Music Features

Vern Does Fantasmo

In the information age, the canon has outgrown itself, and it is no longer possible to attain, even through the most dedicated life of study, a familiarity with all of the acknowledged masterpieces of art in civilization.  This is mostly a positive thing, freeing our best analytical minds and our own personal artistic crusades from a skewed, Eurocentric syllabus that has served as a slap in the face to the diversity of cultural history that humankind has truly achieved over the years.  We now hold a liberty to forge our own path through the world of art, sincerely seeking that which we are drawn to, illuminating overlooked but amazing corners based on our own experience and curiosity.

Of course freedom breeds laziness and vulgarity, and modern Euro-American pop culture has become the general base for artistic discussion.  It is hard to believe, but I don't think this is all the fault of hypercrass, hypernostalgic cable network VH1.  There is an honesty to this that I relate to and admire.  It makes me think a childhood wasted watching television and reading Rolling Stone was actually spent developing a solid foundation as a cultural intellect.  Still, there is a point where such exaltations of disposable pop culture devalues the search for profound and challenging artwork, and I try to catch myself before I become one of those infuriatingly whip-smart but wilfully ignorant characters who has not surrendered themselves to the spiritual transcendence of artistic oblivion in ages because they are too busy finding something SOBIG (so bad its good) to condescend to. 

Still, I spent my Saturday night at Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion, a monthly teatotalling extravaganza hosted at the central public library in Chesapeake, VA.  I watched, in its entirety, the rumored height of Steven Seagal's pre-Under-Siege-pseudo-blockbuster-period, the elementary, ludicrous though fleetingly thrilling revenge movie Out For Justice, in which the dubiously spiritual action star dubiously essayed the role of a Brooklyn cop who is out for justice.  I also caught the beginning of Belly of the Beast, which I'm told is one of the gems in Seagal's largely incoherent, modern, direct-to-video phase.  I also eavesdropped on and tentatively participated in plenty of serious, smart, funny, engaged conversations about the filmography of...yes, Steven Seagal.  Perhaps I'm being a bit hypocritical, filling my brain with pop detritus at the expense of my perpetual quest for beauty, but I feel like the evening was quite enriching for several reasons.

Firstly, I got to watch a live demonstration by Aikido of Virginia Beach (  I am a fan of martial arts cinema.  It is one of the many areas I'm somewhat shamed not to have a more thorough knowledge of.  Still, I can recognize that the physical art in these movies is as beautiful, mysterious and personal as the great dancers of the screen, or even moreso, the great clowns of the silent era.  It is an area obsessively adored by a cult audience but tragically overlooked and undervalued by mainstream and high-brow criticism.

Of course, amateur local demonstrations tend to lack that level of lyricism, but I admire them anyway, and may be just as inspired.  This one was not unusual, in that it consisted of a series of awkward maneuvers executed by primarily caucasian students.  It really is great stuff to mock from a position of smug superiority, if you're into that kind of thing.  While I enjoy lazy, entitled mockery as much as the other guy, I try to reserve it for targets that deserve it.  These cats certainly do not, as they are actively doing something that has long been on my list of things to do that will not be gotten to until I am rich, famous, content, and blessed with a quantity of freetime that exceeds the actual hours in a week: study a martial art.  I'm not talking about taking a defense class to pick up easy tricks that will falsely encourage you to go out and start a bar fight, but an ongoing course of study mixing discipline, introspection, morality, fitness and skill.  Sure, I would poke fun, but the truth is I admire these people and am happy to see them coincide with my world of pathological media intake.

Most importantly, I'm always happy to show my face at Fantasmo, another spot that leaves me ashamed of my poor attendance.  This monthly event is a sincere and thoughtful celebration of the wonders of all shades of cult cinema, but with a healthy sense of humor that never denies the more laughable aspects of this peculiar avenue of film.  Much credit should be given to the Chesapeake library.  In America, public libraries are rather notorious for banning controversial works that might do horrible things to children like cause them to think or get excited about literature.  Furthermore, Chesapeake is not known as one of the most culturally progressive suburban/rural cities.  The library, however, fearlessly allows the Fantasmo crew to routinely screen hard-R movies in a generously outfitted facility (surely something like Belly of the Beast was never intended to be projected so well in such impeccable audio) free to the public.  This pays off, nurturing one of the most thoughtful, interesting followings of local intellectuals I have discovered in Southeastern Virginia.  They certainly put the vacuous crowds at self-righteous dance nights to shame.

Fantasmo has recently branched out to an engaging blog maintained by co-founder and superlibrarian Jim Blanton, located at  This gives an impression of the depth and fun of the monthly screenings.  Getting way off the subject, I also recommend checking out a very good DIY web series, sort of a serial Twilight Zone for the youtube generation, The House Between.  Starring a few Fantasmo heroes and written and directed by the subject of a recent feature of mine, John Kenneth Muir (author of "Horror Films of the 1980s"), it can be found at

Hopefully, through all of this unfocused blather, you have been able to parse how grateful I am for a regular event like Fantasmo.  But why, exactly, was a questionable Steven Seagal double bill so awesome to experience?  Well, however laughable cultural consensus has decided Seagal to be, and however little actual quality I can find in his films (give or take an amazing scene around the middle in which he manages to disrupt a sleazy communal environment and thrash people one by one with his mastery of Aikido, usually the highlight), it turns out a fine and unique writer has written a whole book entitled "Seagalogy" that focuses on nothing but the man's career.

Going only by Vern, the eccentric and reclusive Seattle film critic actually agreed to a phone Q&A on the terms that he was able to use a device to disguise his voice.  Though speaking to a distorted voice via an improvised cell-phone-to-auditorium-mic was far from ideal, it was also one of the strangest and coolest experiences of the year for me.  Vern gave a standard rundown of his motivations and themes for "Seagalogy" in response to our admittedly standard questions, but even through the surreal means of dialog, he came off as humble and engaged. 

Crucially, he made me actually want to read his book despite my antipathy towards the subject matter.  Though I am nowhere near toeing that line, there is a point where criticism and essay becomes an art unto itself, intriguing and expressive beyond its ostensible subject.  Vern achieves this on the regular through a modest website.  His tone is vulgar and conversational, but also deceptively insightful and craftily hilarious.  In a half-assed attempt to bring this full circle, I would point Vern out as one of the beacons forging new art and dialog out of pop culture, in contrast to the vultures of VH1 dredging fleeting titillation out of the collective dustbin.  As Reading Rainbow would encourage you, don't take my word for it.  Check out his archive at and I doubt you'll be sorry.  I'm sure there's a link to buy his book in there somewhere, as well.