By Steven Lee Naish
New Star Books, 2021
It’s unusual for me to read the blurbs or press release that accompanies a book I plan to review. But with this book, it was nigh impossible to ignore the words of praise, as they fill the book’s opening pages. They may have detracted from my reading, as the essays surpass the praise they dish out. But, as we’ve all come to say with a shrug, Whatever.
The opening essay stands as proof that this book isn’t in need of up-front songs of praise. In just a few pages, we witness the deconstruction of comic-book heroes, the one percent super-rich, and even the capitalist system. These ideas push us into the forthcoming chapters which deal with everything from Covid-19 to Hunter S. Thompson. Yes, he covers a lot of ground.
One of the book’s delights is that you don’t need to read it front to back. I suggest that you scroll through the chapters and first check out ‘The Watchlist’ at the end of each essay. Once you find your niche – or a list of films you’re somewhat familiar with – dive into the connected piece. And note that I say “somewhat familiar” as many of the films on his lists are quite obscure (though really, that’s a good thing, one that opens new doors).
The list most familiar to readers is probably the one that considers Star Wars. I remember seeing the ’77 release first run, from the front row of the Stanley Theatre in Vancouver. While I initially saw it as a more-than-clever riff on the old Flash Gordon flics, as it expanded to its full nine episodes and even beyond those, it became clear that Star Wars was providing a collective touchstone for our time. Naish delves into cultural and political ramifications of the films, going beyond, I can’t help but suspect, what even George Lucas likely envisioned. But then, that’s the task of a cultural critic: to lead us into thinking new thoughts.
While I expected Naish to explore the Star Wars saga, granting it a gravitas I’d not considered, that essay grounded me for going forward into some of the darker corners he explores. Time-wise, one of the most encompassing essays is ‘The Middle Word in Life’ in which he discusses films that span from 1969’s Easy Rider through the decades, to three features from 1986 (River’s Edge, Blue Velvet, and Hoosiers), and into the 21st century with a look at several documentaries – one on Dennis Hopper and two about David Lynch.
And if exploring the work of icons such as Hopper and Lynch isn’t enough, he devotes an entire chapter to Nicolas Cage, an actor who I think has displayed the broadest range of talent and taste in the roles he’s taken. Naish seems to express a similar ambiguity about him. In writing about Mandy, a 2018 film I managed to miss, he offers: “Any other actor might have found the nexus of emotion and seriousness in the character’s situation difficult to play straight, but with Cage as [the character] Red, it is played out with delirious lunacy.” [my italics] Amen.
While for the most part, I accepted the many paths these essays take, I was most surprised by the inclusion of the American Pie franchise – not especially worthy, I’d have thought, but Naish has convinced me otherwise. And whether it’s teen horniness, interstellar empires at war, or downright creepy nightmare-inducing horrors, he’s made significant comment on so many aspects of current culture, down to the fact that so much of “Our lives are now being fully captured by screens.”
He further states that the very nature of the cinematic experience is changing, something I’m not altogether convinced is such a good thing. Certainly if I were a theatre-owner, I would have been pissed off by the fact that the autumn 2021 feature Red Notice, a crim-buddy flic (Ryan Reynolds and Dwayne Johnson) played in cinemas for barely two weeks before being released on Netflix. So much for encouraging any live, paying audience.
But whether for good or bad, plus ça change is the state of flux we must accept. And if Stephen Lee Naish might sometimes come off as a little bit lofty in what he says, he has managed to raise the bar, something that can be good for all of us now and then – much more sustaining than concession-stand popcorn. »From issue #90