Americana Film Studies: Interview with Stephen Lee Naish. By Lydia Plantamura

Stephen Lee Naish

Get your IMDb app ready, because Stephen Lee Naish loves to reference both mainstream and independent films in this interview with Film Matters intern, Lydia Plantamura. Writing on a range of subjects in American films from digital manipulation in film editing, to the Mumblecore subgenre of the Obama era, to the quirky career of Dennis Hopper, Naish has authored two books: U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film and Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper. His anticipated third work, Deconstructing Dirty Dancing is set for release in April of 2017.

Lydia Plantamura: You introduce your first book, U.ESS.AY, as the result of your “dissatisfaction with contemporary American cinema.” Many film viewers would agree with you that the digital age has produced films that offer visual spectacle, but ultimately ring hollow. What are current American films missing?

Stephen Lee Naish: From a mainstream perspective, there is an obvious lack of originality in modern mainstream cinema that I feel every time I visit a multiplex. There is far too much reliance on reboots, sequels, comic book adaptations, and remakes. There is still a sense of creativity at play, but Hollywood is just a machine of extreme commerce. That being said, it’s like being a casual drug user. I take a hit of spectacle of cinema and feel utterly elated for a few hours. Then the effects wear off and I’m left feeling completely hollow. But, I’ll do it again the next week just to feel that same high again. Independent films are still providing complexity and engaging narratives, but they have no chance to compete among these bigger films. That I find disappointing.

LP: Is there anything of value in modern American cinema?

SLN: It depends on what you’re looking for and what it is you value in film. If you value entertainment and escapism, which I certainly do, then you’re in luck, because modern mainstream cinema is extremely entertaining and escapist. If you crave a film with depth, or one that will shock and awe, or that strives to be more intellectual, then you have to search harder. Those films exist; I’ve been utterly obsessed with Ridley Scott’s The Counsellor [2013], which is so dark, and contains all these philosophical monologues and discussions about cause and consequence. It’s a bewildering film, and it comes from the mainstream.

LP: Where can audiences look to find more satisfying films?

SLN: Engage with local film and art communities. If your city holds a film festival, show up and watch as many films as possible, talk with the filmmakers, the actors, the editor, because making films is tough, and sometimes the satisfaction of watching a film comes from knowing how much work went into making them. If your city has an indie theatre try and go when you can and don’t be intimidated to request certain films for them to screen. I’ve always found film screenings that take place outside the cinema space amazing experiences. Films screened in parks, bars, art galleries offer a much more communal experience.

LP: What do you think filmmakers of the digital age should be doing differently?

SLN: I think the changes in how films are presented and watched have already happened. Filmmakers are clued in to where the biggest potential audience awaits them, and that is now online. Netflix, for example, is overflowing with film-quality produced content that can be limitless in which direction it can go. Making films for general release can be restricting when taking into account financial returns, censorship, and rating systems. Online, this is hardly an issue. Take a look at the third series of Black Mirror [2011- ]. They’re like mini movies, bold, original, horrifying, life-affirming, and completely satisfying. This also changes the idea of what a film is and can be.

I’m also seeing current filmmakers really stepping up their game and engaging with an audience before a film has even entered production. Through crowdfunding campaigns, films like Blue Ruin [2013] and The Age of Stupid [2009] generate interest and debate before the film hits the theatres. Social media is also keeping a filmmaker’s audiences in the loop and involving them far more in the creative process.

LP: Contemporary films don’t just look different than the classics, but they also sound different. In multiple essays you write about music. In the chapter “Hip-Hopp” from Create or Die, for example, you write about the soundtrack for Easy Rider [1969]. The film was originally intended to be scored by Crosby, Stills, and Nash until Dennis Hopper had a falling out with Stephen Stills. Instead, Hopper used already released and recorded songs from popular artists of the time, something unheard of in the 1960s. What are the benefits to building a soundtrack this way?

SLN: With regards to Hopper’s directorial work, the music he used places cultural signposts within the films that relate to when the films were made and what was important to the characters and the audiences of those times. Easy Rider is soaked in the 1960s, you couldn’t mistake it for any other era, before or after. It’s a total 1960s artifact. Out of the Blue [1980] uses punk rock to signal the nihilism that runs through the heart of the film and dates it to the late 70s. Colors’s [1988] use of hip-hop reflects the conflicts of the predominantly black characters and the genre of music that was yet to explode, but would go on to define culture from the late eighties onward. Colors was Hopper’s most successful attempt at sound-tracking. The music blended into the film’s audio and accompanied the images. With Easy Rider and Out of the Blue, the songs tended to define, or even comment upon the images themselves, which is a trait Hopper liked to employ, but could be distracting.

LP: Why don’t we see filmmakers these days working with popular musicians to score films, like the way Simon and Garfunkel did with The Graduate [1967]?

SLN: The crossover between filmmakers and musicians doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. There isn’t much crossover between any mediums anymore. It’s a tradition that has just become obvious and clichéd as time has gone on. When Hopper sound-tracked Easy Rider, he was friends with people like Dylan and The Byrds. The channels of communication were already open due to the people hanging out in the same scene together, and let’s face it, doing the same drugs. Considering there was no social media in the 1960s, it was a time of great social interaction and comradeship.

Bands do still soundtrack films, but not on the same scale as they did in the 60s and 70s. Last year, the band Manchester Orchestra produced an amazing soundtrack to Swiss Army Man [2016]. Yo La Tengo produced a lovely score to Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy [2006]. It still happens, and when it does its often brilliant.

LP: At the end of your newest work, Create or Die, you explain how you began writing the book with the intent to analyze 10 underrated and forgotten films from Dennis Hopper’s career. Your plan changed, however: “What I began to find more interesting was the cultural footnotes—why indeed were they footnotes?” What are some of the most interesting “footnotes” you discovered?

SLN: Where do I start? There’s almost two sides to this. A lot of these “footnotes” tie in with his sixties persona. I loved that the once hippie radical appeared in a Ford Cougar advert. It’s such a massive contradiction. For the same reasons, I was amazed that he voted Republican for most of his life. He always referenced Easy Rider in some direct or indirect way, like in the film Flashback [1990], he turns to a couple of middle-aged guys and says “it takes more than going to your local video store and renting Easy Rider to be a rebel.” It is such a destabilizing thing, yet also brilliant. Then there are the more serious, or artistic “footnotes.” He was a photographer, an artist, and an art collector. His exile from Hollywood during his 1970s drug phase led to some of his best and most frightful acting work, but hardly anyone saw it at the time. Throughout his life he recited bits of Rudyard Kipling’s stuffy colonial poem “If,” turning it into a form of beat poetry and a manifesto for his own creativity. To steal Kris Kristofferson’s phrase, he was a “walking contradiction.” The more films I watched, the more articles and interviews I read, and the more weird little YouTube anomalies I saw, it became clear that his work as an actor was probably the least interesting aspect of his creative output. I wanted to bring these “footnotes” into the popular discourse.

LP: How do you decide on a topic to research, analyze, and write about?

SLN: First and foremost, it has to be of interest to me and I have to be excited to write about it. I have to feel that there is something new and revealing to say. With Create or Die it was a case of finding patterns and exploring aspects of Hopper’s career that weren’t always about acting or directing, but were culturally significant, such as his choice of music for soundtracks, which basically incorporated the major genres of late twentieth century music: rock, punk, and hip-hop. This I felt was hugely important. An example of what I mean by patterns would be knowing that he voted Republican, which ultimately betrays his entire sixties ideology, and then watching films through this lens and trying to see if any hints of this betrayal emerge. In some cases it did and it was obvious. He appeared in left-baiting films like Swing Vote [2008] and An American Carol [2008], and dismissed the 1960s with a weird blip in Flashback. Then this leads to investigating how his directorial film Colors, which wasn’t at all judgemental towards its characters, focused on gang warfare, urban decay, and drug culture, which came as an almost direct result of President Reagan’s cuts to welfare and youth assistance programs, a President that Hopper voted for. Even as a Republican voter, he was still being a social critic ostensibly of Republican policies.

LP: What are your research methods?

SLN: It’s often very immersive. With Create or Die, I felt I’d been subconsciously researching Dennis Hopper for years anyway. It was no problem for me to immerse myself in his film and artistic output again and again. There were also a lot of artistic discoveries that came out after his death: photographic monographs, exhibitions, books. All the obscure little performances and interviews he did are all on the internet. When Create or Die was a project that was more focused on redeeming Hopper’s less than perfect films, I initially reached out to some film directors who’d worked with him to get a sense of what Hopper was like and try and get some clarification as to why a brilliant actor was making these cheap straight-to-video movies. The answers were informative, but just didn’t satisfy me. I’m sure working with Hopper was a buzz for a few days on set, but ultimately a film director has to see the bigger picture. I wanted to build a unique picture of Hopper and I had my own ideas about what I wanted to include in order to build that. Some of the essays in Create or Die touch upon subjects in Hopper’s career that have rarely been written about, such as the 80s German film White Star [1983], which is a manic performance, to his appearance in advertisements and TV commercials.

LP: Political and cultural influences on film seem to be a common theme in your work. What interests you about this relationship and why is it important?

SLN: I studied politics, and popular culture is something I obsess about anyway. Film is the window into another world, another ideology. It can change your point of view, or reaffirm it. Films can obviously be political, but I get more of a kick finding something that lies beneath the main narrative thread of seemingly apolitical films.

For example, I love the film Commando [1985], which is basically a Schwarzenegger muscle-fest, but it’s not the massive body count or the classic Schwarzenegger one-liners that I find interesting, but the motives of the main antagonist. He’s a former leader of a Latin American country who was overthrown in a coup with help from Schwarzenegger’s Black Operatives. He’s planning to regain power, but needs Schwarzenegger to kill the new President. There are barely a few sentences that confirm this, but if you’re a student of political history you’d know these covert actions were a staple of US foreign policy for decades, but as a casual audience member you’re indoctrinated to understand that this guy and his followers need to be stopped by the good guys; i.e. the Americans. I’m impressed that this ratification of American interference in external affairs was snuck into a mainstream film so subtly.

The reason this relationship is important, and why most of my writing is devoted to it, is because it provides an opportunity for education, it opens a discussion like no other medium can.

LP: “The Elephant in the Room” is a chapter in Create or Die focused on Hopper’s attitude towards politics. He shifted between the left and right over the years. Reading about how his support changed between Democrat and Republican, I couldn’t help but wonder what his response would have been to the most recent presidential election in the U.S. How do you think Hopper would have felt about the 2016 election between Hillary and Trump?

SLN: I think in all honesty he’d have been devastated with the result. I think that he’d have seen this as the ultimate betrayal of the 1960s. A full reversal of the progress made on racial equality, feminism, freedom of speech. The Boomers revenge. Saying that, ultimately Hopper was partly responsible for sowing the seeds of this strange revisionist narrative in American society. In Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson’s character, George Hanson recalls that “this used to be one helluva good country,” and then goes on to talk about personal freedom. Trump’s campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again” and to me that evokes the same principle of looking backwards to a time when America was prosperous and in control of its destiny. I’ve not been able to decipher what era of American greatness Hanson and Trump are trying to evoke. I assume any era they are discussing is romanticized and vague, at best, and I don’t think that any version of America that they refer to is one they ever actually lived through. I am just speculating, though, I could also be wrong about this. Hopper was an American patriot. He might have liked the idea of bringing back American jobs, repairing infrastructure, and restarting industry. You have to remember, Hopper voted for Reagan and George W. Bush. He found something in those Presidential policies he could identify with.

LP: You spend a section of U.ESS.AY discussing Mumblecore, a subgenre you identify as “the definitive film genre of the Obama-era.” What are the identifying characteristics of Mumblecore?

SLN: Although it was around well before Obama came to office, I think the Mumblecore genre is a total reaction to the sense of defeat most young people felt and still experience. Even under Obama, there was hardly any job creation, stagnant wages, still a war on terror, and still bailing out the banks. It’s interesting to see Mumblecore films peak from 2008 to 2013. I believe this subgenre offers a reflection of where those that exist between the limbo of Generation X and Millennials are culturally and financially. It’s a very character-based narrative. The characters tend to be somewhat aimless, though highly educated. They have ideas about where they want their own lives to lead, but have no real desire to enact mass change for their generation as a whole. They are disconnected from their financially secure parents, yet ultimately rely on them for handouts, or a basement in which to crash. They’re in their late twenties, but the baggage they carry is a lifetime’s worth. There’s a sense of being hard done by and wishing that the world would know about it. Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture [2010] features the tagline “Aura would like you to know she’s having a very hard time,” which I think sums this up.

When I wrote the essays “Mumblecore in Obama’s America” and “Digital Socialism” that appear in U.ESS.AY, I was swept up in a kind of naive hopefulness that this was a movement in indie cinema that would lead to a new way of filmmaking. Ultimately, Hollywood co-opted these themes and started making better Mumblecore films than Mumblecore could even manage; Dan in Real Life [2007], Away We Go [2009], and Greenberg [2010] are just polished Mumblecore movies with bigger stars, bigger budgets, and established directors. As it stands from the independent perspective, it’s a dying subgenre.

LP: Have other film trends emerged during the Obama era?

SLN: From a mainstream perspective, we’ve been pulverized by the Superhero genre during the Obama administration, and I mean pulverized in an almost literal sense. I came out of the IMAX screenings of Batman v Superman [2016] and Suicide Squad [2016] feeling like I’d been smashed through a wall. The idea of being visually blown away seems old, now that a film can aurally shake and visually disorientate the audience. Although I’m a complete sucker for these spectacle films, I think this is Hollywood’s way of offering audiences a kind of release valve in the world of the post-2008 financial crash. Where else can you see complete cities tumble and fall, watch insane feats of super human endurance and resistance, see corrupt bureaucrats get punished for their shady actions, and let the good guys win the day? Certainly not in our reality.

LP: Care to speculate what type of films the Trump era will produce?

SLN: The thing with Mumblecore was that it was content to wallow in its own self-aware pity and injustice and feel fairly satisfied with just doing that. The Obama presidency didn’t provoke much action or resistance, at least from a left perspective, and a film perspective. I guess because people assumed they had it good. My hope is in the Trump era we’re faced with an onslaught of incredible social commentary that’s not just the Michael Moore style documentary films, but protest films that center on how Trump’s policies, and neoliberalism itself, affect real people. The UK is facing a resurgence of films that reflect on life, as well as the crippling welfare cuts and harmful policies of the current Conservative government. Take Matthew Warchus’s Pride [2014], which details the London LGBT communities’ support of the striking Welsh miners in the mid-1980s. It’s a retro film, and it might not be considered a political film, but it shows that coming together, unionizing, and standing up for one another, no matter the differences, makes for a brighter world. That film had me in tears. Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake [2016] is incredibly important because it highlights the bureaucracy of the welfare system and how the UK government is enacting a class war of its own. We need these films to create movements and changes in our way of thinking; America needs these kinds of films more than ever.

LP: One of my favorite sections of your work was the postscript to U.ESS.AY, “Home Movies: A Critique of a Disappearing Film and a Lingering Memory.” In the essay, you write honestly about your endeavors as a filmmaker. Do you still make films?

SLN: I no longer do. I started making films in 2001, after finishing film school. It was just me, a couple of cruddy digital cameras, and a ripped copy of Adobe Premier Pro. I called myself FrameDropFilms because the digital uploads would literally drop a few frames as they were transferring from tape to editor. I stopped making films in 2007, when I turned 27. I produced live music videos, screen projections, and documentaries for bands who lived in my home town of Leicester, UK, or bands that were passing through on tour. My last real act was making a feature length documentary profiling four bands within striking distance of Leicester. It was loads of fun, until I made the mistake of starting to charge the bands for doing the jobs, then it just began to feel like work!

LP: How did you decide to start writing about film instead?

SLN: I’ve been writing for years. When I was studying film in the late 1990s I was writing feature-length screenplays and toying with the possibility of writing a novel. It was very pretentious, but I wanted to be Quentin Tarantino, just tapping away at the typewriter, cackling at my own gags and one-liners. When I decided to stop making films in 2007, I began studying creative writing, essay writing, and then moved to political studies with the Open University. I started the book on Dennis Hopper in 2010, so this was always my main project. But, when I moved to Canada in 2012, I had to wait for my residency card and I wasn’t allowed to work for a few months, and it was also a very cold winter. I suddenly had lots of time on my hands and very little money, so I started writing essays and articles on ideas I’d obsessed about for years, and submitting them to places like Empty Mirror, Scholardarity, and Gadfly, and building up from there. Those essays written in the first few months of living in Canada are what make up U.ESS.AY. I see my writing as the accumulation of everything I’ve done since attending film school in the 1990s.

LP: What will you be working on next? Any upcoming projects?

SLN: My next book is called Deconstructing Dirty Dancing, which is out in April, 2017 with Zero Books. It’s a very literal title. It deconstructs the film Dirty Dancing [1987] from a number of angles; first as a comparative study with David Lynch’s Blue Velvet [1986], then as a scene by scene by scene breakdown, and lastly as a personal narrative. That film has in some respects haunted me since I was a kid. I’ve seen it countless times. I went through a love/hate relationship with it. As a kid, I loved it. As a teenager and young adult, I couldn’t have hated it more. Over the years the film revealed a depth that I thought was extremely interesting. It addresses politics, class identity, feminism, education, and shifting cultures from the perspective of the 1960s and the 1980s. The film is a brilliant way to talk about all these aspects, and the book endeavors to do that in an intelligent and lively way. It’s a very short book, and I’m quite proud that of the fact that it takes almost the same time to read the book as watch the film.

I have a number of other projects on the go, mostly relating to music and politics. I’m in a strange place as a writer at the moment because I’ve written about things I’ve been subconsciously researching for decades. Whatever comes next will have to be researched almost completely from scratch, which is equally exciting and daunting.

Author Biography

Lydia Plantamura has served on the editorial board for Film Matters magazine and is currently working as an intern. A recent graduate, she studied creative writing and film studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Lydia is an avid traveler. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys exploring the U.S., falling in love with the natural beauty of states like North Carolina, Hawaii, and California.

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