Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly’s time-travel “modern classic,” is overrated. There, I said it. But there are seams of real brilliance running through that movie. One that stands out is the impeccably crude self-help video Donnie’s feckless teacher insists on showing to her bored class. Cunning Visions Presents… Cue fuzzy production values: short, dumpy people wandering dreamlike through a meadow, led by a muscular man in a vest. Gentle synth muzak transports us instantly to the bowels of the 80s. Smarmy guru Jim Cunningham (a secret pedophile played with disturbing subtlety by Patrick Swayze)1 stares straight at the camera, the image of beneficence. Love, he says.
An older woman and her son (or grandson?) appear on screen, introduced as Shanda and Larry Riesman—fear survivors. The boy is small, dark-haired, surly, slightly chubby, staring intently at his own lap. Shanda confesses he wet the bed for two years. “But the solution was there all the time,” she gushes. She takes his hand and Larry looks up from his shameful reverie. In a surprisingly aggressive adolescent voice he barks at us: I’m NOT AFRAID anymore! He’s so angry the effect is comical for an instant. But then the instant passes, and the penny drops that Larry has bigger problems than wetting the bed.
Cunningham, the pervert charlatan, goes on to assure us that life is a choice between love and fear. It’s one of the film’s better jokes because, as Donnie observes pointedly to his teacher, life is so complicated it is terrifying, and people who try to reduce that chaos down to simple binary choices are, in his words, the Antichrist. Yet, like many a good joke, there’s more than a kernel of truth to Cunningham’s schema.
I’m Larry Riesman—or at least I was something similar at his age. Small, soft-bodied, unsure where to look when the camera was on me, given to following heroes with muscular arms, wishing I could kick butt and take names. The world is full of Larry Riesmans, and this in no small way explains the persistent growth of martial arts franchises up and down the country. Like ubiquitous women-only gyms, they seem to have found their way to strip malls on the outskirts of every town, as regular a feature of suburban life as Dunkin Donuts (or Krispy Kreme, depending on your region). They peddle karate, tae-kwon-do, and more recently mixed martial arts, to frustrated males.
While MMA may appeal to the young man (think Larry in high school or college) hoping to win a dirty bar fight on the ground in front of a pencil skirt-wearing girl around 2am, for younger Larrys nothing can beat a traditional martial arts school. Boxing and wrestling gyms may be proving grounds for blue-collar youth, and generally tend to turn out tough little students ready for a decent scrap. But for soft-bodied middle-class Larrys you really need something subtler. Something with mystique. Larrys are sensitive souls, after all, and require a path out of the ordinary. Sweating over a skipping rope or walloping a heavy bag seems so… banal. We need a mystical leader, one with an exotic title like sensei or sifu. (They don’t have to be Asian, but it doesn’t hurt.) We need a uniform to show we’re serious seekers, a heroic garment that confers special powers; the pajama-like white gi is ideal, and bespeaks a tradition of cleanliness, order, and respect. And like any decent bourgeois enterprise, we need an orderly grading system. Enter the color-coded belt, a clear track record of acquired martial skills, beginning in the humble white and ending in formidable black. But black isn’t the end of the journey. Oh no. As any good martial artist knows, the journey never ends. Much like scientologists who achieve a “Clear” rating, it is merely the beginning of a dense series of ever-new-and-refined levels of skill and awareness, a ladder climbing to the heavens. (According to legend, the highest graded black belts wear a white belt once again, signifying Socrates-style that now they know they know nothing. Consider it humility squared.)
If you went to a really traditional karate school as I did (Shotokan karate), your “martial skills” were evaluated and graded using oblique means. The first is a set of pre-arranged fight moves you perform with a partner. Think of it as a rigid type of tango. The other, more mysterious, method of evaluation is the kata. This is where you relieve yourself even of the partner, and move into an entirely solitary trance state, performing fixed moves against invisible opponents. People who cannot see the purpose of this esoteric ritual are to be pitied because they have a crude strain of mind that can only appreciate the thunk and splatter of professional boxing (it’s rigged), or, Buddha-forbid, professional wrestling (ludicrous performance art!).
For the purist, kata is where it is at. Yes, sparring is important, but there’s an unspoken agreement that the techniques of traditional karate are too dangerous be unleashed full force. So instead one engages in a dance of incredible subtlety, flicking out hands and feet at blinding speed and demonstrating utmost control and restraint by stopping just short of the opponent. This shows you have the power, but you have learned to harness it. Harnessed power seems to be the main goal of the school, in fact, and as the colors deepen on young Larry’s belt, he becomes more certain that he is NOT AFRAID anymore. Instead, his fear is replaced with something approaching sanctimony. He has the power now, and it is his moral duty to never, ever release it in the public sphere (outside his chosen school, and under the watchful eye of his sifu–sensei-master). So when he walks away from the jeering and bating of peers, he is really protecting them, not hiding from them. Right?
One of the best martial arts movies of all time to convey this culture of pajama-based power-harnessing is the criminally underwatched The Perfect Weapon (dir: Mark DiSalle, 1991; tagline: “No gun. No knife. No equal”). Starring Kenpo karate sensation Jeff Speakman, the opening credits play over Speakman, topless and oiled, performing an elaborate kata in his bedroom. For those of you unfamiliar with the scene, I urge you to watch the whole thing. It’s mesmeric.
Note the soundtrack by German group Snap! and their hit song “The Power.” Lyrics include: “I’ve got the POWER!” and “Peace!/ Stay off my back/ or I will attack/ and you don’t want that!” Note also the subtle and mysterious hand movements that seem to inscribe intricate symbols in air, signs only the initiate can read.
And note how Speakman breathes ostentatiously around the 1:20 mark, as if trying desperately to maintain control of the sheer power he wields in that private space, a small bedroom with the furniture shunted aside. There are even movements suggesting nunchuck flailing, perhaps an intertextual salute to Sifu Bruce Lee, the Great Father of the cult of martial arts movie gods. In fact, Speakman seems to brandish quite a few weapons in this scene. Is that a two-handed sword at the 30-sec mark? It ends with a gentle hand restraining a fist. It’s all so fluid, so graceful, so inane.
Needless to say, when I first saw this performance back in 1991, my response was one of barely contained awe and envy. Damn you, Speakman, you magnificent bastard. This made Daniel-san’s wax on/wax off-based kata from The Karate Kid (dir. John Avildsen, 1984) look, well, even more lame than before. Speakman’s kata was so cool, so expressive, so much better than my cookie-cutter performance. He did it to music! His gi was black! Who knew you could pull that off? Why had no one told me? I think I customized my own artistic kata response that very evening.
The Perfect Weapon is more than kata porn though—so much more. It’s also a cautionary tale. Jeff Speakman (playing Jeff Sanders) starts out as, you guessed it, a Larry. He’s a troubled kid who isn’t dealing with something (I want to say the death of his mother?) and he is angry. His tough cop dad is all set to send him to military school, but a kindly family friend, a wise Asian as it happens, convinces Dad to let young Jeff learn the ways of a mysterious and esoteric Kenpo style of kara-te. Jeff proves an apt pupil, showing complete obedience to his new master, and grows into an impressive high school athlete. But, Jeff being a Larry, he is a loner introvert at heart, and his sport is the obscure one of pole vaulting. So when more traditional jocks (football players of course) hassle his little bro, Jeff can’t communicate with them as peers. The jeering thugs come from a crude physical culture, whereas he is spirit incarnate. He’s so upset at their cruelty, in fact, that he has a momentary lapse of control and unleashes the power. He kicks one guy in the head so hard that, despite the boy wearing a football helmet, Jeff lands him in hospital. Stern cop Dad banishes his wayward son immediately, afraid the boy contains so much rage and power that the next time he misuses his martial prowess the result could be deadly. Duly chastened, the Larrys watching the film make a mental note never to abuse their gifts by deploying all their might in a fight. As every good martial artist knows, the greatest victory is the one you achieve by not fighting. Sun Tzu and all that.
But there’s still the itch. That niggle of self-doubt. What would happen if…? That’s where the YouTube comments section enters the landscape of martial arts fantasy. The textual equivalent of a Goya asylum painting, YouTube comments on almost any video with more than a few dozen hits represent a waking fever dream, rage bleeding into pain and fear and back to rage (with some ironic distancing thrown in for good measure). Scroll down from a clip of any martial arts demonstration and that screaming vortex of anonymous homophobic/racist/sexist idiocy somehow manages to ratchet up the crazy. Chances are you will find a fevered verbal donnybrook in full swing over what style would really win in a fight. The pragmatists cite MMA or maybe the brutal Israeli discipline of Krav Maga. The purists dismiss those as ugly non-styles, while more level heads call for calm, opining that there is no one true style and that all paths can lead to martial perfection. Others respond with claims for the primacy of hallowed saints like Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris. Such claims lead inevitably to frenzied arguments about which individual combat saint would win in a fight, and the textual fracas takes on the urgency and vitriol of a religious dispute, with all attendant odium theologicum.
But whatever the one true style, or whoever the greatest kicky-punchy hero may be, most Larrys can agree on one thing. This control, this humility, this reluctance to fight, is what distinguishes the martial arts hero from the bloodthirsty vigilante of, say, a Sergio Leone or Charles Bronson movie. Granted, the martial arts dude still goes on an ass-kicking spree. (Lord, does he ever. The alternate tagline for The Perfect Weapon is “Just try him.” Hint: do not just try him. Why are people always trying these dangerous Larrys?) But the important thing is that they do their best not to kick any ass until it’s unavoidable. Only then, pushed too far and left without choice, do they let loose a fantasy parade of ultra-violence that Alex and his Clockwork Orange droogs can only dream of.
Which brings me to the strange, complicated, sexy case of Steven Seagal. How does one engage with the cultural force that is Seagal? It’s beyond the scope of this essay, clearly, but I need to ponder a few things about how Larry Riesman, fear survivor, and Seagal, Lawman, fit together in our world.
Seagal is like a dream amalgam, in that he contains so many elements that he becomes a contradictory cipher. (Even some of his film titles groan under the weight of their contradictions: Mercenary For Justice, anyone?) He affects the soft-spoken, practiced humility of the traditional martial artist. Indeed, according to no less an authority than Mr. Seagal himself, he is a reincarnated Buddhist lama. So there’s that. What’s more, he is, by all accounts, a master of Aikido, an art form whose name roughly translates to “The Way of Harmonious Energy.” This is possibly the ultimate pacifist—or soft, “yin”—style of combat. In order to understand just how bizarre a specimen Seagal is, we need to take a quick detour into the history of his chosen traditional martial art.
Aikido was pioneered in the mid-20th century by Morihei Ueshiba, a proto-typical Larry. Ueshiba was born into a well-to-do mercantile family. A weak and sickly child, small for his age and given to bookish habits, he was regaled by his father with tales of his samurai ancestors and their considerable strength and courage. One day, young Ueshiba witnessed his politically active father being beaten by a gang of opposition supporters, and this event seems to have traumatized Ueshiba enough to set him on a search for a martial style that would help him fight not individual but multiple attackers. He began serious training around 14 years old, roughly the same age I was when I watched Speakman in his black pjs dancing around in his bedroom to Snap!
Ueshiba was a remarkable man, and I don’t doubt his sincerity when he reports that on this journey to overcome his fear—and learn to kick ass and take names—he experienced three moments of enlightenment that came to form the style now known as Aikido. The first experience came when, unarmed, he defeated an officer attacking him with a bokken (i.e., a wooden practice sword) without injuring the man. Ueshiba walked into a garden and experienced the following:
…I felt the universe suddenly quake, and a golden spirit sprang up from the ground, veiled my body, and changed my body into a golden one. At the same time my body became light. I was able to understand the whispering of the birds, and was clearly aware of the mind of God, the creator of the universe.
At that moment I was enlightened: the source of budo is God’s love – the spirit of loving protection for all beings …
Budo is not the felling of an opponent by force; nor is it a tool to lead the world to destruction with arms. True Budo is to accept the spirit of the universe, keep the peace of the world, correctly produce, protect and cultivate all beings in nature.2
Two more similar psychic events (contemporaneous with WWII) convinced Ueshiba that martial arts are ultimately about conquering fear and cultivating love for one’s fellow man. His style became characterized by soft, fluid circular motions, “breath throws,” and a general absence of aggressive strikes. An opponent’s force used against him is the order of the day. Minimum violence is deployed to subdue an attacker, usually in the form of a wrist or arm lock.
Anyone who has watched an Aikido display knows it almost always involves multiple students “attacking” their master in quick succession. The attacks tend to be gentle and relaxed looking themselves, as if the pajama-wearing aggressors were sleep-fighting, throwing their limp arms at the sensei, who moves calmly in a circle, like the eye of a storm, flinging dreaming thugs hither and thither. It’s like watching a dream Ueshiba is having, wherein he becomes his father and defends successfully against that first horrific gang attack, defeating the meaningless, random violence of ugly men. And it’s here, in this strange tableau of sleepwalking combat, that Seagal enters the picture.
Seagal’s genius was to take this profoundly gentle art and use it to stage some of the most brutal fight scenes to be released in straight-to-video fight movies during the 90s. In a market saturated with kicky-punchy fellows like Jean-Claude Van Damme et al, flying through the air with legs extended and bellowing ki-yaiiii!, Seagal’s weird cyclone of Buddhist cool, dispatching bar thugs left and right in a dream of righteous violence (dislocated shoulders aplenty!) was a breath of fresh air. He quickly distinguished himself as a strange new talent.
Indeed, Seagal and Van Damme seem to enjoy an ongoing cold feud in the media. It’s to be expected, perhaps, Seagal being something of the anti-Jean-Claude Van Damme. Where Van Damme remains conspicuously toned even all these years later, Seagal’s ever-expanding flab suggests It’s not about the body. It’s about the spirit. Van Damme’s Euro-sensibility lends itself to a pronounced campness, and an increasingly ironic tone. His film JCVD (dir: Mabrouk El Mechri, 2008) is virtually a self-parody of an aging B-list action star who can’t hack the rigors of fatherhood or the fading of the limelight. A DVD cover shows his haggard face beaten and bruised, one suspects more by a life of various addictions than any number of physical attackers. Conversely, Seagal comes across as the Donald Trump of martial arts gurus—no matter how absurd his behavior, there’s no sense that his tongue has ever met his cheek.
In recent years, the absurdity that is Seagal has branched out from fantasy violence to attempted forays into “reality.” He has become a guest coach to UFC mixed martial artists on their reality show, for one. On Seagal’s website is, fittingly, a cartoon of him working with a protégé. The furious young student is working up his anger at some sucker who has disrespected him and therefore forced him to unleash the power. Why are people always trying these guys?
More disturbing (and hilarious?) is the fact that, after years of claiming to be a member of covert CIA ops, a reincarnated lama, and one of the world’s best blues guitarists (look it up), among other things, Seagal is now a “Lawman” on the A&E network reality show of the same name. Here, a paunchy but still perfectly coiffured Seagal huffs and puffs around his beat as a Reserve Deputy Chief in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. If that title sounds like a largely ceremonial one, that’s because it is. But to Seagal it’s proof of his very real efficacy as a force for order and goodness. “I’ve been working as an officer in Jefferson Parish for two decades under most people’s radar,” he said during the premier episode, “The Way of the Gun.” See? Doesn’t like to talk about it: he’s humble, too. What’s the show like? If you haven’t seen it, Alan Sepinwall of the Star-Ledger claims it has “cemented [Seagal’s] position as an accidental comedy savant.”
I want to be clear: I love that there are people out there like Seagal (and Trump for that matter). We need more unwitting performance artists reminding us not to take life too seriously. But here’s the thing: as fantasists, these men are given to imagining their dreams are real. When they veer from being entertainers and start to meddle in real-world activities and policies, it’s vital we be able to nudge them awake. The recent news that attention whore Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff, was recruiting Seagal to train armed posses of men to defend schools from crazed gunmen was enough to jolt me awake, anyway. The goal, apparently, is to recruit as many as 400 unpaid posse members, and a hundred “deputies” like Seagal, to patrol the places where children learn around the county. An initial report on these mysterious groups revealed some of the men involved have substance abuse and sex crime charges on their records. But even if they’ve never had a substance abuse problem, or aren’t inclined to pedophilic tendencies like our friendly neighborhood guru Jim Cunningham, it is enough to contemplate what these men are capable of when they’re trying to be good. The notion of wannabe heroes stepping up to Wayne LaPierre’s call for a “good guy with a gun” to stop the “bad guy with a gun” is terrifying, because you know full well that every volunteer for such a posse will be, to a man, a Larry Riesman.
Imagine a confused phalanx of frustrated, angry men searching desperately for someone to try them, so they can unleash a barrage of righteous violence against that invisible foe. In the fantasy, the one they’ve been rehearsing since they were kids, everything goes according to plan. They might get a flesh wound, sure, but they’ll save the day! Women will finally stare at them in awe—like Kelly LeBrock, Seagal’s ex-wife, did when she played a nurse gazing over his coma-stricken body in Hard to Kill, trying to process the sheer size of his penis and begging him to “Puh-lease wake up!” I don’t know if Seagal ever did, in fact, wake up from his dream state, or if he ever will, but at least LeBrock did. She divorced him in 1994, and has recorded in book form his multiple abuses of her. Indeed Seagal’s record of sexual abuse of women is long and well-documented.
I fear the NRA’s call to heroism, because I know what it really means. It’s a dog whistle to “fear survivors” who aim now to prove they can be The Man, to prove beyond any niggling doubt that they can kick ass and take names. I’m NOT AFRAID anymore! they shout, warping through their own time travelling wormhole back to their adolescence, like a generation of Manchurian candidates, conditioned by layer after layer of straight-to-video 80s and 90s fantasy. In the grimy 70s of NYC, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) showed us a lone vigilante, a deluded, damaged creature blurring the distinction between the nightmare of chaos and an attempt to defend us from that nightmare. His “You talkin’ to me” in the mirror is nothing short of the first recorded American kata in cinema. It’s a gun kata—an impotent man dreaming himself into power, wishing someone would just try him so he could righteously dispatch him to hell. Being the hyper-violent responder makes you the good guy, after all. These men following Seagal into gun-toting posses, stalking deliriously through suburban high schools as they play at being heroes, are no strangers to the kata. That tango with no partner, no pay-off. Masturbation with no release. And now they yearn for a long-overdue pay-off after years of becoming The Perfect Weapon in their heads. Larry Riesman is a child in the 80s no longer—he’s come of age. Well, he may not be afraid anymore, but I am. Who will protect us from the protectors?
1 Star of Roadhouse (dir. Rowdy Herrington 1989), Swayze plays Dalton, a master martial-artist-bouncer (complete with wise older sensei-bouncer, Sam Elliot) who gets recruited to tame one of the toughest bars in America. Dalton is distinguished from the thugs he opposes by his quiet demeanor, but that doesn’t stop him from ripping out a man’s throat when he is pushed too far. Spoiler alert: it ends with a posse of vigilantes shooting to death the head bad guy and agreeing to a collective silence. Fans of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 will recognize the film as a favorite of the characters, especially Crow. The film seems to have a special place in Family Guy Peter Griffin’s heart, too.
2 (Ueshiba, Kisshomaru. Aikido. Hozansha Publications, Tokyo, 1985.)
Colm O’Shea teaches expository writing at NYU. His poetry is anthologized in Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century (Bloodaxe Books), and he has some essays on film and metaphysics published in Bright Lights Film Journal. He no longer practices kata.