His latest film—financed with personal moneys shelled out by himself, writer Bret Easton Ellis, indie producer Braxton Pope and a host of Kickstarter fans—bears a title that recalls the fabled Laurel Canyon, L.A.'s bohemian enclave nestled in the Hollywood hills and made famous by the likes of Joni Mitchell, Carole King, and Neil Young—along with the glamorous sex and drugs and rock and roll lifestyle that they and their peers pursued. This era of Tinseltown's love affair with rock and roll marked the beginning of the end of the old Hollywood studio system. By the late seventies, the big moviemakers depended heavily on revenues from their music labels to stay afloat. Today, of course, even the music peddlers are struggling. From the crumbling marquee suspended over a windswept sidewalk to the monstrous contraption resembling a toppled immersion tank that is really a busted arc-light projector, Schrader's visual overture points to imperial Hollywood's collapse, an empire of symbols and signs that once prompted a nation's peoples to model their dreams after its flourishing drama-factories.
Fade to black and the drama opens on a claustrophobic dinner shared by two couples in a swank, intimate restaurant. Christian (James Deen) and Tara (Lindsay Lohan) square off opposite Ryan (Nolan Funk) and Gina (Amanda Brooks), with Christian doing his best to savor the sense of power and entitlement we later learn he has inherited from his father, a man we never meet but whose conditions require his son to wield what he's given. Affirming this role, Christian snidely asserts that nothing could make him endure ten days at the desert location chosen for the teen slasher film he's producing with dad's money, and with Ryan as the lead, though he'll make sure the checks get signed. His display of control soon lapses into coy allusions concerning the swinging sex-capades he enjoys with girlfriend Tara, insinuations that seem to disturb Ryan even as they go over the chosen lead's head. "Assignations," Christian condescends, "It means meetings. Hook-ups with other people. Online." The ladies—Gina is Christian's assistant and Ryan's girlfriend—suffer through behavior they've clearly seen before. Back home in his hillside mansion, Christian needles Tara about her discomfort, as if his toying with Ryan disturbed her. When Christian asks her, Tara denies having met Ryan. Before they can speak any further, one of the online hook-up guys arrives ("You've been picking a lot of guys lately," Tara comments), but Schrader has set up the film's central cat and mouse thread: Christian's zeal to discover the link between Tara and Ryan, and Tara's attempt to conceal it.
The next day—Tara and Ryan meet at a mall eatery, where Tara tells him the affair is over, that she won't give up the high life with Christian to go back to her low-life of struggle with Ryan. Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine quickly establishes his leading lady's (Cate Blanchett) dependence on a man's money, although Jasmine is forced to press on without her hubby Hal's (Alec Baldwin) deep pockets. On a flight to San Francisco, Jasmine chatters incessantly about herself to her captive seatmate. It's the kind of talk that reveals nothing deeper than the speaker's need to hide behind the words that cascade forth. Woody Allen has long proven an adept at weaving character and plot through dialogue so dense one can easily forget the story is actually going somewhere. This time, because he uses flashbacks to tell us about his characters, Allen's script seems more complex than the Bret Easton Ellis scenario that Schrader says he found no reason to change.
Before I go on, it may seem that comparing the way two old masters of cinema still drawn to practice their craft go about it is tantamount to the adage about apples and oranges. Yet, what drives both stories is their leading women's unabashed dependence on the money of moneyed men. Neither Jasmine nor Tara questions her need to live as a kept woman; it's their raison d'être and the force that moves both women to confront issues of sanity. At the same time, neither one behaves as though their men offer any emotional support. In Tara's case, the two male leads seem emotionally tested by her singular will to live comfortably, alive with pleasure. The Allen vehicle, which offers a glimpse of the lower classes that Ellis's script renders entirely unseen, thereby compares the sang-froid of his wealthy protagonists with the desperate neediness of the working class—especially its males.
To make his point, Allen weaves a tale that includes a rich back-story that he propels along in tandem with the present. This device allows him to reveal Jasmine's tragic choice—the flawed decision that sets her on the downward spiral that starts the film—for the penultimate scene. Allen's resort to the flashback references the concept that you can't go home again, nor undo the past, even though Jasmine's trip to San Francisco reunites her with sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins), both adopted while infants by their now-deceased parents. A single mother of two boys fathered by Augie (Andrew Dice Clay)—who later exposes Jasmine's duplicity—Ginger welcomes Jasmine by keeping her new man, Chili (Bobby Canavale), from moving in. While Allen seems to acknowledge the existence of family in his film, Ellis does not. On the other hand, Allen's families are hardly biological: the sisters are only sisters by adoption, Jasmine's son is a stepson, indicating that she is Hal's second wife, at best, Augie's relationship to the sons he fathered with Ginger is less than fulfilling for the boys and their dad. When Jasmine meets Dwight (Peter Sarsgard), he speaks of dad and his wife. And Al (Louis C.K.), Ginger's brief flame—the fact that he drives a mini-van doesn't raise Ginger's suspicions, though it did mine—leaves her humiliated when his irate wife phones to call her a home-wrecker and whore. Allen clearly states with this carousel of relations that the nuclear family is done and part—if not all—of Jasmine's unmoored circumstances owe something to our inability to commit to each other. Both sisters find themselves the object of three different men throughout the film, men whose needs come across as little more than salve for the ego. Inured to this kind of objectification, the women seem almost devoid of emotion, and the hysteria that Freud and others once believed located in the uterus seems to have moved on to the testes—or perhaps the gut ganglia of men, now touted as our second brain and the locus of gut feelings like butterflies in the stomach.
Ellis, by contrast, supplies only the sparest of information about his characters' pasts. Everyone in The Canyons is rootless. Families—whether siblings or parents—play no part in his characters' lives. The closest anyone comes to family is Christian's visit to the psychiatrist (Gus Van Sant) he must see as a condition of receiving his daddy's allowance. Besides identifying ex-lovers and collegial suitors, the people in The Canyons have no relationships beyond those that meet their immediate needs. Instead, relationships are cemented by money and sex, with the sex seemingly guaranteeing the receipt of money. When Ryan feels his role in the film is jeopardized, he easily concedes to fellate one of the co-producers—a scenario engineered by Christian in his increasingly bizarre effort to determine where Ryan's—and Tara's—loyalties lie. Tara's desire to remain a kept woman fills her with an emotional void that drives her back into Ryan's arms of an afternoon, despite her earlier avowal to drop him. Controlled by Christian's flaunted wealth and status, she takes advantage of one of their sexual adventures to force him into homosexual acts, humiliating him. Christian humiliates his ex-girlfriend, Cynthia (Tenille Houston), by offering her money after a sexual encounter, inciting her to avenge the insult by warning Tara that he is a violent psychopath. When he learns of Cynthia's attempted intervention, Christian unleashes that pathology on her. Apparently sated, the brutality that Christian's mounting obsession threatens to exact against Tara never materializes. Instead, she becomes his accomplice, even as she leaves him with the vow to steer clear of Ryan.
The film ends with a dinner scene bookending the opening. This time, Tara is coupled with another wealthy man, one who sits by quietly as his friend's date grills Tara about how things stand with Christian. Finished with this interrogation, the date excuses herself to call none other than the jilted Ryan, who has apparently resorted to the kind of pathological spying on Tara that Christian once engaged in. His loss has apparently pushed him to the same brink of violence suffered by Christian a year earlier.
Both films conclude with close-up shots of characters rendered insane. In Allen's film, Jasmine hears—but can no longer recall the words to—"Blue Moon," the song she has repeatedly told people played when she met Hal, her weepy gaze fixed on a void only she sees and addresses. In Schrader's film, it's a jarring musical crescendo straight out of the horror movies that confirms Ryan's madness as he stares into the camera.
These stories hinge upon deception and the danger it engenders. Further, each milieu is rife with personal isolation, societies so replete with any lack of connection that they function like tinderboxes that singe the most deceptive personalities with insanity, given the proper spark. Both Christian and Jasmine receive huge subsidies that ultimately serve more to weaken than augment their inner resolve. Christian's downfall is as rapid and impulsive as his aggressive lifestyle, occurring in a matter of mere days. Jasmine comes unhinged over the course of an entire season, moving at a pace as leisurely as her former upscale marriage and its entertainments. Much has been made of Allen's references to the Madoff affair—Jasmine and Hal's upper Manhattan digs are decorated with the same equestrian colonial paintings favored by the fallen, real-life financier—suggesting that the film is a study of this country's recent banking debacle. Schrader's use of the shuttered cinemas to frame his film and its chapters indicate a similar identification of personal collapse with that of another great American industry. In both cases, the films identify changing sexual relations—and relations between the sexes—as excerbating our personal behaviors even as they are exacerbated by collapse.
To arrive at very nearly similar conclusions of America's changing fortunes, the films pursue entirely different styles. Allen, of course, depends upon a rather traditional business approach to forward what amounts to a story that follows a very nearly Dostoevskyian map. Ellis and Schrader, along with producer Braxton, bet on personal financing and crowd sourcing methods to forward the writer's revisiting of his own stylized attacks on the superficiality endemic to America's self-centered upper class. Schrader imprints some of the visual elements that reference his earlier work: as Tara drives through L.A. to hear Cynthia's warnings, we see her eyes in the rear view mirror surrounded by passing lights, recalling Travis Bickle's wanderings through Taxi Driver's depressed New York streets. Schrader uses Brendan Canning's beat-centric, near-frenzied soundtrack to heighten the atmosphere of apprehension, as well as underscoring the car culture that defines L.A.'s sprawl and gives its residents so much time to navel-gaze. Allen typically resorts to the classic American songbook, making particular use of Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and above all, "My Baby Sends Me," aka "My Daddy Rocks Me (Part 1)," written by J. Berni Barbour and sung the hell out of by Trixie Smith.
Both narratives force the suspension of disbelief to arrive at their endings. In "Blue Jasmine," Andrew Dice Clay appears to drop the bomb that destroys the Blanchett character's hope for a happy ending. In "The Canyons," Christian's impulsive act—and the Lohan character's blind complicity—bears no real consequences, a fact that might be true in real life but would easily serve as the basis for an entire movie sequel. Such details adhere to the age-old rules of fiction, and hardly detract from the films' value as entertainment.
Ultimately, it is these directors' presentation of females subject to the male gaze—and beholden to male subsidy—that made me consider putting together this text. Hardly a feminist, I can only imagine that the writers' personal experiences as moneyed individuals has put them in a position superior to that of most others—male and female—in a capitalist nation that has crept back to its nineteenth century paradigm over the course of a single generation. The promise of a middle class life that the civil rights and feminist movements fought for was not denied them. It evaporated wholesale. The few white males who have enjoyed the upward mobility that everyone still incongruously seeks to attain find few peers with whom to share their success. Both films feature no people of color, an absence that is probably more honest than not. Lacking the kind of buffer cum finishing school that a viable middle class would offer anyone reaching the top, the attainment of wealth leads to a kind of addiction to same. Ironically, it is Lohan's character that emerges unscathed, an outcome due to her determined expression of her true motives. Jasmine, on the other hand, falls prey to the classic addict's resort to lies and deception, defenses that compound until they leave one isolated, victimized by one's own inability to acknowledge the truth. For Jasmine, it's telling that her break with reality leads her to forget the lyric, "Blue moon, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without a love of my own."
The worst thing about The Canyons is that it's being judged far more for Lindsay Lohan's history of substance abuse and James Deen's resume as a porn star than on its merits as a film. Fortunately, the film easily trumps all of our culture's weird moral predilections and, in the process, nearly forces us to reconsider them. While screenwriter Ellis can't help imposing his signature shock values onto an otherwise compelling send-up of the American Zeitgeist, Allen offers a not-so-different view of the same period, albeit via his own angst-addled humor. Viewers will likely find one film better suited to their individual tastes than the other, judgments I would venture are mainly a generational matter. As one who believes himself poised on the cusp between generations, I drew something from both.