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Knight at the Movies: Lovelace; The Canyons
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Once upon a time, folks who worked in the adult-film industry didn't have a prayer of a subsequent career in mainstream movies. Like the Mafia, once you were in, you were in for life. But in our age of high-tech, girls (and guys) gone wild amateur porn, it's not the career-buster it used to be. There are enough examples of both straight and gay performers who have made the leap to legitimacy to suggest that appearing in porn is no longer the career kiss of death it once was.

Yet the old truism still has validity: One might leave a porn career behind for brighter lights and bigger fame but—at the end of the day—Traci Lords, Colton Ford and their ilk are always going to be thought of as porn stars first and foremost. What's changed is that no one much cares anymore. Outside of the political arena (Anthony "Sexting" Weiner being the current example), has anyone working in porn or any celeb with an illicit sex tape suffered a major career setback?

Lovelace and The Canyons, two indie movies opening this week (in theaters and available VOD) circle around these old and new attitudes about porn—the first directly, the second obliquely. Lovelace, which traces the rise of America's first adult-movie superstar, Linda Lovelace, delves into the simultaneous glories and emotional costs of success as a porn performer (the old school of thought) while The Canyons—which stars James Deen, a current adult-film star—is a clear example of the culture's "so what" attitude.

Lovelace begins in the early '70s, when 19-year-old Linda Boreman (played by the excellent Amanda Seyfried) was living in Florida with her parents—her strict, tough, staunch Catholic mother (a terrifyingly good Sharon Stone) and her mostly silent, henpecked father (Robert Patrick). One night at a skating rink with her free-spirited best friend, Patsy (Juno Temple), Linda meets and falls for the dangerous swagger and dark good looks of Chuck Traynor (Peter Sarsgaard, terrific as usual). Chuck sees something in the skittish Linda and he woos her and quickly wins her over. He even makes inroads with Linda's parents, but not for long. Linda, hemmed in by her hellishly difficult mother, flees the house, moves in with Chuck and then marries him.

Sleazeball Chuck has soon led Linda, whom he has schooled in the intricacies of sex, into a host of sordid activities culminating in the making of Deep Throat, the porn movie that features Linda's talent for fellatio. Upon its release, the movie becomes a sensation at the moment when adult films seem poised to break through in America culture. Uneasy though she is, Linda enjoys her success but after a gala red carpet screening hosted by Hugh Hefner (a miscast James Franco), Chuck forces Linda to attend a late-night meeting with a potential producer and knowingly leaves her to be gang-raped. That's the wake-up call for Linda and soon after, she finally escapes Chuck's clutches.

At that point, out directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (following up on Howl, their offbeat movie about Allen Ginsberg) give us another, much darker view of these same events. In Rashomon style, we return to Linda and Chuck's sexually violent and abusive marriage (now the tacky frivolity of the first half of the movie), driven by the early-'70s fashions and mileau (a la Boogie Nights), as well as the spot-on casting of familiar faces. There are Hank Azaria as the porn director, Bobby Cannavale as a scummy producer, Chris Noth as the mob financier, Debi Mazar as the make-up girl and porn co-star, etc. Chuck inflicts one degradation after another on Linda until we arrive at Linda appearing on Phil Donohue touting her first autobiography, the aptly titled Ordeal.

"I just don't want to disappoint anyone," Linda has earlier commented shyly to a photographer who eventually becomes her second husband (Wes Bentley). This, the essence of her character, is something the movie could have used more of. Ironically, even a movie about Linda Lovelace's rather sad life uses her more for her body than her character—something Andy Bellin's script could easily have addressed and which the fearless Seyfried certainly could have conveyed.

Those interested in learning more about the making of Deep Throat are encouraged to check out Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey's entertaining and insightful 2005 documentary Inside Deep Throat, a perfect companion piece to Lovelace.

On paper (or perhaps a cocktail napkin) The Canyons must have seemed like a terrific idea. Combine the talents of Paul Schrader—the director of a spate of offbeat, gorgeously made films revolving around emotionally conflicted characters (American Gigolo, Cat People, The Walker, Light Sleeper, etc.)—with a script by Brett Easton Ellis, the bisexual, culturally controversial writer of books and screenplays about fabulously beautiful, fabulously emotionally frigid folks (Less Than Zero, The Informers, etc.). Hot and cold in one package, get it?

Add in the biggest stunt casting of the year—the aforesaid James Deen (nee Bryan Matthew Sevilla), a real-life heterosexual porn superstar paired with America's most troubled movie actor (now that Robert Downey Jr. has cleaned up his act), Lindsay Lohan. With Gus Van Sant playing the leading character's psychiatrist and the characters played by Deen and Lohan, as a Beverly Hills trust fund brat and his amour engaging in lots of sex with lots of other physically gorgeous partners, what's not to love? As it turns out, nearly everything.

"It's more fun to keep it more complicated," Christian, the trust-fund brat (Deen's character), announces regarding his relationship with Lohan's Tara, a girl from the valley who worked hard to land this hothead meal ticket and isn't about to lose it. But Tara, it seems, is also a girl who can't help it and when Christian, an indie movie producer, unwittingly hires her ex-boyfriend to star in a horror picture along with her, she can't resist a little hanky-panky (okay, a lot) on the side. But even though Christian's perfectly willing to watch Tara have sex with the women and men he's always inviting to his lush digs (while joining in on occasion himself), he's not about to let Tara enjoy a fling behind his back. This being Ellis and Schrader territory (don't forget, Ellis scripted American Psycho while Schrader scribed Taxi Driver), a violent murder can't be far behind.

Schrader's idea of a modern-day noir has promise but Ellis' script lets him down and leaves the actors adrift with no scenes to play—both Lohan and Deen have compelling moments, as do some of the other actors—but rather quickly even the copious amounts of simulated sex, in place of story and character momentum lose their ability to stimulate. When it comes to Ellis, modern-day ennui isn't nearly as fun as '80s New Wave ennui.

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