It's beautiful, it really is. The weather is fine, and so is the irony. It's Phoenix, a city whose explosion of uncontrolled development has been accompanied by an explosion of uncontrolled violence. All proceeds from today's carnival are being donated to children of deceased police officers, people who died in the line of duty. And the day is being dedicated--by Governor Jane Hull, no less--to an actor who's made some of the most gratuitously and thrillingly violent movies ever to appear on a screen.
For years, Arizona resisted honoring Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday. But today--Wednesday, March 4--is officially Steven Seagal Day. And I, for one, have no problem with that. Almost more than life itself, I love trashy action movies featuring martial arts experts masquerading as actors. And Steven Seagal is the Stanislavski of bad acting.
AMC is opening a new 24-screen megaplex in Arizona Center in downtown Phoenix. To mark the opening, it's roped in Seagal. To justify his presence, it's having a Steven Seagal Festival, at which only his movies are being shown.
The show is set to start at 5 p.m. I get there around 4:30. There's an outdoor stage in the center's Palm Court, and 50 or so people are standing around it, waiting for local band the Beat Angels to play. It's a warm day, the first that's warm enough to tell us that winter is over.
I stand at the front. At 5:10, I look over my shoulder and see that the crowd behind me has multiplied. There are hundreds now, and it's still growing. The people present are a far cry from the usual white, tie-wearing patrons of Arizona Center; young, old, families, groups of friends, every color and social class are represented. Two middle-aged men are standing behind me. One asks the other, "Have you seen all his movies?"
"Yeah. I own 'em all. Every one of 'em. Except Fire Down Below."
The Beat Angels come onstage. The uninformed might think that this band was the reason for the size of the crowd. It's one of the most exciting live bands I've ever seen. This is almost entirely because of the charisma of the front man Brian Smith. He doesn't look human. He's so skinny that when you first see him from a distance you peer at him to make sure he's real, that he's not some mannequin they've brought on as a gag before the show really starts. With his mop of hair, sunglasses and tight black pants, he resembles a demented stick insect.
But when he performs, he becomes huge. He never stands still at the microphone, but dances and gesticulates and kicks his legs in the air with an ease that indicates that, despite his famous drunkenness (or perhaps because of it), he's remarkably limber. The acoustics are so bad that you can't hear a word he's singing, but it doesn't matter. The power comes from the way he and his voice float on the wave of music that comes from behind him.
The set is well-received, and Smith makes it plain that the irony of the occasion is not lost on him. He keeps addressing the audience as "kids," which most of them haven't been in a while.
Then a "special guest" appears--Alice Cooper. Backed by the Beat Angels, he dedicates songs to Seagal, and, bizarrely, Joe Arpaio, who mercifully isn't anywhere to be seen. It doesn't occur to Cooper that if Seagal ever made a movie about our beloved sheriff, Arpaio would be the villain, the subject of a Seagal stomping. When Cooper performs "Jailhouse Rock," some people start dancing. But most are preoccupied with a black helicopter that keeps flying over the scene.
It turns out that the helicopter does carry the man they're here to see. When it lands and his security people escort him through the throng, his fans go ape shit. One guy starts crying. "I love you, Steven! I love you, man!" he bawls. Various women scream similar sentiments. People climb on each other's shoulders to get a look at him before he reaches the stage.
Jane Hull is already up there. Seagal hugs her. He's wearing a dark, embroidered jacket, and his hair hangs in a ponytail. He puts his hands together and bows to the crowd.
Hull reads a proclamation, praising Seagal's abilities as a martial artist, actor(!), writer and musician, and his efforts to increase awareness of HIV and environmental issues. She announces that all proceeds from this gig will go to "survivors of Phoenix police," and for a second I imagine she means people the cops have tried and failed to kill.
Seagal takes the mike and says he's honored to be here. He takes off his jacket, revealing a kind of Oriental muscle shirt. For a guy who plays action heroes, he's pretty flabby. Then he picks up a guitar and plays some blues, backed by legendary bluesman Taj Mahal, who won a Grammy Award. Seagal's a competent guitar player, but not a guitarist. His performance is interrupted when two employees of Hooters (it says so on their shirts) are brought on to kiss him on the cheek.
In the foyer of the movie theater, there's a media session. The TV people are freaking out because Seagal's supposed to be in here and he isn't. A well-groomed TV guy talks frantically with his producer on a mobile phone. Seagal's publicist says he'll be here in a few minutes.
"That's what you said a half-hour ago," the guy tells her.
The atmosphere is bizarre. A couple hundred invited guests, media and others, run around the foyer, scarfing free food and beer. Everyone babbles excitedly about "Steven."
The calm at the center of this storm is Steven Seagal. His state is somewhere far beyond laid-back, and somewhere just short of catatonic.
They bring him in, and he sits in a chair in a roped enclosure. There's a chair right next to his. Each invited journalist gets to go into the enclosure, one at a time, sit in the other chair and ask him questions.
Seagal's air is that of a Zen master or a village idiot. His voice is so soft it's really a loud whisper. Because he's a devotee of Tibetan Buddhism and has recently been recognized as an incarnate lama, people take his every utterance--however throwaway it might be--as a jewel of wisdom. As I wait my turn to talk to him, I'm prepared to believe he might be a misunderstood imbecile, like Chance the Gardener in Being There, or Ronald Reagan.
What's most striking about Seagal when you talk with him is that such an intelligent and thoughtful man can be such a talentless actor--and not realize how talentless he is. With a decent actor, his movies would be good action flicks. With him, however, they're classics of pulp cinema. Seagal--and, remember, this is coming from one of his biggest fans--may be the worst actor working today. He makes Chuck Norris seem like Robert De Niro.
But he takes himself 100 percent seriously. He presents himself not as a visiting Hollywood celebrity here to promote his movies, but as a combination of religious and spiritual leader. He refers to himself repeatedly as "an artist."
When I sit down beside him, I notice him reaching up his sleeve. He's been doing this for a while. I look and see that he has a string of mala beads--Tibetan prayer beads--strung around his right wrist, and he's been touching them while he's been interviewed.
There have been articles--most notably in Spy magazine--that present Seagal as a major jerk. He may have been at one time, or he may never have been. What's certain is that he isn't now. It could be argued that he's just pretending to be a nice guy, but--let's be realistic--if it's an act, he's not a good enough actor to carry it off. He doesn't have a celebrity attitude; he seems as interested in the reporters as they are in him.
I introduce myself, and he asks about my paper and my country of origin. I ask him how he manages to reconcile his spiritual beliefs with his hyperviolent movies. He says he doesn't see it as reconciliation, but exploration.
I tell him I was surprised at the spiritual element of The Glimmer Man. Was that his doing?
He smiles. "Of course."
Then why didn't he do the same with previous movies?
"When I made The Glimmer Man, I knew I was leaving Warner Bros., and I wasn't going to let them control me anymore. I think the world is ready for more spiritual films. The time is right, and I'm just trying to use skillful means to spread joy. Whatever it takes to make people happy."
Will future movies be less violent?
"Perhaps. . . . The films will probably become less violent, which is not to say that I won't make a lot more action films. But I hope the violence will be more meaningful. I'm not going to ignore violence and suffering. I'd like to examine it."
The hero of The Glimmer Man spends the movie preaching peace and spirituality--while beating lots of people senseless--and then goes berserk at the end. When his partner asks him why he doesn't practice what he preaches, he says, "I'm stupid."
I suggest to Seagal that this is an admission of failure, of defeat, and ask if he plans to address the question of the necessity of violence in future.
"Yes," is all he says.
The movies are starting. Following our conversation, I decided to go and see The Glimmer Man again. As I go into the theater, a guy asks if he can buy my press pass. At first I don't get it; he obviously has tickets or he wouldn't be in here. Then he explains that my laminated pass, which is strung around my neck, has Seagal's name on it and he wants it for a souvenir. I tell him I still need it. I get a few similar offers. These people are hard-core. It's fitting that Seagal is a better musician than an actor, because the guy is a rock star.
Contact Barry Graham at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
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