Lydia Plantamura discusses the famous Frank Booth and goes beyond to explore Dennis Hopper’s own mad brilliance as a true artist.
Stephen Lee Naish, Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper (Amsterdam University Press, 2016), 128pp.
My ex-boyfriend, Matt, had a strange sense of humor. It was after sharing a few beers with friends one night that he decided to show me the film, Blue Velvet (1986). Matt, had been drinking PBR from a can while his buddies threw back bright, green Heineken bottles. There was this running joke between them and I just wasn’t getting it.
“Heineken?” Matt kept yelling. “Fuck that shit,” he’d say, raising his can. “Pabst Blue Ribbon!”
They erupted into cheers and laughter, while I offered a confused smile.
At the time, I didn’t even know who David Lynch was—film school was on the agenda, but still years away. Matt took it upon himself to prepare me for my future education. He enjoyed sharing his knowledge for obscure films that broke from the mainstream and challenged Hollywood conventions. He exposed me to the intensity of films like True Romance (1993), Boogie Nights (1997), and Full Metal Jacket (1987). The only details I received before my first encounter with Blue Velvet was that Dennis Hopper was in it. I liked Easy Rider (1969) and Apocalypse Now (1979), and I mistakenly thought that this was enough to build up some kind of expectation.
When Dennis Hopper finally appeared in the film, my stomach twisted up into knots. His character, Frank Booth, is a deplorable antagonist with a vile mouth, brutal behavior, and shady drug habits. I was disgusted, but mesmerized. There was something about the way he seeped into the scene like a noxious gas, immediately filling every corner of the film. His dominance cast a shadow over everything in the story, and from that moment on, he was there, ever present.
The scene Matt had been referencing with his friends didn’t come until much later. The protagonist, a young man named Jeffery, is forced to tagalong with Frank and his cronies. Jeffery is witness to Frank’s rampage. He endures multiple beatings and harassment over anything he says, including his beer choice: Heineken. Like Jeffery, I was a helpless spectator. I watched as Frank Booth attacked, abused, and humiliated his victims.
This is supposed to be funny? I wondered.
The image of Hopper as Frank Booth burned into my memory and remained even after the movie ended. I could never again think of Dennis Hopper without remembering the profanity, the violence, and the oxygen mask.
The experience came back to me as I read the introduction to Stephen Lee Naish’s book, Create or Die: Essays on the Artistry of Dennis Hopper. Naish wastes no time addressing the prominence of Frank Booth over Hopper’s career. He claims Hopper’s work was “haunted by a single, persistent spectre—that of Frank Booth.” (9). Naish describes his own anxiety watching Blue Velvet for the first time. The tension is palpable through the rich descriptions of Hopper’s performance, and readers are quickly drawn in.
But the preoccupation with Frank Booth was only the spark for Naish’s research. Create or Die delves much deeper into the creative chaos of Hopper’s work. Instead of focusing on this over-analyzed role, Naish writes with a broader scope. He occasionally refers back to Frank Booth, speculating on the effects the character had on Hopper.
The original intent was to explore forgotten and underappreciated films in Hopper’s filmography. Naish’s agenda changed, however, when he began stumbling across fascinating “footnotes” from Hopper’s life. Anomalies like self-referencing dialogue and flip-flopping political views became the driving force behind Create or Die and Naish began to rethink the direction of his essays. Rather than attempting to redeem low-budget, undervalued movies like Space Truckers (1996) and Tycus (1999) (which, as Naish suggests, have been forgotten for a reason), Create or Die entices the audience with entertaining side-notes from Hopper’s life, like his riveting performance art piece, “The Russian Suicide Chair,” a stunt Hopper pulled off in 1984. In the section titled “Double Standard,” Naish explains how Hopper surrounded himself with live dynamite, which was simultaneously detonated to create a vortex. Had Hopper misplaced one stick, he would have been killed, but the performance was a success, and the blast actually shielded him from the explosion.
Developed from these footnotes, Create or Die became a collection of essays which all fit into Naish’s new objective: to redefine Hopper as an artist. His involvement in other mediums is often unrecognized and overshadowed by his film work, but here, Naish argues for Hopper as a respectable creative. He reflects at times on the inconsistency of expression for Hopper through different art forms, and notes the contradiction in Hopper’s filmography (which includes many straight-to-DVD released movies) to his widely acclaimed photography, painting, and sculpture pieces.
Naish is known to write on cultural tendencies in America, and like his other work, U.ESS.AY: Politics and Humanity in American Film (Zero Books, 2014), Create or Die does an excellent job at contextualizing the time period for readers with brief political, cultural, and historical background. If the audience isn’t familiar with some of Hopper’s lesser known works, like the European arthouse film, White Star (1984), Naish is sure to lay out the essentials of the narrative, so that all can understand and benefit from each essay. And while some critical analyses are weighed down with bulky, academic nonsense and technical jargon, Naish’s writing flows naturally, with a language that’s easily accessible, even for those without a formal education in film studies.
In Create or Die, Stephen Lee Naish reaches beyond the possession Frank Booth held over Dennis Hopper. He aims “to create a grander picture of a brilliant if deeply flawed artist, one who lived by the axiom, ‘create or die.’” (13). Naish succeeds in offering a refreshing perspective on the actor, drawing a thread through Hopper’s career, tying it all together as one cohesive compilation: the work of a true artist.
Lydia Plantamura served on the editorial board for Film Matters magazine in 2014 and is currently working with FM as an intern writer. A recent graduate, she studied creative writing and film studies at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her featurette essay, “Blood, Guts, and Disgust: The Effects of Censorship Changes on American Horror Films,” appeared in Film Matters, Issue 7.6. Her creative nonfiction works include the lyric essay, “Pushing Past the Breakers” (A Good View of the End of the World, 2016.) and “The Spot,” (Atlantis, Issue 70.).