Upfront I need to admit that I've never been that big of a Steven Seagal fan. I've liked a couple of his early movies like Above the Law, Marked for Death, and Under Siege, but by the time the late 90s came around, I'd lost interest in his work. That's one of the reasons I wanted to check out the newly updated and expanded edition of Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal by Vern (Titan Books). Maybe I could be converted. At least I could learn more about the appeal, especially of those direct-to-video movies.
How much can you say about Steven Seagal? Well, the new edition is around 490 pages long, and exhaustively covers Seagal's filmography and various side ventures. Some of those side ventures we covered in the Seagalogy 101 classes this week. Even though there's a goofy collision of high and low -- supposed study and Steven Seagal -- I can go with it. Not too long ago I read Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, a great book of music criticism from the 33 1/3 series. That one's all about a Céline Dion record. (Full disclosure: I'm not a fan of hers.)
So there were two questions I had going into Seagalogy: 1) if it was a field of study, what exactly does Seagalogy cover, and 2) can the study of Steven Seagal be as fascinating as a dissection of Céline Dion?
Seagalogy 220: Self-Defense and Applied Defenestration
In Vern's introduction he begins with the line, "Bring people forward into contemplation." That's supposedly what Seagal sets out to do in each of his action films. (Again, here's another merging of the high-minded and the low-blow.) Vern makes an argument for Seagal as an auteur, that each movie bears a certain essence of the man. In a way, it's like how Arnold Schwarzenegger movies become distinctly Arnold movies, especially during his heyday. Vern goes chronologically through Seagal's filmography ("a trail of broken windows and broken bones" he puts it), even dividing his career into distinct periods. Roughly the first fourth of the book covers the Golden Era (1988-1991), the Silver Era (1992-1997), and a transitional period (1998-2002).
This first quarter of the book was one of the more entertaining parts of Seagalogy. Seagal's star was rising rapidly, and there's a genuine sense of belief in what he was doing. If he wasn't bringing people forward into contemplation, at least he was making fun (sometimes hokey) movies with earnest liberal politics and an underlying distrust of high authority.
Vern's rundown of each movie is thorough, sticking close to the synopsis and dropping in jokes where he can. Following each film is a bit of a breakdown, including the director, screenwriter, and actors. The best parts of his breakdowns, though, are the ones of distinct interest to Seagalogists: he notes every instance of breaking glass, recurring players in Seagal films, bar fights, people tossed out of windows (at least 27 by my count), awkward one-liners, and words of wisdom from Seagal himself. In 2003's Out for a Kill, he drops the line, "There is no mirror, there is no dust, there is no darkness. Only the mind is light."
One of my favorite sections in each breakdown is the "Just how badass is this guy" part. Here Vern collects lines that distill a Seagal character's essence. A random sampling:
Seagalogy 343: Studies in Direct-to-Video Narratives and Reality Television
The longest section of the book is the DTV Era (2003-2008). During this period, Seagal was working entirely on direct-to-video movies. If you ever walked through a video store during that time, you no doubt saw some of these films with the poorly rendered covers: Seagal's aging face pasted onto a thinner body, maybe an explosion behind him, almost definitely some helicopters. (In his breakdowns of movie covers, Vern notices a lot of helicopters during this period.) These films were mostly of low-quality, with many shortcuts taken to rush them onto shelves. Sometimes Seagal's voice is dubbed, body doubles are used for action sequences, footage from other films is shamelessly borrowed, and even entire scripts are rewritten to become something else. 2005's Submerged, for instance, began as a movie about a biological mutants on a submarine, eventually morphing into an uninspired action flick where Seagal must stop "another 9-11, except at sea." In the final version, a submarine is only in the movie for 15 minutes.
It's during this section that the book dragged in parts. A lot of it had to do with the films themselves. Vern notes that in the DTV era, the plots were unnecessarily complicated and sometimes incomprehensible. Since his write-ups follow the plots pretty closely, I found myself getting tangled and unengaged. The handful of decent movies (relatively speaking) do stick out, like Into the Sun, Urban Justice, or Pistol Whipped. The moments when Vern jumped out of the plot synopsis and talked about the wild and hairy world of DTV filmmaking were more interesting. Thankfully there are little interludes away from the films that cover Seagal's forays into music and energy drinks.
Seagalogy's last period is the Chief Seagal Era (2009-present). It covers a few of his more recent films (including one in which he fights vampires but is only on screen for about 20 minutes) as well as the A&E reality show Lawman. The book seemed to pick up again here since Seagal was doing something so absurd. He claimed to be working as an officer in Jefferson Parish for 20 years without anyone knowing about it. Like many other things in Seagal's life, this claim has been disputed. Vern applauds the possible fabrication on the show:
Seagalogy 476: Multi-Disciplinary Approaches to Seagalogy
As much as I enjoyed Seagalogy, I was sort of hoping for more big ideas like the one above. Vern's write-ups are entertaining, sure, but the big myth-making, flim-flamming, fabricating part of Seagal is such a major part of his career. It's right there at the beginning of Above the Law, like Vern points out: "the movie begins by explaining the premise of Steven Seagal." He's always been a sort of figment of the imagination, I suppose; the type of figure where we wonder how much of his personality is on the screen and how much of it is just an act.
Seagal seems to have a creation myth about everything he does. He has a creation myth about how he learned to love the blues (started playing drums in the late 50s, mother bought him a guitar, father's family in Texas and Louisiana helped him love the sound). There's one about the origins of Lightning Bolt Energy Drink (he traveled through Asia to find all of the ingredients). He claims to have met with or seen aikido founder Morihei Ueshiba, but some consider this highly unlikely. If you watch enough interviews with Seagal, he'll throw in some accent or twang while he's talking about something to help sell the persona. He says he identifies as Asian more than as an American at times. It reminds me of a Leslie Fiedler line quoted in Greil Marcus's Mystery Train:
At the outset, Vern says he doesn't want to write a biography of Seagal -- he claims that project would be for a different and better writer. But I don't think Vern should sell himself short. He's got a sharp eye for these things. Even if he's not writing a biography, clearly he notices the importance of Seagal's biography, both the factual one and the mythical one. To an extent, if you're going to write about an auteur, it seems like a certain amount of biographical insight would be helpful to figure out how the auteur's work changes over time. Not necessarily a lot, but just a little more for illumination, and maybe even delve into the critical aspects of Seagal's personality. Vern mentiones that Seagal once hosted Saturday Night Live (musical guest: Michael Bolton), but I don't recall any mention in the book of Seagal being banned from hosting the show again.
Seagalogy 550: Steven Seagal and Western Civilization (1950s-present)
I know what you're thinking: C'mon, it's just a 490-page book about Steven Seagal we're talking about. Yeah, but then again, I got a lot out of 160-page book about Céline Dion's Let's Talk About Love. I'm probably just over-intellectualizing the whole notion of Seagalogy and losing sight of what Seagalogy is really all about: joy.
There's a proto-Seagal mentioned a few times in the book: Billy Jack. The character was created and played by Tom Laughlin and appeared in four movies: The Born Losers (1969), Billy Jack (1971), Trial of Billy Jack (1974), and Billy Jack Goes to Washington (1977). The Billy Jack movies blended a social conscience and earnest liberal politics with a little bit of martial arts and exploitation. They're hokey, they're high-minded, they're sincere, they're schlocky, but I kind of love them without irony (well, maybe not ...Goes to Washington).
The connection between Billy Jack and many Seagal characters is so obvious, and somehow I'd never thought of it that way. In fact, Steven Seagal the person is a bit like a real-life Billy Jack -- or maybe the mythologized Steven Seagal has a little Billy Jack in his imagined DNA. So after reading Seagalogy, I can't say I'm a convert to Steven Seagal, but I do at least understand his appeal beyond irony. It's the same reason I like Billy Jack, and it's even the same reason I enjoyed those early Seagal movies: he breaks bones real good, and he occasionally tries to say something more.
Seagalogy 599: The Path Beyond Thought - Special Study in Superior Attitude and Superior State of Mind
If Seagal's filmography is a trail of broken windows and broken bones, enjoyment of a Seagal film is a path beyond thought. The Path Beyond Thought is the title of an hour-long documentary about Seagal's teaching of aikido. In the conclusion to Seagalogy, Vern explains the title as the internalization of aikido to a point where one reacts without thinking. It's this idea that's at the heart of Seagalogy. In a way, that's how Seagal films and Billy Jack movies and Cannon movies might be best watched. You don't turn your brain off, but you respond to those movies reflexively and viscerally, and if you like them, you shouldn't be ashamed and you shouldn't make apologies for it. That's one of the best things about Vern's approach to Steven Seagal: there's no irony to it.
I think I've answered my two questions from the beginning of this piece, though I should have been asking a third question all along. It's a question from On Deadly Ground, and it features a key moment of Seagalogy: "What does it take to change the essence of a man?"
I don't know if I've necessarily been brought forward into contemplation, but I do have a genuine, goofy smile on my face whenever I consider the question and how it's asked. That entertained feeling, totally without irony, may be the best attitude to have about the things you enjoy. More than the recurring themes of Steven Seagal's work, that's the most important lesson of Seagalogy.
Previous Classes - Seagalogy 101: An Introduction to Seagalogy