Directed by Paul Schrader and written by Bret Easton Ellis, The Canyons is a 90-minute movie with a sleek/drab realtors’ look, set up on Kickstarter for about $250,000. It brings Lindsay Lohan back to that antique place, the movie screen, after years of owning so many hipper screens as she drifted between court and rehab. It is also being released in part on the Internet—a sign of the future or a farewell to the past? But were those reasons enough for making it? Or is there any way of escaping how awful, dull, and unnecessary it is? Lohan shows us her breasts and there is a dispirited simulation of sex and sexual jealousy. There is an “orgy” that would have looked archaic and blurred in 1968 (when orgies still had self-respect). But all The Canyons demonstrates is the failure of movies now to get excited about sex. Go back to 1982 and look at Schrader’s Cat People, an astonishing gasoline-burning sexual fairy tale, with Nastassja Kinski in the flesh (all of it) and David Bowie on the sound track.
Lovelace is also geared to the past and the loss of desire. Linda Boreman was a so-so pretty woman taken up by a man named Chuck Traynor. He seduced her, married her, and led her into making pornographic movies, one of which, Deep Throat, became a sensation in 1972 because it played with the conceit that the woman’s clitoris was in her throat, which was why she was bound to give oral sex until her cheeks wore thin. Linda—by then known as Linda Lovelace—did fellatio in that film. It wasn’t simulated, or done tactfully in framed close-ups. It was just done, and millions of people all over the world reckoned that they might copy it. Linda Lovelace was naïve (or stupid), exploitable, and bitter when she realized how little of the loot she was getting. So she became a crusader against pornography before she died in 2002, at the age of 53.
Lovelace is a feature film, written by Andy Bellin and directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, who made The Times of Harvey Milk in 1984. Amanda Seyfried plays Linda; the film has given her freckles and a suspect complexion to tame Seyfried’s beauty and show that Linda Boreman was just an ordinary victim, as opposed to a witless icon who altered behavior. The assumption of Lovelace is that having sex means having a sad time, and I suppose there is a stuffed, politically-correct audience prepared to believe that (though not at TNR). Of course Amanda Seyfried doesn’t repeat the achievement of her model and give head in Lovelace. She’d have declined the picture if that had been asked of her. In this way she is 40 years behind Linda’s time.
But she can’t stop being attractive and a good actress, and no matter that Linda ends her life proud of being “Linda Marchiano,” the film has the title it has because “Marchiano” would get the wrong idiot audience. Lovelace doesn’t do the ’70s very well, and it settles for the idea that pornography is a lousy, cruel business, which no doubt it is. But the film prefers to forget the larger context—that porn now exists in a culture that thinks of it as milk and cookies. The real Ms. Boreman (truly, it’s the key name) behaved like a dunderhead, for which Seyfried’s bubbly brown hair is just an evasion from the way this mindless young woman actually changed the climate in which we live. A lot of you like head, no matter that Lovelace ducks its weary head and says, “What a pity!”
So your reviewer was listless and forlorn in search of genuine stimulation trying to write about these two films, when “Ray Donovan,” played by Liev Schreiber as the anti-hero of the new Showtime series, came to his rescue. Ray, the L.A. fixer, is in mounting trouble. He’s in his city apartment when Ashley (Amber Chylders) comes calling with her mission in life. She wants Ray to fuck her. He scowls; he’s so busy and so harassed. But then the girl handcuffs herself to a railing in the bathroom and flushes the key down the toilet. “Now you’ll have to fuck me,” she says. But Ray is a professional. He turns on the radio and leaves Ashley in cuffs while he gets on with business.
Hours later, at the close of a hard day, he realizes that Ashley must still be handcuffed to the rail. So Ray calls Lena (Katherine Moennig), his Girl Friday. She is tall and dark, the best looker on the show; she sits by the phone and a computer screen, and handles things for Ray. There’s a situation, he tells her, and Lena says she’ll take care of it. So she goes to the apartment with a metal cutter. When she comes in, Ashley perks up and blurts out the God’s truth and the question that interests anyone who’s been with the show. “You’re hot. Do you fuck him?”
Lena begins to look hostile, whereupon Ashley cringes a little and says, “Don’t hit me. I’m an epileptic.” That’s enough for Lena, who delivers a right cross worthy of the late Emile Griffith that puts Ashley in a moaning heap. Maybe it’s my flawed character, and an unruly sense of farce allied to sex, but this was the most erotic moment on screen I saw all week, just as “Ray Donovan” is so way ahead of Lovelace or The Canyons in conveying the sexed swagger of Los Angeles. “Ray Donovan” is the one of these three items to watch—so long as you can live with a little nastiness, and in America in 2013 you have few excuses for being protected from that. “Ray Donovan” is very nasty, and if that’s too much for you there’s always “Dexter,” “Breaking Bad,” or an interview with Larry Summers.
The Canyons is inept and de-energizing, and Lindsay Lohan is enough to make you cry. As a kid she had a memorable smile and a tomboy charm. No one insisted on her being an international sexpot or a great actress. Probably no one knows how to rescue her from the greased slide of her celebrity. But she is deadly in this film and she looks tragic. She was 26 when The Canyons was shot, and she could be her own mother.
As for Amanda Seyfried, regard Lovelace as a career move. It is made by documentarians who show more concern for feminism than for fiction or fantasy. Seyfried certainly can be sexy: In a little picture, Chloe, directed by Atom Egoyan, she seduced both Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore. She’s 27 and looks it. She’s going to be all right until her glowing eyes give way to tiredness.
As for Katherine Moennig, she has nothing but sexual confidence, an aura of mystery and the ability to kick the shit out of a bimbo. Sex at the movies is about expectations, and if “Ray Donovan” doesn’t tell us a lot more about Lena before the end of the first series it doesn’t deserve Showtime. That one scene with Ashley is already in the pantheon of filmed sexy moments, because it suggests that sexual authority and carnal power are dark pleasures. But there’s as much fun in The Canyons and Lovelace as there must be in Chernobyl.
David Thomson is a film critic for The New Republic.