Books: Studying Steven Seagal
It's time we put away childish things and talked about a real celebrity. Someone who truly walks on air miles above our tragically un-famous heads; who redefined the very ideal of super-stardom by his mere existence and who makes other pretenders to the highest realms of celebrity (sorry Angelina) resemble Bronson Pinchot or that girl who played the cheesy robot daughter in '80s syndicated sitcom "Small Wonder."
That's right. I'm talking about Steven Seagal, a real star. A guy who is so famous and so enlightened that even he is awed by his prowess. A guy who doesn't need hordes of paparazzi following his every move to validate his relevance. A man so dang good at what he does that we are sometimes afraid to look upon his rightness and recognize his preeminence as the star of all stars.
Well, all of us except this guy named Vern, whose book, "Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal," will hit stores on June 10 (just in time for Father's Day). From the book's jacket:
An in-depth study of the world's only aikido instructor turned movie star/director/writer/blues guitarist/energy drink inventor -- the ass-kicking auteur Steven Seagal.
After reading an advance copy of this important work, I e-mailed with the shadowy one-named Vern, a longtime "Ain't It Cool News" movie reviewer, about his book and what it is that makes Steven Seagal -- a man whose latest dozen or so movies have gone straight to DVD -- so compelling.
Liz: What is the biggest lesson you've learned from your intense study of Seagal's life and work?
Vern: The lesson I learned is more from the experience of writing the book. This is not something I thought more than a few people would be interested in. But it was an idea that really hit me as something I had to do. I spent five years writing it and the works of Seagal kind of consumed my life for a while there. I knew people might read some smartass book making fun of Seagal but I wanted to do a more thorough and respectful study of what it was he was trying to do with those movies. So I did it exactly how I wanted to and self-published it and not only did people enjoy my approach but next thing you know a real publisher approaches me, it ends up getting all kinds of coverage that I never would've dreamed of and so far almost all positive reviews.
So the lesson I learned is to trust your instincts and pursue what you want to do and not worry about what other people might think. And to bring it around to your question that is also an approach that's reflected in Seagal's movies, especially his directorial debut "On Deadly Ground." Nobody else would've made an action movie that ends in "An Inconvenient Truth"-style presentation about the environment. And people still make fun of him for it but I love that movie and it's the main reason why I wrote this book.
Much more after the jump...
Liz: Your favorite Seagal movie? And why?
Vern: "Out For Justice" is my favorite because it's just so gritty and brutal. The bad guy (William Forsythe) is not some master criminal trying to steal nuclear weapons or something, he's just a wannabe mafia guy smoking crack and going on a rampage, knowing it will end in his death. It's really well directed by the late John Flynn and I honestly think if it starred some other actor respected by the establishment then it would be considered somewhat of a minor classic. Of course, the accent he tries to pull off in the movie does make it pretty goofy.
Liz: Okay, Steven Seagal, Charles Bronson, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Kurt Russell enter the Octagon. Who emerges victorious?
Vern: You made it easy by not putting Bruce Lee or somebody in there. Definitely Seagal because he truly is a master of aikido, a style created by a small old man to neutralize bigger and stronger enemies. But Seagal is bigger than all of them (except Schwarzenegger's arms) so he has that on them, too. So I definitely think he would know how to defend himself from all of those guys. They are some tough bastards though and all have done movies I consider classics. I'm especially partial to Bronson.
Liz: There are some islanders in Oceania who worship Sylvester Stallone's "Rambo" character. Does Steven Seagal have a similar following anywhere?
Vern: Not at all. He was declared by Tibetan lama Penor Rinpoche as a reincarnated Tulku, a Buddhist lama who has consciously chosen to be reborn. But that doesn't mean you're supposed to worship him. He has lived an unusual life but my interest is more in his movies.
Liz: Do you ever see Seagal regaining his box office preeminence?
Vern: Not exactly, for a lot of reasons. Like many famous people later in their careers he has been mocked and looked down on for a long time. I hope my book will change that a little. But most people can't really come back from that, that's just the fickleness of pop culture. And, more importantly than that, I think the studios and some of the audiences are even more than ever obsessed with youth and somebody of his age is gonna have a hard time making a comeback. If they remade "Under Siege" they'd cast some 22-year-old pretty boy to play Casey Ryback. Even Stallone, who has done a great job with "Rocky Balboa" and "Rambo" has gotten a lot of mockery, although I think both movies were profitable.
With the right kind of movie I think he might be able to do something like that on a small level, which would be great. His best chance I think would be if a really good director like Tarantino or somebody decided they wanted to do their version of a Seagal movie. Like when Paul Thomas Anderson decided to do his version of an Adam Sandler movie. But I don't know what the chances of that are.
Liz: Who would we be surprised to know is a Steven Seagal fan?
Vern: Would you believe Oprah Winfrey? No, I made that up. I have not encountered any revelations like that although I got lucky with David Gordon Green, who wrote the introduction to Seagalogy. He directed "The Pineapple Express" which comes out this summer, but he's known for arty, meditative movies like "All the Real Girls" and "Snow Angels." His first movie "George Washington" has a Criterion Edition. I knew somebody that knew him so I thought it would be funny to ask him to do the intro and it turned out he actually was a fan and had even seen some of the direct to video ones. He would be on my list of directors to reinvent Seagal if both parties were interested.
Liz: Who else would you like to write about?
Vern: I'm interested in Dolph Lundgren because people think he's a lunkhead but he has a master's degree in chemical engineering and speaks five languages. But I don't think he's imprinted himself on most of his movies the way Seagal has. Seagal's filmography is a unique phenomenon in action cinema, I really believe all of his movies are part of one unique vision that express the same themes and point of view. I'm not a biographer, I just write about movies and I don't think I could've done a book like this about any other actor.
Liz: Why should we read your book?
Vern: If you're interested in film criticism at all it's a unique approach. It's a passionate defense of a body of work that has received almost unanimous critical disdain while still being popular around the world. Underneath the surface it's a serious academic study but most people have told me that it's also laugh out loud funny. But hopefully not the kind of nose-turned-up snarky humor that most people do now. And it seems to convince people of my argument as well as make them rent movies they never thought they'd be interested in. Basically, it will make you laugh your ass off while expanding your horizons and making you a better person. So I do not recommend it to people who aren't into that.
| May 29, 2008; 10:39 AM ET
Categories: Miscellaneous, Pop Culture
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