Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer, Vern

Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer, Vern

Titan, 2010, 420 pages, C$18.95 tp, ISBN 978-1-84856-371-1

Let’s put it as straight as Vern would: If you’re a reasonably smart moviegoer and you’re not reading, then you’re missing out on one of the best movie reviewers writing today.  His self-assigned beat is, basically, “movies for guys”: action movies, horror movies, thrillers… but it’s always a treat to see him occasionally venture out of that demographic segment.  He combines a deep knowledge of film with serious analytical skills and an entertaining online persona.  He may still make intentional use of faux-dumb neologisms as “filmatism” and “web sights”, but there’s a lot of keen intelligence behind the plain-speaking outlaw façade. (Accordingly, his only recorded use of the word façade is in a review he has since half-disavowed.)  With Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer, you too can get a selection of his best online writing in one handy paper package.

Ignoring the possibility that “Vern” is a pseudonym for someone with an established track record, this is Vern’s second professionally-published paper book: His first was Seagalogy, a surprisingly worthwhile book-length study of the film of Steven Seagal.  This time, most of Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer is material reprinted from Vern’s web site, bringing together more than ten years’ worth of content in one handy package that makes for perfect bathroom reading.

Despite the obvious jokes about paying for content you can get online for free, there’s an obvious added value to collections of online content.  On an obvious level, Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer comes with a generous amount of organizing, contextualizing, footnotes amending the original text and a bit of copy-editing as well.  The book is divided in sections prefaced by original introductions, and the familiar typography is certainly easier to read than outlawvern’s default white-on-black-with-red-highlights site layout.  But there’s also a less-obvious value in selecting content for print publication, picking the best or most representative pieces in one single package.  The cognitive savings in not having to navigate a web site in order to read scattershot reams of content are usually underestimated by the why-pay crowd: Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer offers a controlled reading experience, coherent mini-theses and the opportunity to send a few honest bucks (um, cents) to the hard-working author.

Divided in thirteen sections, Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer starts and ends firmly in action-movie territory, as the Die Hard-inspired title may imply.  When you start a book with a review of 300 and end it with a section dedicated to one Bruce Willis, it’s hard to argue that the book doesn’t deliver for action fans.  But there are plenty of big and small delights in-between.  Vern is able to write entertainingly about obscure films; few other reviewers can make readers hunt down long-forgotten movies as effectively as he does.  (I suspect that his commentaries are more entertaining that some of the movies he describes, but that goes without saying.)  Even in discussing films far from the “movies for guys” beat, Vern is reliably entertaining: His takes on films such as Crash (2005), Garfield and The Real Cancun show what happens when a reviewer brings his acknowledged biases to a different kind of film and writes for an appropriate audience.  From time to time, his reviews are springboard to larger concerns (such as the place of the American male in contemporary society, or the debate about the Hostel-inspired Torture Porn horror craze).  Some sections of the book are meant to form a sustained argument: After suffering through Transformers and being aghast at the “summer movies aren’t supposed to be good” argument, Vern revisits some of the best summer genre movies of the past and, in doing so, pretty much demonstrates that laziness from filmmakers and viewers is no excuse.

The result is quite a bit more valuable than a reprint of online reviews: It’s a great time in company of an articulate, sympathetic and knowledgeable critic who wants, in his own fashion, to raise the level of discourse surrounding popular genre movies.  Even in discussing movies that are -at best- forgettable exploitation films, Vern can be counted upon to make one or two observations worth our time.  Trust me on this: You want to be reading, and there’s no better introduction to Vern than Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer.

Seagalogy, Vern

Seagalogy, Vern

Titan, 2008, 396 pages, C$16.95 tp, ISBN 9781845769277

A quick look at this book’s cover blurbs confirms that I’m not the only one surprised that Vern’s Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal even exists.  For so-called serious cinephiles, Steven Seagal has stopped mattering about ten years ago, when his movies stopped showing in theaters and started going straight to DVD.  Even before then, Seagal’s movies were usually B-grade action films, the occasional exceptions (Under Siege, Executive Decision) often being hailed in spite of Seagal’s presence.  Somewhat savvier filmgoers can point at 1994’s poorly-reviewed On Dangerous Grounds as the film that broke the back of Seagal’s reputation as an actor/director, highlighting its earnest environmental monologue awkwardly inserted as a coda.

That’s the conventional wisdom, anyway.  For Vern, though, all of Seagal oeuvre is worth scrutiny.  His thesis, quickly stated, is that Seagal’s influence on his own roles and films has been markedly stronger than many other contemporary action stars: That most movies featuring Seagal are, in fact, best considered as “Steven Seagal movies” rather than belonging to their screenwriters or directors.  Vern highlights Seagal’s pet themes and obsessions, and then charts how they are reflected in the vast majority of his work.  To top it off, he also reviews Seagal’s music CDs and energy drink.

Everyone’s first reaction at a 395-pages book covering all things Seagal is likely to be similar to mine: No, really? Is there a subject of more trivial importance?  Couldn’t this be settled in a quick and cheap blog post?  Aren’t we wasting time, energy, paper, etc, even contemplating such matters?  Go ahead and wonder the same things.  I’ll wait for you to realize that in the end, the only valid appreciation of this book is based on results, not intent.

Because the damning thing is that Seagalogy is a lot of fun to read.  It even convincingly proves its thesis: By the time we reach 2008’s Pistol Whipped, there’s little doubt that Seagal returns again and again to themes of official corruption, blowback and environmental degradation.  His characters are largely cut from the same clothes, featuring the same taciturn attitude, fascination for other cultures and fleeting family ties.  His methods frequently include improvised weapons, bars fights and people being thrown through glass.  No matter his screenwriters or directors (who range from video-directing pseudonyms to Oscar-nominated Hollywood veterans), Seagal remains Seagal.  For an actor often dismissed without a thought, he has shown remarkable resilience at a time where other actors simply disappeared: More than half of Seagalogy covers his direct-to-video (DTV) films, with as much attention as his theatrical releases.

This means that Vern has gone through each movie with a fine comb, unravelling the shaky plotting of incoherently-made DTV features and telling us about scenes that barely make any sense on-screen.  He doesn’t review those films as much as he rebuilds them to see how they work (or don’t).  His commentary on DTV features is enlightening in that he has seen far more of them than most of us, and he can spot production flaws that set them apart from their more respectable theatrical brethren.  Even in structure, the book shines by its clear sections, careful interludes, meticulous appendices about minor and never-seen projects, with a poignant ending in which the author finally meets Seagal.

It helps that Vern’s style is a straightforward mixture of straight-ahead writing, well-chosen details, self-deprecating humour and a keen understanding of the action film genre.  I’ve known of Vern ever since he started writing for almost a decade ago and while I have often suspected his “Writer who is trying to go clean after a life of crime, alcohol, etc.” shtick to be indulgent performance art by either a bored film student or a struggling screenwriter, I still treasure in my archives an in-character email from him acknowledging my congratulations for a piece he’d written.  I’m not sure I would ever want to know the truth behind the pseudonym.  Much of his profane, consciously-illiterate online style is barely reflected in Seagalogy, though: At the exception of a consistent mistitling of “The Ain’t It Cool News” that plays as an in-joke, the entire book is scrupulously written and edited to the usual standards.  This isn’t a complaint: As much as I want you to read on a regular basis, a book written and designed like his site would be practically impossible to read at length.

Because, oh, yes, Seagalogy eventually becomes addictive reading even if you haven’t seen a Seagal film in a decade: For a book with a less-than-respectable subject, it quickly becomes an intelligent trip throughout the clichés of action cinema, and a fascinating discourse on all things Seagal.  It may even make you respect him for the first time.