PATRICK STEPHENSON

Earthbound concerns of an ascendant adult

“The Outlaw Vern”

by Patrick Stephenson,
writer, reviewer, etc.

OBSCURANT // What are we to make of cinematic criticism when creepy ole Gene Shalit is a prominent fixture? Shalit, a mustachioed, curly-haired and bow tie-wearing contributor to the Today Show, is a dork. Thirty years ago, critics like the late Pauline Kael were passionate countercultural icons who engaged films as art and introduced Americans to movements State Penlike the French New Wave. Our answers to Kael reflect how times have changed since her prime.

Current mainstream criticism, of the kind by critics like Shalit, Joel Siegel and co., is tailor-made for the television soundbite. Their reviews reduce films to whether two thumbs are up or down, to whether a film deserves two or three stars. The Internet is our answer. Just as we’re using it to escape oppressive RIAA controls, so too can we find alternative outlets for criticism. And this frontier’s moviegoing leader is a self-described outlaw: The Outlaw Vern, an ex-con who’s reviewed films online since his release from jail in 1998. Writes Vern, “I am a Writer who is trying to go clean after a life of crime, alcohol, etc.”

Vern’s passion for what he calls Outlaw Cinema is all-consuming. At the same time as he reviews (and pans) a pretentious museum installment, like Matthew Barney’s Cremaster 3, he’ll praise a DTV Steven Seagal film, with charming and unsmirky sincerity. Every film, from the genre B-movie to the fall Oscar wannabe, is granted equal space and time. Vern’s reviews are written in a folksy, conversation and profanity-filled vernacular, where readers are directly addressed as his buds. His grammar and punctuation may not always be perfect, but that only increases his appeal, and probably intentional.

“I’m trying to obliterate the usual format of movie reviews,” writes Vern. “I hate the formulaic, lowest common denominator consumer review they have in newspapers. But I also try to avoid the cliches of all the other popular types of film writing. I don’t [for instance] mind being funny [or] going off on long tangents or tirades.” Those digressions are what make Vern’s style so unique. In one review, he’ll transition into a story about riding a bus route with paper bag-carrying drunks. In another he’ll use the movie he’s reviewing as the basis for an anti-Bush rant. In that way, Vern’s a latter day Hunter S. Thompson, albeit one who’s drug-free. And like the late HST, he’s hilarious.

After Vern’s late-90s jail release, he frequented a movie newsgroup, wherein, he says, he “cut [his] teeth.” Describing his first attempts at criticism, Vern continues, “I started to like writing about movies the more I did it. I was a real fish out of water there and I guess it was funny. People started saying I should start a web sight [sic, that Vern insists on using “sight” instead of “site” is another of his charms], so I did. In retrospect, they were probably kidding, but who’s sorry now? [Plural expletive.]”

After that, Vern says, he began reviewing films for Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News, where “people used to DESPISE me [because] they thought I was Abu Ghraibing the English language.” Since his debut on the site, Vern has found a niche reviewing direct-to-video movies, like those from tubby environmentalist Steven Seagal, and readers have warmed up to him. However, that he’s appreciated by a growing fanbase makes him “worry that I’m losing my touch.” Concerns like that, alongside his refusal to work or write for movie studios, solidify Vern’s status as an outlaw.

Recently, he gathered several reviews into a collection titled 5 on the Outside, so called for his first five years out of jail, and published it through a print-on-demand label called Lulu. “[The book has] done about as well as I expected,” says Vern. “I’m happy to have it out there and a lot of people say they’re buying it for their friends. The sales have died down, though. I’m pretty sure the Harry Potter lady is not too nervous about it.” 5 On the Outside was so good that it earned him a front cover comment from Blade II director, Guillermo Del Toro, who calls Vern an “American treasure.”

Regarding future projects, Vern cites Seagalogy, in which he’ll analyze Steven Seagal’s cinematic output, and for which he’s been “watching each of [Seagal’s movies] chronologically, taking notes, making charts, then writing a chapter on each one. I’ve really been studying these down to the most minute detail, using the pause button.” In addition, he’s optioned the story of his life to a Hollywood screenwriter. If a film is eventually made, that may finally solve the mystery surrounding Vern’s life. On Ain’t It Cool News, regular writers are notorious for their fictional personae. If Vern’s ex-con personality is similarly invented, he refuses to tell.

“Sorry, bud,” says Vern, regarding the realities of his back story, “I’d rather leave that up to the imagination for now.”

My First Interview With Vern [1]

[1] A second, more in-depth interview may be appearing soon in The Believer. This interview took place by e-mail in 2005, and was the source material for the column above. I added an introduction when I published it on Smith & Stephenson. That introduction follows this headline footnote.

For more than a few years now, I’ve been reading the Outlaw Vern’s earthy, intelligent and addictive film reviews. I first found his work on Harry Knowles’ Ain’t It Cool News, a site that (otherwise) doesn’t exactly abound in good writing, but which is where Vern has recently taken to reviewing direct-to-video Steven Seagal films. Ever since that first discovery, I’ve visited Vern’s own web sight (sic) daily, hoping for something new—because I’m addicted. The guy is, in my opinion, brilliant.

For my Obscurant column for Rochester’s Post-Bulletin, I highlight and review obscure media, and despite Vern’s huge and devoted Internet following, his Geocities site and reviews still fit w/in that predicate. Although Vern’s outlaw status—particularly from the film industry, for which he refuses to work in order to maintain his objectivity—is defined in part by his obscurity, I want more people to know about him. I want his just released, Lulu-produced review compilation to sell, and I want his site to have so much traffic that Geocities will repeatedly shut it down for exceeding its allowed bandwidth. Those two desires seem contradictory, but I don’t care. Vern is awesome.

Mostly, I wanted an opportunity to talk to him, and choosing his website and my love for it for my topic gave me an excuse. In addition, I wanted to solve a mystery about Vern: writers for Ain’t It Cool News invent characters and pseudonyms for their reviewing. The tradition is that because they’re spying on the movie industry—reading scripts for unfinished films, viewing rough cuts—their identities must be kept secret. Most of the characters these writers create are lame. But Vern’s persona is fascinating.

According to his sight (sic), he’s an ex-con, trying to reform after a life of crime and drinking and drug-taking, etc. In order to do that, he has become a Writer, and therefore devoted himself to expressing himself with words rather than violence. That philosophy is in tune with with one Vern’s theories, that a badass is made more badassed by juxtaposition (e.g. Clint Eastwood is a bigger badass in a movie like Absolute Power, because he loves art.) The Vern juxtaposition is his writing ability vs. his crime-filled former life.

In reading Vern’s reviews and absorbing his badassedness, I’d always been impressed by the scope of Vern’s persona, that he stays in character during his reviews, his contributions to Ain’t It Cool News’ talkback section, his Lulu blog, etc. As I’ve read more and more of Vern’s work, I’ve come to believe that his back story is real, despite the doubt created by where I first read him. Anyway, as you’ll see, I didn’t solve that mystery, but what Vern said in response to the questions I gave him was a fun read.

I’ve been reading your reviews for a few years now, and during my reading I’ve always wondered whether your reviewing persona is really you, whether it isn’t a character you’ve created in the vein of Ain’t It Cool News’ other writers. If it IS a character, you probably won’t want to reveal that, but I have to ask. Is it? That is, is your back story true?

Well damn, the column is called “Vern Tells It Like It Is” isn’t it? People can choose to believe me or not. At least there is some mystery then. I was worried that I had erased any chance of mystery when I wrote a detailed column about a painful and humiliating medical procedure I had a couple years ago.

Okay, assuming that your story is true, what made you want to write after you got out of jail, and what about reviewing films appealed to you?

Somebody turned me onto a movie “newsgroup” and I cut my teeth on there. I started to like writing about movies the more I did it. I was a real fish out of water there and I guess it was funny. People started saying I should start a web sight, so I did. In retrospect they were probaly kidding but who’s sorry now? Fuckers.

What’s led you toward the direct-to-video movies that you usually review for AICN?

That just came out of reviewing all the Seagal movies. I got a good hookup for video screeners, so those are the movies I can see early. I try to be an outlaw among film critics so I don’t go to critic’s screenings or get to know the other critics or anything. So I end up seeing the DTV screeners more often than I happen to see a preview screening for an upcoming theatrical movie.

It seems to have done okay for me. People used to DESPISE me on The Ain’t It Cool News. They thought I was abu ghraibing the english language. Check out the talkbacks on my review for THE EXORCIST (or ALMOST FAMOUS where I quote some of them). They didn’t think what I was doing even counted as a movie review. But the Seagal reviews were always popular and now they mostly say nice things about me. (I worry that means I’m losing my touch, actually.)

Can you give a kind of history of your life up till now?

Sorry bud, I’d rather leave that up to the imagination for now.

Have you ever thought about branching out into fiction, or maybe non-fiction? I know that some of my and other readers’ favorite parts of your reviews are those stories from your life that you incorporate into your reviews, eg. Ken Park.

Yeah, I really want to do a novel or a short story collection some day. I’ve been flirting with it for a while but I have to get my Seagal book out of the way before I’ll start really giving that one a shot.

Do you have any new books in the works?

My next one will be SEAGALOGY: THE ACTION FILMS OF S. SEAGAL. I’ve actually been working on it since before 5 ON THE OUTSIDE. In planning for the Seagal book I was looking into lulu.com and the whole print on demand option, so I put together 5 ON THE OUTSIDE as a test run for SEAGALOGY.

How has your current book—”Five on the Outside”—been doing?

It’s done about as well as I expected. I’m happy to have it out there and alot of people say they’re buying it for their friends. One guy said he got his local library to buy it, which is great. The sales have kind of died down though. I’m pretty sure the Harry Potter lady is not too nervous about it.

And how has your Seagal-ology book been going?

I still got alot of rewriting to do but I’m way too far to turn back at this point and I think it’s gonna blow the lid off of Seagal studies. I’ve been watching each of the movies chronologically, taking notes, making charts, then writing a chapter on each one. I mean I’ve really been studying these down to the most minute detail, using the pause button. There’s even gonna be a recipe in this book. He puts movies out so fast though that there will probaly be about ten more chapters than expected when I started the book. There is only one I haven’t watched yet, this Korean picture called CLEMENTINE about a fighter and his daughter, and Seagal plays another fighter that the hero faces at the end. I’ve kind of been putting off watching it so I’ll have something to look forward to.

I already enjoyed Seagal’s pictures but I’ve learned alot from studying them more closely. The early ones are alot better than most people acknowledge. I especially like OUT FOR JUSTICE which is really well directed by John Flynn, who also did the great Vietnam vet revenge movie ROLLING THUNDER (written by Paul Schrader). But even as late as FIRE DOWN BELOW they can be surprisingly good. There’s an awesome truck chase in that one. But people are more likely to remember the part where he plays guitar.

Are you going to publish through Lulu again?

Well like I said, 5 ON THE OUTSIDE was a test run. My main question was, does it look like a real book? It turns out it does. I’m real happy with Lulu. The book turned out good, I didn’t have to risk any money and I still got to print it exactly how I wanted (from cover art to spelling errors). I like total control. The kind of thing I do probaly wouldn’t work well with compromise.

On the other hand, I would be willing to risk it if there was a publisher willing to risk me. The downside of print on demand obviously is it’s harder to get it into bookstores and I have no idea how to promote it outside of my regular readers. I mean if 5 ON THE OUTSIDE had a publisher behind it and was on display in bookstores, I really think alot of people who never heard of me would pick it up and enjoy it. And maybe moreso for SEAGALOGY. So if the opportunity presents itself I’ll go with a publisher, but right now the plan is Lulu.com.

Even if that did happen, I would go back to Lulu in the future I think. It’s a good way to write books that you know a million people aren’t gonna buy.

What other ideas for books do you have?

Well geez, I don’t want to give away everything but I come up with alot of ideas that would be great if I ever had the time. I did a little bit of planning on a film text book called VERN’S GOD DAMN GUIDE TO THE FILMS OF CINEMA. Then I was thinking about THE BIG BOOK OF BADASS which would be kind of the Encyclopedia Baddasstica with entries for all the important badass actors, directors, movements, terminology, etc.

I got one idea I’m in love with, but I probaly won’t do it because it would be pretty ambitious and would skirt copyright law. But it would be ON DEADLY GROUND: THE UNAUTHORIZED NOVELIZATION. That would be a good followup to SEAGALOGY. I might do any one of these ideas in the future but I got a couple others that are more likely and I’ll keep those secret for now.

Are you satisfied with how your experience with your first turned out, and with how it’s been selling? Would you ever do readings?

I’m real proud of the book, I think it turned out great and I like reading my reviews in book form instead of on a computer screen. I’m happy with how much it’s sold but I’d be more happy if it sold alot more. I don’t think I’d do readings because I’m a real private person other than when I’m writing about my medical procedures.

How did [Blade II, Hellboy director] Guillermo Del Toro [who calls Vern an “American treasure” on 5 On the Outside‘s front cover] contact you for the quote on your book?

I was openly asking on my web sight for somebody to write the introduction. I had already decided on Jill Cozzi writing it when I was suddenly contacted by Moriarty from The Ain’t It Cool News. He’s been a big supporter of me, putting my stuff on their sight, but he doesn’t actually e-mail me hardly ever. Well, he wrote and said that he would love to write the introduction but that he thought he could get Guillermo Del Toro to do it.

This was a huge shock to me. I like all of Del Toro’s movies, especially BLADE II. But I had no idea a guy like that would know who I was. Apparently he had asked Moriarty about me and said that he liked reading my stuff, it didn’t matter what movie I was reviewing. I never talked to Del Toro. Moriarty contacted him, he was working on a movie and didn’t have time to write an introduction but offered to write a blurb. I wasn’t sure I would really get it, in fact I almost gave up and published without it. It was literally the last day before I published, suddenly Moriarty sent the blurb and I had the cover changed to get the blurb on there.

Do you ever plan to write screenplays, like Moriarty/Drew McWeeny?

Well, I’ve thought about it before but I don’t think that’s something I should chase after. To be frankly honest I’m uncomfortable with the way many of my colleagues on these sights are trying to make movies. I’m not singling out Moriarty, it’s pretty much all of the guys on those types of sights, they all started because they love and dream about movies. So the success and connections they’ve got from doing web sights have helped them go after their original dream of making movies. I couldn’t be more happy for them on that. But I picture myself in that position and I know I couldn’t still write about movies the way I do now. I mean you would try to be honest but how are you gonna not rationalize, not censor yourself etc. when you keep thinking “this director is a nice guy, what if he’s reading this,” or “I have a script being considered at this studio, I don’t want to piss them off by making fun of their movie,” or “jesus I can’t say that, I might have a meeting with this guy next week.”

I’m gonna try to avoid being in a situation like that. For example I think I’ll have to not review Del Toro’s future movies, now that I know he might be reading.

I have to admit I got one thing going on though. I haven’t announced this publicly yet but I might as well tell you. One of my readers since the beginning has been bugging me for years so I eventually gave in and let him option my life story/web sight for a movie version. When he first contacted me he said he was a story editor on some canadian tv show about a farting alien. I didn’t take it very seriously so I just let him do it. Now he has an actual movie he wrote called PRETTY PERSUASION, some pervy teen movie that did well at Sundance. So who knows. He wrote the VERN TELLS IT LIKE IT IS script and he’s shopping it around, we’ll see what happens with that. If the movie ever happens I’m allowed to talk all the shit about it I want. We also have a gentleman’s agreement that I can write the novelization and clear up all the phoney horse shit he put in there so it doesn’t haunt me forever.

Do you ever plan to get a domain name of your own?

I’ve always tried to avoid it because I like going against the grain and there is nothing more defiantly backwards on the web than to be on geocities. But I have enough readers now that it’s getting too much data transfer and knocking me offline, so I’ve been considering taking the plunge. On the other hand if they get the movie made it would be amazing to have a movie based on a geocities web sight. That would be a first and maybe geocities would be real grateful and send me some free coffee mugs or something.

One more question: if you were to say that you have a reviewing philosophy, or some kind of mission statement with your work, what would that be?

I don’t think I have a mission statement. But if I step back I think this is what I’m trying to do. I’m writing serious movie reviews, trying to share my passion and insights into these movies. It’s not a novelty. But I’m trying to obliterate the usual format of movie reviews. I hate the formulaic, lowest common denominator consumer review type of thing they have in newspapers. But I also try to avoid the cliches of all the other popular types of film writing. I don’t mind being funny, going off on long tangents or tirades. Most film writers take themselves too seriously. Everybody wants to look smart. I don’t really give a shit.

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Written by patiomensch

March 8, 2007 at 12:29 am

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