Looking back at a distant youth, my mind strains to remember its first encounter with Steven Seagal. Was it the patchwork of naval fisticuffs known as Under Siege? Perhaps. The pugilistic tremble of Nico/Above the Law? Maybe. The virgin trip to a place called Out in Out for Justice? Again, it’s possible. Actually, although I’m hindered by a memory stumbling blind in the crannies of time, I do believe the most likely candidate to be Hard to Kill. The fable of Mason Storm, the coma, the beard, images poke through the mist of time. A grand training montage and fleeting images of Kelly LeBrock ride into the mind’s eye, objects hitherto indistinct, now shifted into focus.
Then it becomes clear, this was a youth marked by Steven Seagal. Recollection represents a past mutated beyond the pedestrian crawl of reality. In place of the song of the ice cream van is now the musical thud of Seagal kicking a man. Forgotten songs are blotted out by Seagal’s sagacious words whispered aplenty. Toys and the cherished plastic of childhood are supplanted by idolatrous mimicry of Seagal’s every stance, every wobble of leg, every elbow shook in defiance of the Man. Life as a kid progressed spotted by the cheer of aikido combat and trenchant knee-face collisions; I was a sponge in a basin of Seagal.
With this history in mind, it’s clear I couldn’t ignore the publication of Vern’s adventurous new book, Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal. It was to be read, a simple glance at the cover with its schematic of Seagal guaranteed that. Avoid this and a life of incomplete Seagalogical knowledge awaits, that was the warning. Thankfully a speedy purchase was enough to eliminate the risk.
Vern’s fame and notoriety comes primarily from his contributions to that hub of joyous internet movie geekdom Ain’t It Cool News. His reviews, often of the action and horror genres but not always, are words brandished like weapons, words slicing through the mire of cinema. His irreverent commentaries have become a staple of AICN, yielding Vern massive popularity. He’s a self-proclaimed outlaw film critic, a man resistant to the prevailing ways of understanding cinema, to the accepted methods by which a film should be judged, to the drab form that mainstream film criticism assumes. He strives for an individual voice, creatively free to entertain and educate in whichever way necessary. Vern’s rogue journalism has now spawned Seagalogy.
A weighty tome of some 400-pages, the book charts Seagal’s manoeuvres in and out of cinema over the past twenty years. It’s not a biography, although biographical information is imparted here and there. Seagalogy is a film by film study, running chronologically from Above the Law (1988) to Pistol Whipped (2008). Vern creates a narrative of Seagal’s filmography using a modified auteur theory where these films are presented as distinctly Seagalian: specific motifs populate his filmography, recurring frequently and making possible, where eyes are attentive, an effortless discernability. When you watch a Hitchcock, you know you’re watching a Hitchcock. Similarly, when you watch a Seagal, you know you’re watching a Seagal. Even in variations over the course of time – Vern describes a movement from theatrical action films concerned with political issues to straight-to-video action films replete with convoluted stories and excessive dubbing – a degree of distinction remains; Seagal’s auteurship is indelibly written all over these films.
Seagalogy’s major achievement is that it functions as an impressive political gesture. By this, I don’t mean the overtly political comments Vern makes, the digs at the Bush administration, the references to American imperialism, the leftist disdain for the specious logic of big business – these are laudable aspects but such rhetoric is present elsewhere in superior form. No, it’s in the realm of cultural politics that Seagalogy strikes an inspirational blow.
From chapter to chapter, film to film, Vern revels in the wash of low culture, celebrating its very essence and elevating it to the level of art. He eschews a tone of superiority, letting this much scorned corner of culture free from its imposed bondage, bringing to an end the oppression wrought by elite arbiters of taste. The enthusiasm that saturates every word is sincere and has the effect of generating in the reader a new respect for Seagal’s filmography (and other films of similar genre and position on the culture hierarchy). Political themes and assorted social commentary can mingle with cheesy one-liners and gratuitous violence we are told. There is no irony when the Iran-Contra scandal is cited in the discussion of Above the Law. Nor is there irony when Hard to Kill’s villainous senator is represented as a figure analogous to George Bush Senior. There’s a genuine respect exhibited for the ability of these films to make serious statements on important events happening in the world.
That said, there’s no shortage of humour here. While Vern avoids elevating himself above the films and resists writing a book entirely composed of mocking observations and derisory suppositions, he does indulge in the odd bout of ridicule. Naturally, instances of dodgy dialogue and sequences of cartoonish violence are open to myriad jokes and wry remarks, you’d be insane to pass up such an opportunity. Yet even when these are seized upon and Vern pokes fun at Seagal’s omnipresent ponytail, he does it with an endearing smirk, with a courteous nod of the skull, a cheeky wink in the eye. It reads like the gentle mocking exchanged between close friends. Plot holes are picked out as fodder for mirth, the unsubtle use of Seagal stunt doubles is material for sly asides, obvious examples that’d even have Seagal chuckling in agreement. Despite the mix of jokes and earnest analysis, there is a consistency in Seagalogy – Vern’s passion never falters, it permeates the entire thesis, making the book more than a mere comedy article.
Form as much as content facilitates the reappraisal of Seagal’s cinema that Seagalogy initiates. The prose is light and accessible, bereft of any tint of pomposity, yet buoyed by a keen intelligence. In the vein of writers such as Chuck Palahniuk, Vern succeeds in saying smart things in very simple ways, writing without ostentation or circumlocution, expressing insight in formidably basic language, conveying his interpretations of the Seagal canon in a concise fashion. The avenues by which he finds enjoyment in the shoddiness of some of the films, discovering hidden glimpses of coherence in the disordered, endeavouring to extract from the badly edited a linear narrative, are coated in accessibility and an enthusiasm that’s highly contagious.
The celebration of low culture has emerged as a fashionable pursuit in recent years, a vogue stretching from the blog world to as far as the tallest of ivory towers. We can look at Slavoj Zizek’s perennial disclosure of the tents of Lacanian psychoanalysis through the use of cinema, television and dirty jokes, or Fredric Jameson’s inquiries into science fiction. But regardless of the politics behind their disquisitions or the specific examples they wrench from popular culture, their work remains bound up within an institutional mode of discourse, adorned with academic rhetoric – bourgeois whispers carrying insight after insight on a carpet of restricted readership.
Vern’s everyman voice, by contrast, can be digested by all and doesn’t require citations of Hegel and Althusser to bolster its argument. The depth of his examination can be seen in the way he picks out minute details hitherto concealed by pace, pausing the action to identify newspaper headlines and diary notes, factoids that either enrich the story or cause an already confusing narrative to become that bit more confusing. He also humanises the productions by reminding us that there are genuine ideas that go into making these films, interesting and ambitious ideas that are beset by financial and logistical obstacles.
The political gesture of Seagalogy is that of a fist shaken at elite naysayers who disregard the aesthetic worth of films of the sort that would feature Seagal, cultural products that are deemed to be low culture and often refused a chance to exhibit their worth. Action flicks, horror flicks, comic books, heavy metal, computer games, these are regularly subject to scoffs from elite opinion, looked down upon as homogeneous feed for the stupid masses, brainless sludge to keep the proletariat under the thumb – even Adorno held this view. I mean, I like high modernism as much as anyone, but I’d be just as inclined to watch Hell Comes to Frogtown as I’d be to read The Flowers of Evil; both are wonderful, individual works of art and merit many hours spent in their company. Sure there’s shite out there, but a work of art is shite in its own right, not by way of its genre classification or the cultural presumptions associated with it. We must not forget that there’s just as much creativity involved in the development of computer games or graphic novels as in, say, theatre or art cinema, and that the former have the ability to excite and enthral just as much as the latter. While I myself am given to extreme hyperbole and heavily ironic gestures, my passion for the cinema of Bruce Campbell is as sincere as my passion for Nabokov (I mention Nabokov not to neutralise the former but to create a field of equality and balance).
I am reluctant to intellectualise Vern’s achievement too much since he is himself in part parodying academicism, just point some eyes at the book title or the footnotes that intermittently appear. But Seagalogy remains a sublime triumph for those concerned with the political shades of culture, with how the very hierarchisation of culture is a site of class struggle and needs to be fought against. Vern’s combination of diligent analysis, sardonic humour and welcoming prose make for a great addition to an attempt to stomp out cultural snobbishness. People are not dumb, they happily embrace the dual characteristics of Seagal’s filmic history, at one moment buzzing off the energy emitted off the fighting scenes, at another laughing at the corniness of it all. Vern puts it perfectly at the end of the book when he reviews Seagal’s gig in Seattle on the Mojo Priest tour: ruminating on the fans in the crowd, the ecstatic worshippers of Seagal, he writes: “A lot of them knew it was funny what they were seeing but they were genuinely appreciative of Seagal.” It’s funny but we love it, Seagal and Seagalogy alike.