Sunday, January 25, 2009

Against the Dark

The testimony of the critic is no more. Steven Seagal has rendered dead the doubts, the scathing words, the formulas of scorn – all are past to the present, crumbled into nothing. The critic lies stunned, a wash of surprise dirtying his eyes. Seagal has veered off the pompously-wrought trajectory set by the critic, far from the lines of fate traced by the self-important twitches of Fellini-stained hands. Gone are the genre prisons that once contained row upon row of Half Past Dead and Flight of Fury. The old canvas of Action, dotted here and there by Revenge, Cop, Drug Lord, Revenge, Corruption, Terrorism, Revenge – now blotted out by a new canvas, a fresh genre in which to explore deep philosophical thinking as only Seagal can.

The shift: typicality gives way to horror, the domain of monsters and repulsive alterity. The previously untouched genre unfurls its wares in Seagal’s glow, ready to be transmuted into something wholly new: a horror film starring Steven Seagal.

Such is the essence of Against the Dark. It’s a journey to the frontier of each and every illusion we hold regarding Seagal. Sentences will need to be rewritten in the aftermath, the venture simultaneously breaking and remanufacturing everything we thought we knew. Orthodoxy is smote. Old words are necessarily chewed to mush. Only with Seagal’s sanction will the words work – otherwise they die in the fires of banality.

Against the Dark’s world is one we’ve all come to accept, the ravaged deathscape too often seen, one that now endears as much as it irritates. Like the senile aunt who regurgitates the same stories ad nauseam, the world where disease induces derangement in the citizenship, producing homicidal maniacs that want to feast on your flesh, leaving you a carrier of their infection – this too becomes an object of love. Let it unfold, they plead, give it your time, gratify its wants, freely lend your ears, for it means no harm and has been produced in the most sincere ludic spirit.

Humanity’s depleted numbers stand as potential victims, prey to the hordes of unleashed evil, the strange vampire-mutant xeno-who-the-fuck-knows? that now roam the city. Opposing this force is Seagal, who leads a team of sword-master vigilantes called Hunters. They spend their evenings strolling through the streets, killing as many creatures as possible. When their collective punch is called upon, you can be sure their timely arrival will furnish the screen in hope, relief and oodles of blood.

The main thread of the film has a group of survivors wandering through an abandoned hospital, waiting for Seagal and his pals to come and rescue them. Occasionally we cross-cut to a military encampment where Keith David’s army asshole plans to ‘disinfect’ the area, that is, bomb the fuck out of it. All of which sets up a scenario where Seagal must rescue the survivors and escape the area, time’s ticking hand a constant burden.

It’s a complex narrative. One that demands rumination, an hour or two of heady reflection. Don’t feel embarrassed if you need to reread the last paragraph.

The film is a picture of grey and green, floaty cameras stuttering in time to the plot. Superfluities of the colour spectrum become absorbed in a flash of quick-fire cutaways and slow-motion pans. Blurred tilts disclose the actions of Seagal and his team, a merry band that includes the Rock’s stunt double. Yes, the film is that star-studded! The producers have clearly set no limits when it comes to casting – the cheap Sarah Polley substitute being sufficient proof of that.

But let’s not be coy: no one watches a Seagal film to admire the talents of the supporting cast. Seagal poses his own questions, lives his own commentary, gives voice to the silent imaginings of his own interests. Between films he stores his ideas, notions collected and nurtured, milk in the teat ready to be drawn. Then it comes, spewing forth in deluges of acumen. The unnoticed becomes noticed, Seagal sails past Ithaca and enters a new realm, a place of vivid insight and melodious blues barre-chords.

Oh Seagal! at which puny hubris do you aim your magnificent mentality this time?

The answer, as always, lies in the title.

Keen observers won’t have missed this: an alliance, seemingly forged by Seagal over recent years. A mighty union, consisting of Seagal and shadow, hovering auspiciously over the latest crop of cinéma Seagal. A void of light in which Seagal beats up the iniquitous and saves the day – well, we presume that’s what happens, having had to squint to see even the merest boot to the stomach. We thought the lack of visual clarity was a gesture of defiance, a revolt against dominant Hollywood conventions of visibility. We surmised that Seagal’s avant-garde credentials were coming to the fore, spitting subversion and flipping middle-finger hyperbole at the hegemony of safe cinema convention.

But no, such an alliance never existed. A war was being fought all along. Seagal waging a campaign against the dark, darkness, the spawn of night-time, or as Flaubert once described it, ‘fuck all light.’ The enduring battle continues. For years it has been waged in secret. But now the truth emerges and the war moves onto its final stages. Urban Justice looks like a mere scuffle in comparison, a speck on the Seagalian corpus. Continuity is maintained as our hero pursues his own agenda, his interests fill the space opened up by Against the Dark’s dance of repetitive images and already-seen plot points. Seagal never fails to use film, to transform it into a tool for his application.

In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau produces an idea called la perruque. Workers, confined by time (the workday) and space (the workplace), use their situation to follow their own interests, taking time to indulge in creative pursuits, appropriating resources in the name of the individual act, independent of the machine’s dictation. One’s own work wears the mask of legitimate labour, time diverted ‘from the factory for work that is free, creative, and precisely not directed towards profit.’

Seagal personifies la perruque. His crusade persists unhindered by the travesties of cinema that are sometimes fed his name. Whether he’s fighting Gary Busey or the malicious ineffability of the dark, Seagal’s consistency never wavers.

Damn, the dark truly picked the wrong man to pick a fight with.

Anyway, so the tale crawls on forever forward and eventually Seagal comes face-to-face with the dark. He knows his mission: he must end it, enclose the bastard dark in a container of light, sealed shut by starchy fingers of greased ass-kicking. Can there be light without dark? The relativist’s lack of Seagalian spunk spells his demise. Binary oppositions lie extinguished in Seagal’s wake. The line that separates night and day on Earth is called the terminator. Seagal’s destiny is to be that line. He stands between light and dark, throwing balletic ninja kicks at the dark, thrusting his knife at its minatory filth claws. His detractors say that no one can fight the dark with a shotgun – to this Seagal’s armoury replies, ‘fuck you!’

Bullets and the caustic swipe of his blade bite into the dark, first maiming it into submission, then finishing it off with a quick flurry of fists. Henceforth, only lower case letters will be used to spell the word dark and Seagal will go forth victoriously into the bright noon-shine of day.


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