SCREEN CAPTURES: FILM IN THE AGE OF EMERGENCY by Stephen Lee Naish (Author Interview)

Earlier this year, writer Stephen Naish reached out to me with his book Screen Captures: Film in the Age of Emergency, which I can report was a fascinating read covering a wide range of pop culture and modern political subjects, some very personal.

Here’s the blurb:

A spirited, far-sighted guide to politics, Star Wars, the Avengers, David Lynch, and the lost highways between them, for today’s capitalist-realist age.

We’ve met before, haven’t we? The grand illusion of our era is that we’re at the end of history and cinema is now no more than tranquilizing entertainment. What we’ve lost sight of is the political undercurrent running through movies and their potentially redemptive power, whether they’re Hollywood mega blockbusters like Star Wars or off-kilter indies and art films like Blue Velvet. This is the premise and the challenge of the wide-ranging essays that make up Screen Captures, in which Dennis Hopper, Nicholas Cage, Valerie Solanas, and even Donald Trump all have a starring role. The book tells, as much as it shows, what lies just out of frame: the impacts of COVID on theatres, the class war of the 1% upon the rest, the climate crisis, the ongoing Disney-fication of franchises, and the audience’s active participation in the rewriting and reproduction of their capture by screens. Throughout, subliminally, Stephen Lee Naish rings his urgent call: occupy the screen!

It was a genuinely interesting piece of work to digest and Stephen was kind enough to talk to me, subsequently, about his creative process and how the book came to be.

AJB: Give us some background on how Screen Captures came to be. What was the genesis for collecting your previous writings in this way? And how much of the book is fresh material?

SLN: Initially, the book was similar in some respects to my first collection of film essays published back in 2014 (U.ESS.AY) I wanted to collect together what I’d been writing over the past seven years or so as a sort of house cleaning exercise. The publisher I signed the book with suggested that we combine and connect the writings to create coherent chapters and bring the writings all up to date and to offer a more productive thesis about the nature of film and what I see as the future of film and filmmaking. The only chapter I wrote specifically for the book was the very last chapter titled ‘The Slow Dissolve’, and of course the introduction and the extensive afterward. Every chapter within the book has had a pretty massive overhaul and lots of connective writings to pull all the threads together. 

AJB: The chapters cover a spread of social and cultural themes and ideas reflected by film. Each section ends with a field guide of movies to check out at the end. Would you consider this a manifesto of sorts in how you view cinema?

SLN: Maybe not the complete work itself, but I certainly consider the last chapters and the afterword as offering a ‘declaration of the intentions, motives, or views of the issuer’ that a manifesto usually supplies. I really put my two pennies worth in there. The inclusion of the ‘field guide’ at the end of every chapter was a late addition to the book but one I’m glad was added. Readers have watched the films before or after reading the chapters. It’s nice to see that aspect of the book being engaged with as educational entertainment. 

AJB. There is a strong political & economic bent throughout the book on a liberal fault line (which I very much share). How much do you feel cinema has an impact on political and cultural life, in North America/Canada and beyond?

SLN: Considering the political nature of the book and the way I feel film can influence us socially and politically I would actually say very little impact is made on the general population of western audiences. This is okay with me. I don’t feel we need every piece of media to be a kind of propaganda.  There are deeply political films that are meant to shift or reaffirm perspectives, but there is also idealogy hidden within mainstream film. It’s that ‘hidden ideology’ that I’m most interested in. This stuff hopefully seeps in on an unconscious level and offers audiences some new perspectives to consider and integrate if appealing or outright reject if grotesque.  

AJB: You mention this in the preface but there is a definite push-pull here between appreciation of and frustration toward Star Wars & franchise cinema in general. What’s your stance on the state of IP franchises right now?

SLN: Even before Covid-19 locked us in our homes, these IPs were seeing the winds changing and began moving with the times. Both Marvel and Star Wars have shifted towards serialized television shows, sometimes with startling and unexpected results. WandaVision was funny yet gut-wrenchingly sad and hardly something expected from an action franchise. The Mandalorian and The Bad Batch have built an even bigger universe to explore and operate within. The movies can’t do that so much with limited time constraints. That was certainly the case with the sequel trilogy of Star Wars films that seemed to shrink the galaxy right down. I understand we’re getting future movies from Star Wars and from the MCU, but the excitement that once surrounded these event releases is diminished somewhat. It’s partly to do with the way we were heading anyway, but the pandemic has accelerated it to a point we’ll unlikely come back from.   

AJB: There is a lot of humanity in the book and a great deal of your own reflection about topics such as misogyny & the intersection of technology and futurism. Do you find yourself optimistic or pessimistic about these aspects going forward?

SLN: I would hope that with the inclusion of female filmmakers, producers, editors, cinematographers, and so on in independent and mainstream film, the issues of misogyny are in the rearview mirror of our culture. There are reasons to be optimistic here, at the very least. The same goes with any LGBTQIA perspective on film that can gain an understanding from audiences. I don’t really cover that in the book but I still think it’s true. As I live and work in Canada, I’m also seeing films and literature coming from an indigenous perspective. Again, any way to allow a change in typical paradigms is welcome. 

The intersection of technology and futurism you also mention is something I’m less optimistic about, simply because our future tech is in the hands of a handful of mostly white male multi-billionaires and mostly white male-led conglomerates. All technological advances are filtered through what will make them finically richer, not what would make our own lives richer and more rewarding. Zuckerburg’s Metaverse is an example of a future technology that will no doubt exclude vast amounts of people and allow the rich and well-connected the opportunity to drift away in a virtual world, while the real one crumbles away. It’s not a perfect film as such, but Ari Folman’s 2013 film The Congress offers a terrible example of the metaverse. 

AJB: It was great to see a postscript on Covid-19 and a very current analysis on the rapidly changing cultural & cinematic landscape in the wake of it. As we edge toward the end of the pandemic, and in the wake of this book, do you think trends are continuing along the lines you describe here?

SLN: The city I live in here in Canada just had its major film festival (Kingston Canadian Film Festival) and they opted for a hybrid model this year of streaming and in-person events which seemed to go very well for them. I think this model will continue into the future. The repercussions of the pandemic are not something we are going to be shaking off any time soon. Even when it’s over some audiences will still be wary of attending a packed cinema screen and might opt to watch a new film on streaming. Plus our habits have changed. We’ve all become much more adapted to streaming content over these past two years. I think most major movie production companies and distributors will view this change as a positive, after all, they can develop their own streaming apps or sell premiere rights to an already established streaming service. The sad side to this is that many cinemas, multiplexes, and independents alike will suffer a terrible loss and might actually disappear. The actual ticket purchase doesn’t cover the cost of a night at the movies. It’s the consumption of drinks and popcorn that really financially floats these businesses. 

AJB: What’s next for you? Any future monographs & books on the horizon? Any room for a Screen Captures II?

SLN: I’ve just finished and handed over a manuscript to an editor for a book on film directors and their soundtracks. That is probably a long way off as it’s an academic press and has to go through the process of peer review. I have a collection of short stories that have been doing the rounds for a few years now. As a creative experiment, I’m developing a story/screenplay/soundtrack for a science fiction film called Last Days, which is based on a screenplay I wrote sometime in the mid-2000s. I’ve long lost the file so I am attempting a reconstruction from memory. The outline for the film is done as is the soundtrack. 

Big thanks to Stephen for his time. You can buy Screen Captures right now on Amazon and from all good booksellers.

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