Thursday, February 26, 2009

Can We Even Define Cool?

Jules and Jim is one of the strangest movies I have ever seen. The disconnected stories and scenes were interesting, but at the same time frustrating to follow. When I watch a movie, I don’t really care to see all the in between parts; instead, I’m only interested in the “moments” and the build-up to those “moments.” Everything besides is just everyday life that all of us see when we open our eyes in the morning. The “moments” are what really make life special, but once they happen, they can’t be relived or captured and ever be the same. Instead, when one of these great moments occur, we should smile, enjoy it, and then move on in search of the next great moment, not try to save it. We are dynamic, ever-changing entities, and the same emotions, feelings, and circumstances will never happen twice. Life is working and searching for the next defining moment. They’re spontaneous and fleeting, but they’re what make life worth living. A person’s wedding day could very well be the happiest day of her life thus far; however, to truly live life one has to take the moments for what they are and then let them go. Watching the wedding on video wouldn’t allow her to recapture “the moment”; instead, it would remind her of the thoughts and feelings she had, but that was also a different “her.” We grow and evolve and are never the same person we were two seconds ago. Life and experiences happen and lead us to our next experiences. In order to really live, we have to live in the present and have some flagrant disregard for the past and future. We see some of these flippant, spontaneous, free qualities in Catherine, but at the same time it is a façade. She grabs on to men and won’t let them go, she is selfish, needy, and scared. None of these traits let her live for the moments because she is always so worried about everything being fair, being wanted, and getting attention.

Another interesting subject evoked by the movie is whether woman can be cool. I think this is a ridiculous question. Of course women have the capacity to be cool. I don’t think that cool is a gender-exclusive quality. Women throughout time, even in 1912 Europe, had the capacity to be cool; many of them, however, didn’t have the courage to step past their gender-role and into what, at the time, was a man’s world. The qualities for cool are to some degree gender specific, but as we grow and evolve as a society, we move away from gender-specified roles. As women become more and more independent and society breaks free of masculine control, we see more and more powerful, competent, COOL women. Hilary Clinton is cool, Ellen is cool, Hilary Swank in Million Dollar Baby and Freedom Writers is cool, and innumerable other women are cool. What would keep a woman from being cool? Women, in my mind, are cooler than men. If I were going to list my top ten coolest people, there wouldn’t be one man. Doesn’t this then display to the ambiguous nature of cool? Is cool dictated by preconceptions, judgments, and stereotypes of each person? Is cool only an idea of what the majority agrees is acceptable and appealing? Cool can’t really be defined because what is cool to one could be meaningless to another, so besides the definition and embodiment of cool to the majority, there is no way to definitively assess something as cool or uncool.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cool is Doing What You Know and Knowing What You Do

It’s difficult to find cool in Double Indemnity since the characters and situations are so devoid of any type of moral ambiguity. Bad boys are normally cool, but that’s because they have some depth. Bourne in The Bourne Identity is cool even though many of the actions he takes are immoral, we agree with his reasoning. We are able to identify with his moral struggle and can see both sides of his personality. In Film Noir, we only see evil; everyone has the capacity to murder, cheat, and steal for the smallest incentive. There wasn’t a moral struggle when Phyllis asks Neff to murder her husband; there wasn’t even shock. The only contemplation that Neff undergoes is whether or not they would actually be able to pull it off. He wants to beat the system. Cool is the struggle for whether or not an action is worth abandoning morals, and we can identify with a character as cool when we agree with their incentives for action. In movies like Double Jeopardy and Enough, we are able to relate and see murderers as cool; we want them to succeed. Ironically, we identify with rule breakers, but they have to be breaking the rules for noble reasons. Stanwyck is a classic femme fatale, and we don’t relate with her like we do Judd and Lopez in the above movies because she doesn’t have true reason to murder her husband like we feel the other two women do.

Competence, being able to do your job well, is cool; not only that, wittiness is cool: like the scene where Neff and Phyllis flirt back and forth, but they are not cool characters. Instead, it was a cool interaction. Neff starts out as cool because he is the best salesman and a fast talker, but he makes mistakes. He doesn’t think of everything, like Keyes does. Keyes is the coolest all around character in the movie because he thinks of all possibilities. Keyes is like House, he knows every aspect and option in each situation; he is so good at his job that he makes it look easy. It’s cool when you are good at what you do; this is why Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm, Emeril, and Elvis are cool. They were so good at the things they did that they revolutionized them. They created new cookie-cutter molds for cool. To be that good takes a great deal of knowledge, skill, and confidence in a particular area. Cool isn’t only in the competence but also in the consistency. It’s the fact that every time Michael steps on the court, Mia on the field, Emeril in the kitchen, and Elvis on the stage, it’s natural. What makes them cool is how easy they make difficult abilities seem; watching Mia Hamm play soccer makes it seem like anyone can play. The cool part comes when someone tries to play like Mia and realizes she can’t because only Mia can. When someone gets to the point that people are imitating them, they have truly achieved cool. Neff, in some ways, was trying to imitate Keyes and think as he thought which makes Keyes in his own small way cool.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Search for Cool, Hopeless Without Morals

Double Indemnity posed uncool more so than cool. There was no appealing, cool situation or character in the movie. It was a movie conveying the pessimistic, malevolent side of humanity. Society is attracted to film noire because it’s appalling and, in a way, intriguing that people have that capacity, that our neighbors, teachers, doctors, or insurance adjusters can be cold-blooded killers. That’s part of the allure of horror movies and murder mysteries, it’s shocking. Double Jeopardy has the same general story line, but we are able to identify with and sympathize for the characters. The characters in Double Indemnity have no apparent moral motivation, and we aren’t able to identify with their incentives or feelings. Why kill your husband because he is a screw up? Why not just divorce him? Why kill a complete stranger for a sleazy girl you just met?

This movie did well to answer the question posed a couple weeks ago: is cool good, evil, or morally ambiguous? I would say it definitely is not evil since this movie represents pure evil and is not cool. Morally ambiguous seems to be the coolest moral standing. It’s interesting to see each possibility that we have when faced with a difficult situation. When there is only one side or possible answer, we miss the human struggle. If everything were black or white, life would be easy; it’s not.

One cool component of the movie was the playful, flirtatious banter between Neff and Phyllis, but even this was thwarted by the knowledge that she had a husband and was freely flirting with a random salesman. Keyes was the coolest character in the movie; although, I don’t think he’s cool when compared to someone like a Bogart. He is the only voice of moral reason in the entire film and the only one we can empathize with. He is a sort of watch dog over everyone, but even his incentive is money and the chase, not justice.

Cool is something that we can’t have but want. We could have the lives of the characters in Double Indemnity, but nobody wants them. We don’t want to be ruthless and selfish. Those characteristics are not cool. Film Noire reflected the pessimism of society during the war, not cool. It confirmed the belief that people are corrupt and evil. This doesn’t make it cool to be corrupt and evil, but it allowed some to point and say, look at the human capacity for cruelty.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

What Is Cool if not a Good Imitation?

Play It Again, Sam presents an interesting dichotomy of cool. On the one hand, there’s an affected cool and, on the other, “genuine” cool. When “genuine” cool is juxtaposed to affected cool, Allen seems even more pathetic. The question then arises, is there such thing as a genuine cool or, in reality, is it just how well you are able to adopt and affect cool to make it appear genuine?

Most would agree Sam in no way represents any type of cool. He is too busy trying to copy someone else’s cool to cultivate his own, and he isn’t even a good imitation. Bogart, though, is still an imitation, just a good one; he was not the first gangster or the last one, but he was able to adopt the persona of one so well that he took on the transcendent cool of the gangster, which started around the time of Public Enemy and continues today with American Gangster. The message of cool that I feel Play It Again, Sam is sending across would be that very few cool people are original. There are set formulas for cool, and how cool one is only depends on how well they are able to conform to and adopt a formula as their whole life. Sam wasn’t able to adopt the persona of the gangster. The same thing happens when companies try to market cool, like Hot Topic, Abercrombie and Fitch, or Nike. The idea is that by buying a shirt from Hot Topic you become punk, or jeans from Abercrombie and Fitch you become preppy or shoes from Nike and you become an all-star athlete. These marketing ploys work and sell a lot of merchandise while popularizing the brand; however, sadly the customers are wasting their money, cool is an attitude, not an accessory. Wearing the jeans from Abercrombie doesn’t transform your body and persona into that of their models. However, marketing a certain type of cool doesn’t detract from that cool; it just makes it harder to find someone who is a good representation of it.

There are some who will never be cool, no matter how hard they try, at least not cool to the majority. Allen was a hopeless case. He was the polar opposite of cool, and the harder he tried, the worse he appeared. Sam didn’t have the looks or personality to be a Bogart. The truly cool people are the one’s who cultivate talents or character traits that they already have which conform to a certain form of cool. Bogart had the voice, facial expressions, and control it takes to adopt the gangster persona. Allen, unfortunately, did not have any of these necessary components. He would have been better off trying to be an amazing movie critic, who could be cool without having any direct human interaction. Siskel, Ebert and Roeper are in their own respect cool; nearly everyone knows their names, but nobody knows their personalities or how they look. Although they aren’t a cookie cutter cool, they achieved about the highest form of cool their talents would allow them. Not everyone can work to be a certain type of cool, and to truly be cool, it has to appear natural. Cool is a matter of recognizing what you are good at and how those talents fit into the cookie cutter molds of cool.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Perfect Voice of Cool

Although I don’t have casual, imaginary conversations with Abby Wambach like Allen does with Bogart in Play It Again, Sam, she is my voice of cool. Wambach is a forward for the United States women’s national soccer team. Not only do I idolize her as an athlete but also as a person.

I “discovered” Abby while watching my previous guide for cool, Mia Hamm, play in a WUSA game in 2003. Wambach’s style of play caught my eye because she plays exactly how I hope to one day. After watching her in interviews and on youtube videos, I realized she embodies exactly my version of cool; she’s an amazing athlete who’s funny, cute, and laid-back, yet determined and successful.

Abby embodies cool more than anyone else because she has all the ingredients of the ideal cool. Within the realm of soccer, Wambach is tough, fearless, determined, successful, competitive, and confident while still enjoying the game and achieving success. She is goofy and fun but still able to be serious and focused. Wambach’s passion for the game is unbelievable and her training routine is intense. She is currently the best women’s soccer player in the world, but you would never know it from watching her youtube videos; she is completely down-to-earth. Wambach hasn’t had an easy career, she has faced injuries, like most other athletes, and rebounded quickly and flawlessly. This year she broke both her tibia and fibula during a game which put her out of the Olympics, something she had been working her entire life for; yet, she was still able to collect herself after the injury and support her team. Also during the first World Cup game in 2007, Abby collided during a header and cut her forehead open; she went off the field had 10 stitches in her head and went back into the game. In my own soccer career, I’ve faced injuries and tried to act as cool as Wambach during recovery and post-recovery; she is an all around cool soccer player.

Even though her soccer skills are more than enough to make Abby my voice of cool, her personality makes her even more fit for my ideal model of cool. Wambach’s fun and outgoing personality mixed with her ability to focus and be serious, is cool. She is the one who initiates the funny, harmless pranks and jokes on her fellow teammates off the field then steps on the field and puts her game-face on. She keeps everyone smiling and laughing while keeping them focused at the same time. She is confident and dresses and carries herself consistent with my attitude of cool. Even in situations where she should be nervous or self conscious, she isn’t. Abby’s confidence and likeability give her a cool personality.

I listen to Wambach’s voice of cool for at least two hours every day while I train for soccer and sometimes more when I’m trying to emulate her behavior off the field. Abby is an amazing source of inspiration for me when I train, and my trainer, knowing this, asks me “what would Abby do?” whenever I need inspiration. There are also times when I should be nervous or self conscious off the field, and instead, I just think about the way Wambach would act in a particular instance.

Abby Wambach is my ideal version of cool, and she embodies that definition in all areas of her life.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Gender Identity and Cool

Casablanca has a transcendent, classic cool that doesn’t change or fade. For the 60th anniversary of the movie, a special screening was played on Broadway in New York; ticket prices ranged from thirty to seventy-five dollars, and the show sold out. In order to still receive this type of fame sixty years after being released, the film has an inarguable cool. The end of the movie is one that can be interpreted in many different ways; it’s an unexpected, yet satisfying ending which creates a dynamic, multi-faceted film.

Bogart’s cool is part of the reason the movie has succeeded for this long. He has that same dissident cool of Cagney in The Public Enemy. Both have an attitude of indifference towards the world and the people in their lives. Cagney and Bogart each tap the women on the cheek, like a playful punch for Cagney and a gentler gesture for Bogart; in both cases though, a type of dominant or authoritarian gesture. Their confidence and dominance over everyone, although to different degrees and in different ways, is the source of each man’s cool. Men used to be cool when they were unemotional, strong, and detached from everything, even the women in their lives, the “bad boys”. Today it is harder to find a subservient woman, even in the movies, who is willing to deal with an unemotionally available man and keep her mouth shut. The best example of this withdrawn attitude is Leonidas, in 300, leaving his wife for battle without even a kiss goodbye. Instead, the men who are cool in today’s movies have to deal with women who can stand their own two feet, which shifts some, if not most, of the “cool” to the women. The cool men of the past have been forced to give in to the cool ladies of today and, in some cases, even play the stagnant, pathetic character. Ironically, men of today become cool after they show their emotional side, like in Made of Honor, the leading actor starts out with a “Bogart-like” attitude but isn’t cool until he shows his sensitive side and chases the girl.

Ilsa’s subservient, pathetic character portrays an “uncool” which, in comparison, bolsters the cool of women in today’s movies. The way women are represented in movies pre-WWII is ridiculous, but if you think about it, this was reflected in society by the behavior of women (which is even more ridiculous!). I don't know how any woman today could look at Ilsa and aspire to be anything like her. The women in contemporary movies are so much more inspiring and powerful, they show the real potential of women. After the feminist movement, women gained a whole new presence in the world and were able to stand alone. Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider or Wanted show women as real and dynamic; however, movies as diverse as The Italian Job, Just Like Heaven, and Freedom Writers show women as powerful and self-sufficient. Today, even in romantic movies, women have their own lives and minds apart from a man. Women have come a long way since the time of Ilsa, but there’s more to repair to be done to the image of women in film.

Casablanca will forever remain cool; as society transforms and views the movie from new contexts, the version of cool may change, but audiences will always enjoy the excitement and romance of Casablanca.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Selfish or Altruistic

“Here’s looking at you, kid” [Rick to Ilsa]. Who hasn’t heard this famous quote? This was my first time watching Casablanca, and I hadn’t realized before how much I had already been exposed to parts of the movie before even seeing it. Rick supplies an interesting, complex character. In the end, for example, is he being altruistic and supporting the rebellion by letting Ilsa go? Is he still trying to protect his heart? Is he doing what he thinks is morally right? Is he continuing to help the underdog? Of course, there are many different ways to interpret his actions after understanding his dynamic character. I think Rick is still too heartbroken to commit to and trust anybody. Throughout the movie we see hints of his past heartbreak. From the very start, he is guarded, and we don’t know what the reason is at first. Rick isn’t close to anybody, as far as we can see. He treats his employees and customers well, but is this any different than the way a gangster treats members of his gang or people he needs things from? Rick takes care of the people around him because they allow him to maintain his bubble of isolation. He ran away from his broken heart and his past life and created a new world where he is in control. His controlled world was turned upside down when his past walked through the door.

Until Ilsa comes into the picture, Rick isn’t motivated by anything. He isn’t driven by money or girls or acquaintances. He found a place full of people whose lives have been broken as his has. It’s unclear what he wants or what drives him; however, we have no indication that he wants it any other way. He’s seems content with the way his life is, ordered and controlled. Ilsa brings memories of a different time; she’s a source of nostalgia of a better, more innocent time in his life. In the end, Rick lets Ilsa goes because he understands that his life with Ilsa was in a different time and place that could never be regained. Their relationship would never be what it was in Paris so he instead goes back to life as he knows it where he is in control and responsible to nobody, except now he wants to start again anew where he can erase any reminders.

Although this analysis completely ignores the macrocosm represented in the movie, it makes Rick seem more real. When looking from the ideal scenario which Hollywood may have intended, the plot and characters become cliché and ideal, many real aspects are taken away as all the characters decide to give their lives to the greater good which is fighting the Nazi’s. If a man were truly in love with a woman and believed she were in love with him, they would not have give one another up. Love is the most important emotion there is and if it were real they would have done anything for it because, ultimately, people are driven by personal incentives over the community good.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Defiant Cool

“You are different, Tommy. Very different. And I've discovered it isn't only a difference in manner and outward appearances. It's a difference in basic character” (Gwen speaking to Tom in The Public Enemy). Tom Powers, like all other Hollywood gangsters, portrays a dissident cool that attracts all sorts of people, from stay at home moms to street criminals. What is so appealing about a selfish, vigilante?

Well, first of all, the gangster caricature is an outward expression of a subconscious feeling that the general public suppresses. Although in our representative democracy and free-market, individualistic economy we aren’t focused on collective, as much as personal, gain, we still have a concern for the greater society and a respect for the laws and mores of that society. There are times when everyone wishes they could throw controlled society out the window: jump on their desk and kick all the papers in the air, tell the bosses what they really think, drive on the median when they’re stuck in traffic, and, of course, have enough money to make it an insignificant factor in decision making. All of us, every once in a while, want to act like Peter Gibbons in Office Space and make our own rules; however, we have too many responsibilities to throw everything out the window and act however we see fit, that’s where the appeal of gangsters and rebels comes from. They are able to defy the norms and do whatever they want. The “What is G?” commercials from Gatorade depict the same removed cool that Tom Powers does in the Public Enemy; these athletes make their own rules, in many ways, and shatter the norms and expectations in their various specialties. This is not to say these athletes, actors, or Tom are complete anarchists, because they are not, they live by their own code of laws. For Tom, vengeance and loyalty were the most important; this cool stratum of people has their own sub society within society where they have to understand everybody’s rules in order to defy them. Their cool comes from their knowledge of the expected behavior and rules and their conscious defiance of those basic principles or expectations.

The other level of cool that Tom brings to the forefront is the fact that he is genuine; like him or not, he is who he is, and there are no pretenses. He does what he says he is going to do; when he says he’ll kill Putty Nose the next time he sees him, he lives up to that promise. Ellen DeGeneres carries a certain genuine, love me or hate me, attitude. She publicized her marriage to her girlfriend, Portia De Rossi, not waiting to see the public’s response and was one of the first publicly out lesbians in entertainment, being who she was even when it wasn’t the easy decision. Using humor, she is able to create new clearings for lesbians in all walks of life. Ellen makes a new set of standards by being who she is all the time. Like Tom, Ellen doesn’t try to please others or change for anyone; she acts in accordance with her own set of morals and ideals. By purposefully not creating a palatable visage for society, the cool minority are able to stand up to principles they disagree with by breaking the conformity of the day to day and creating a new trend. Both Batman and Joker in The Dark Knight have a swagger about them. They do what they think is right, regardless of what the majority thinks of their actions. Cool comes from the dichotomy of good and evil represented in those who step outside of society and create their own set of right and wrong.