The Best Film Book Ever: SEAGALOGY by Vern

by tully
June 18, 2008 12:35 PM
3 Comments
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Let’s begin with a rather bold statement, but one that I am convinced is wholly accurate and which I am prepared to defend to the bloody death:

Vern’s Seagalogy is the definitive statement of film writing by a member of my generation.

Laugh if you want, but it’s true. You can even quote me. Go ahead. I dare you. For the fact remains that there has never been a film writer whose voice so distinctly and accurately represents the bipolar blend of sarcasm and sincerity that defines the late 20th Century generation to which we belong. By celebrating, dissecting, and nitpicking through the entire oeuvre of Steven Seagal, Vern has turned other critics’ trash into his own unique art. If you think Seagalogy is all one big, funny joke, you’re missing the point. It’s not a joke. It’s dead serious. But it’s also hilarious. As in That Is The Funniest Fucking Thing I Have Ever Read In My Life hilarious.

Seagalogy reads like the work of a renegade film aficionado who became disgusted with the stifling atmosphere inside his Film Theory master classes and retired to a basement to invent his own language, pursuing a genre that mattered to him. Vern earned his invisible PhD by coining the “Badass Auteur Theory,” which, in his words, is “the idea that in some types of action or badass pictures, it is the badass (or star) who carries through themes from one picture to the next.” To the untrained eye, the genuine sincerity Vern applies to Seagal’s forgettable straight-to-video catalogue, his reckless use of foul language, and his atypical perspective mark him as an untrained amateur. But to someone who respects film history, who admires strikingly personal writing, and who shares a similar sensibility, Seagalogy is superior to ninety-five percent of the film writing out there. Vern is a truly distinct voice that deserves to be taken seriously.

In order to bring some cohesion to Seagalogy, Vern breaks down Seagal’s career into four periods: Golden Era (1988-1991), Silver Era (1992-1997), Transitional Period (1998-2002), and DTV Era (2003-Present). The Golden Era contains Seagal’s most popular films (Above the Law, Hard to Kill, Marked For Death, and Out for Justice). The Silver Era finds Seagal drifting into stranger territory (most memorably his baffling directorial debut On Deadly Ground). The Transitional Period finds Seagal teaming up with rappers to varying degrees of success (DMX in Exit Wounds, Nas in Ticker, Ja Rule in Half Past Dead). And in the DTV Era, all hell breaks loose, with films that are lacking in any earthly logic. But as a true Seagalogist, Vern doesn’t stop there. Along the way, he inserts interludes in which he reviews both of Seagal’s blues-infused rock albums and even takes the time to write an essay about Seagal’s Lightning Bolt energy drink. The book’s closing essay, in which Vern recounts his first experience seeing Steven Seagal on tour for the first time, “My Review of Steven Seagal and Thunderbox Live in Seattle” is one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction writing ever. Read it here, but buy the book, for there’s so oh-so-much more where that came from.

Being the accomplished professional that he is, Vern devotes an equally thorough amount of energy to each movie, providing an engaging plot synopsis from beginning to end before going on to chart Seagal’s growth and evolution as a Badass Auteur, especially in connection with the previous films he has made. He concludes each chapter by providing a hilarious film breakdown with the following categories:

Directed by
Written by
Distinguished co-stars
Seagal regulars
Firsts
Title refers to
Just how badass is this guy?
Adopted culture
Languages
Improvised Weapons
Fight in Bar
Broken Glass
Innocent bystanders
Family shit
Political themes
Cover accuracy

Here’s an example of “Cover accuracy,” from The Foreigner:

Seagal with a silenced pistol – fine. Eiffel Tower – sure. Two helicopters – well, I don’t think that’s from this movie, but they always like to get some helicopters on there. Why not? But the flipping car and the blond in the negligee talking on the phone, I don’t know where those come from. And the tagline – “If they think they can stop him, they’re dead wrong” – doesn’t make any sense because they’re not really trying to stop him from doing anything, they’re trying to get the package from him. I guess “If they think they can get the package from him, they’re dead wrong” doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I don’t know how many times while reading this book, I wanted to share a particularly brilliant and hilarious quote with whoever was standing near me, be it a friend or a stranger (a good friend of mine almost destroyed his relationship with his girlfriend by constantly bombarding her with passages). But the truth is that Seagalogy works best when read as a whole, or at least until one fully comprehends Vern’s deceptively eloquent prose.

That said, in my passionately eager quest to get every reader of this site to buy this book, I feel it is my duty to present a few choice nuggets that stand on their own and capture just a fraction of Vern’s hilarious and thoughtful perspective. I myself am guilty of falling into the same old boring traps when writing film reviews, so it’s triply refreshing to read someone who raises questions and points out the inaccuracies that most writers dismiss as frivolous and pointless. This is one of his greatest gifts, and it never ceases to thrill me. Some examples…

The first sign of trouble is probably the pilot who flies them to the site (Ray Charleston). He explains that his nickname “Crash” comes from the fact that he never has. Now, wait a minute. Is this guy telling us that it is unusual for a pilot to never crash? That it is a trait so unique to him that it becomes his handle? If so, I’m never flying again. If not, shouldn’t most pilots be nicknamed Crash? (Out For a Kill)

That brings up some questions. Mainly what in shit’s name kind of a nickname is that? And why would you see a glimmer? Are we really supposed to believe this big old lump is so quick you only see a glimmer before he kills you? And what exactly is this glimmer like, anyway? Could he also be called the Dazzler? Or the Sparkler? Or the Twinkler? The Shimmery Man? And for that matter, if these people are all dead then how does anybody know whether or not they saw a glimmer? Maybe they happened to blink right when the glimmer happened, and they only saw jungle, not glimmer. Or maybe they saw Cole clearly, with or without the glimmer, but just weren’t able to defend themselves. You can’t just assume they saw a glimmer unless there is some kind of evidence. Unless somebody carved “glimmer” into the jungle floor with a twig as they gasped their last breath, this glimmer man story just does not hold water. (The Glimmer Man)

The Patriot is written by M. Sussman and John Kingswell, adapted from the 1974 novel The Last Canadian (also published as The Last American and Death Wind) by Canadian journalist William C. Heine. Now you gotta give these two credit because they adapted the shit out of this book. They adapted it so much that the movie has almost nothing to do with the book. (The Patriot)

One little touch I liked, there’s a pretty random scene in the movie where Nettles’s watch stops, and Seagal teaches him how to fix it (telepathically, I guess, since he doesn’t actually give him any specific instruction). In the climax of the movie, Claire’s watch turns out to be a part of the “masterpiece” bombing plan, which made me worry that Nettles would have to use his newfound watch repair skills to save the citizens of San Francisco. Fortunately, this did not happen, so the earlier scene was able to remain just a nice moment. I mean, that’s not something you’ve seen before, Steven Seagal teaching Tom Sizemore how to fix a watch. That’s what movies are all about is shit like that. (Ticker)

I’m sure most people hate the resolution-less ending, and to add insult to their injury that last shot of the car driving off was already used earlier in the movie. It’s funny because the first time I saw it I thought huh, that seems like what would be the last shot of the movie, the sort of driving into the sunset shot. It didn’t occur to me that it actually would end up being the last shot. (Attack Force)

My first-pressing copy of Seagalogy is stuffed with folded pages that lead to gems like these. But rather than reprint the whole book here, I would like to point out a few instances where Vern mixes his humor with outright criticism. It is here where his intelligence and insight shine through, and where he transcends his superficial appearance as a carefree wiseass...

From the very beginning his movies have had themes of an out of control CIA trafficking drugs into the country, rogue secret agents turning into terrorists, corporations pillaging the land and indigenous cultures… the types of things you didn’t usually see in action movies at the time, and that you saw a lot more in real life as the years went on. (“Introduction 2: Dark Territory”)

Later on he has a speech where he makes fun of the idea that he should have a “deep, dark, psychological reason” for his crimes. In my opinion, having the character say that he has no deep, dark, psychological reason for his crimes is just as corny and cliché as if he explained what the deep, dark, psychological reason for his crimes was. If not moreso. And to make matters worse, there are other scenes that imply there is one of those types of reasons for what he’s doing. Pointing at a cliché is not the same as avoiding one. Stop trying to have it both ways, screenwriters. (Half Past Dead)

In my opinion, Out For a Kill is the tipping point where Seagalogy goes into the deep end. Maybe the earlier Seagal pictures were silly or ridiculous at times, but this is where they start to get downright crazy. They seem to be made in more of a mercenary, low budget, get it done at any cost spirit. From this point on most of the films are international co-productions filmed outside of American soil, and maybe they lose a little something in the translation. It doesn’t seem possible that these movies were filmed with completed scripts. If they were, it seems like the circumstances of filmmaking didn’t allow them to actually follow much of the script… (new paragraph)… As a result, Out For a Kill and many of the Seagal pictures that follow are filled to the brim with weird narrative lapses, constant looped dialogue, abrupt edits and unexpected voiceover narration. For example, the DEA agent Tommie Ling narrates this movie, but you don’t know that until she starts doing it out of the blue about 48 minutes in. (Out For a Kill)

For me, what makes Seagalogy so special is that it has the ability to make a person view films in a completely different light. Or maybe, in a case like mine, it helps a person to better express his own thoughts and feelings about movies in general. It's a real treat, and is one of those books that rewards repeated readings.

The last thing I want to point out is that one need not be a fan of Steven Seagal, or of the action genre in general, to appreciate Seagalogy. At most, one should be a movie lover. And literate. Otherwise, it might be Hard to Read.

About ten years ago, I sat down to write a book called The Ethics of Troll 2, in which I wanted to critically dissect what I considered to be the most gloriously awful movie ever made. After three chapters, that idea disintegrated. But reading Vern’s voracious, ever expanding output at his admittedly shoddy-ass website, I realize that he has perfected the voice I felt was so desperately lacking in film criticism. Seagalogy isn’t just a funny, entertaining read. It is a major achievement and a vital addition to the film literature canon, which should be read by anyone who loves to watch movies, but, most importantly, those who love to read and write about them as well.

(If that isn't convincing enough, David Gordon Green supplies an introduction that sets a perfect tone and confirms his status as a Seagalogist in his own right!)

--Titan Books just released a new-and-improved version of Seagalogy, which you can buy at their site or at Amazon or many other stores. Buy it for yourself right now, but don't forget about it as a present for a friend. Seagalogy is one of those gifts that keeps on giving.

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3 Comments

  • Vern | June 20, 2008 9:50 AMReply

    Todd R. - I am the guy who wrote the book in question, I want to make a few points.

    First, the book is not ironic, it is serious. Second, I have been clean for many years and do not smoke grass. Third, if Kevin Smith is the fucking "chasing amy" guy you got some fucking balls on you and I demand two apologies, one for thinking it and one for writing it. Fourth, Seagal had only made 5 movies in 1992, my interest in his body of work is mainly focused on 1994's On Deadly Ground and the films after that. Fifth, you seem like a cheerful guy and I would like to hang out with you.

  • tully | June 20, 2008 4:22 AMReply

    the only filmatist i know (i.e., the one Vern writes about on the AintItCool) goes by the name of Kelvin Smith. who is Kevin Smith?

  • Todd R. | June 19, 2008 12:49 PMReply

    You guys and your sense of irony is a freaking bore. Anyone who wastes their time reading about a putz and a charlatan like Seagal deserves to be taken to the bank and emptied of their life's savings. Stop smoking grass, dude. It's ruining your critical faculties. Just because you think you're in on the joke doesn't make it funny. The samples from the book make it sound as if the whole thing was written by someone doing an impersonation of Kevin Smith. Maybe the book would've been funny in 1992, but it's not 1992. You do know that, right? Garbage in, garbage out.