Monday 19 April 2010
Tim Walker: Vern gives quality nonsense the depth of analysis it deserves
The Couch Surfer: A lot of movie critics are snobs. The less discerning provide poster quotes for crass blockbusters
Who are the great living film critics of the English-speaking world? I inadvertently made the case for Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times in this very column some weeks back – an excellent human being, as well as a guy who can write eloquently of his opinion on the latest Twilight movie (which is not much, by the way). Lots of people love Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, Philip French of The Observer and Mark Kermode of the BBC, whether they agree with them or not. But then there's Vern.
In the late Nineties, someone by that name began posting his B-movie musings on the newsgroup forums of the day, before launching his own lo-fi website and, finally, fetching up as a regular reviewer for the film site Ain't it Cool News.
In 1998, Vern released his first book, Seagalogy: A Study of the Ass-Kicking Films of Steven Seagal. It crystallised his signature style: applying something approaching cultural criticism to straight-to-video schlock. Not an entirely original gimmick, maybe, but its distinctive tone made Seagalogy a stalwart of the Waterstone's Film and/or Humour sections. According to one of his Ain't it Cool colleagues, "Vern is the greatest writer about film writing about film anywhere that film is written about." On 30 April, Vern publishes his first proper collection of reviews: Yippee Ki-Yay Moviegoer!: Writings on Bruce Willis, Badass Cinema and Other Important Topics. I reckon it's up there with Lane's brilliant 2002 anthology, Nobody's Perfect. "I'm not a professional movie critic," Vern writes in his introduction. "I'm just some asshole... [who believes] a well-rounded movie lover oughta have something to say about Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Claude Van Damme." Who else speaks for that demographic?
A lot of movie critics are snobs (and often the funnier for it). The less discerning just provide poster quotes for crass blockbusters. Vern treads the tightrope between the two, giving quality nonsense the depth of analysis that it deserves. His critical faculties are intact, however, as proven by his review of Transformers (headlined "Vern vs Transformers"): "Three words for you about Transformers: Ho. Lee. Shit. Not as in 'Holy shit, I was blown away, it was a blast as well as AWESOME!' but as in 'Holy shit, society really is on the brink of collapse.'" And he doesn't only cover films with explosions in them. One section of the book, "The Issues", contains reviews of Brokeback Mountain, Crash and other Oscar-bait. "The Arts" includes his take on Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. A meditation on the evolutionary backstory that might explain the weird world of Pixar's Cars is considerably less missable than the film itself. And the prose style is unmistakable, cannily mixing typical action-movie idiom with the casual tone of the blogger.
Vern isn't an entirely real person. He won't agree to interviews because the "Vern" persona is, in fact, a construct from the mind of a man whom even his publishers, Titan, aren't permitted to meet. Perhaps his opinions aren't even shared by his alter ego. It hardly matters. Of course a critic can be useful to tell you whether a film is likely to be any good or not. But Vern shares with the best a clever, original and utterly engaging voice. Movies just happen to be what he uses it on.
Now don't get me wrong; I'm thrilled at the idea of a new Robin Hood film – not least one directed by Ridley Scott, with Mark Strong as the baddie and Russell Crowe as Robin with Robson Green's accent. But just hang on a minute, what's all this nonsense about it being the most "historically accurate" portrayal yet of "how the man became the legend"? So that would be an historically accurate portrayal of a fictional character, would it? I mean, I know there's a possibility that at some point between the 12th and 14th centuries there may perhaps have been an outlaw of some description whose band of men – merry or otherwise – enjoyed robbing rich people in a forest in the Midlands. But there's certainly not enough evidence to warrant calling any film with Hood at its heart "historically accurate". It's like suggesting you've made the most authentic movie about 19th-century vampire Count Dracula, or famed Baker Street detective Sherlock Holmes. If all you're concerned about is ersatz "accuracy", then I'd rather watch Robert Downey Jr bare-knuckle boxing, thanks very much – or, for that matter, Kevin Costner doing archery tricks. With Kevin Costner's accent.
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