Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Changing the Image of Cool

Overall, I don’t think Shaft is cool. Maybe in his time and to a specific group of people Shaft served as an icon. He is strong, indifferent, tough, and testosterone-driven like all the other cool icons we have looked at thus far. Although this overly masculine persona was extremely cool in the past, specifically in the eras from which these movies are taken, there is a much more diverse definition of cool in contemporary society. I feel like since the seventies, we have moved further and further away from this version of cool. Although there are still movies today like American Gangster and 300, these movies aren’t written in the setting of current society; they are set in the past. Any characters that fulfill this “badass” caricature in films based in contemporary times are so much more complex and diverse than these identical images of the past.

Shaft represents a cool that is liberating for African Americans. It was the first time to see a cool, Black, leading character in a popular movie. I don’t want to diminish the importance of Shaft as a ground-breaking movie for African Americans. At the same time, I don’t feel like Shaft would qualify as cool in 2009. I don’t think that any of the characters we have examined from Bogart to Wyatt would be cool if they were living today. Their cool was a matter of timing. Some bands like AC/DC, The Beatles, Elvis, and Nirvana are still cool, in their own rights; however, if they were starting today, they wouldn’t have the same impact. Rock and Roll is here, so someone like Elvis shaking his hips wouldn’t be so cool anymore. A major ingredient for cool is innovation and revolution. We can appreciate these past icons of cool for what they were then and the aspects of their personal style that have transformed and in some way carried on to our own version of cool in contemporary society, but they would not be the same today as they were then. Cool is in some ways a matter of timing because there are so many factors that contribute to “cool” that it has to be the right time and place for someone to reach their full potential of cool.

Examining cool through film, we will necessarily have to focus on the super-masculine, tough-guy image for most of history. This is not to say we don’t still see flashes of this image in movies geared towards men like Fast and the Furious and Bourne Identity, but now these characters have a sensitive side, are more dynamic than in the past, and are forced to deal with much stronger female characters. The closer we get in the time line to current society and current movies, the more we see an abandonment of this traditional image to a more unique and diverse image of cool. Especially today with more and more female leading characters, women are beginning to make their mark on the image of cool.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Expanding the Definition of Cool

Shaft is an interesting movie, not one of my favorites, but interesting. I’m sure that Shaft appeals to certain audiences as cool. He was one of the first “badass” black protagonists in a movie. However, from my perspective Shaft was too cliché. Besides the fact that he is Black, he doesn’t have any unique, defining characteristics. It makes me wonder, is the only allure to Shaft is the fact that he’s an African American protagonist? If John Shaft were white, would the film be what it is today? I appreciate the film for breaking barriers that were present to the race at the time. At the same time, Shaft wasn’t making any overt, respectable points besides that Black men can play vigilante, Testosterone-driven, gangster types too.

Another part of the movie that caught my attention was the recognition, as we’ve seen in earlier movies, of a gay man. This time, unlike in The Public Enemy, the fact isn’t just hinted at, it’s stated. Gays even as late as the seventies, and still sometimes today, play roles of comic relief. What was the point of that character besides to acknowledge that there were gays? Or was the point to demean Caucasians, since being gay was seen as negative at the time and the gay man is white in a movie where race plays such a major role?

While looking at the movie critically for examples of cool, I thought about how narrow our study of cool has been when in the grand scheme of things there is such a wide range of cool. Do most people think that cool is only found in manly, dissident, men? Where do women come in? The indifferent men of the past have dominated cool for a long time, but by the seventies, are they still the main source of cool?

If cool is based solely in this manly archetype, I will lose a lot of respect for cool because this persona is a lame façade. No one really lives the lives of the men we’ve seen in these movies. Also, if most of the cool men we’ve examined have their characters dissected, it’s evident that the reasons for their behavior are much less cool. Many of them are emotionless to protect a broken heart, and, therefore, miss a huge portion of life because they are hiding. The men who seem to be so tough are normally just taking the offensive so they don’t get stuck on the defensive. Overall, I would like to expand the definition of cool away from these masculine caricatures.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cool is Rebellion

An important aspect of cool in the film is, as Donna puts it, the Holy Trinity of cool: sex, drugs, and Rock and Roll. This counter-culture movement took America by storm. Rebellion is the undertone of all three of these ingredients of cool. All of them, in some way, go against fundamentalist Christian beliefs. Sex, especially today, is cool. It has, throughout history, been such a taboo; so, to throw it out in some way for everyone to see, even just hinting at it, is cool. Women in movies, whether or not it’s the image women should have, are cool because of their sex appeal in many cases such as the Italian Job. On the same token, drugs are cool because they are illegal and represent rebellion against society’s belief system. There are so many different attitudes toward drugs, as there is towards sex, that it lacks concrete definition as to what is moral or not. Rock and roll isn’t so much about tangible details of cool as much as the idea it represents encompasses the very definition of cool. The third piece of the trinity, Rock and roll, is rebellion, it’s careless and dissident, it’s loud, it’s fun, it’s unique, it’s young, it’s innovative, and it’s even transcendent. Hearing and being able to identify, forty years later, songs like Born To Be Wild and With A Little Help from My Friends while watching Easy Rider, demonstrates the classic cool in this movie; still today those songs are popular, and it’s not uncommon to hear references to Captain America and the movie in other contemporary films. Wild Hogs is a contemporary parody of Easy Rider, the four main characters are so uncool that it creates comic situation. Easy Rider is timeless; not only is the music being used forty years later, but movies are being made in reference to it.

Easy Rider depicts a type of cool that has been mimicked since that time, being a nonconformist. Even today, to be cool you have to be unique. The cool of being new and different and having the courage to stand up against tradition is basically the definition of American cool. Musicians like Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Bob Marley were cool because they were radical and created new types of music and trends. The young generation doesn’t want to follow their parents and tradition, they want to rebel. So, they need cool people to lead them in their rebellion because all they know is conformity. This again brings up the ambiguous moral nature of cool. Depending on whose perspective you look from, all sides could possibly be acting morally right or wrong.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Making Your Own Freedom

Counter culture will always be an important aspect of society. There will continually be minorities and grass root groups who want equal treatment and recognition. Easy Rider highlights the LSD, hippy, free-loving culture of the sixties. Captain America and Billy were living their lives freely. Their freedom scared the traditional culture, evident through their interactions with all other groups. They conformed to the farm family by removing hats and praying before they broke bread. That family was free in the traditional manner; they lived off the land, had strong religious convictions, and supported one another. Juxtaposed next to the freedom of the members of the new wave of drug-taking, motorcycle riders, the traditional freedom seemed still a bit confining. The members of the family were dependent on one another and stuck at their farm. Captain America and Billy were able to move as they pleased. There was an amazing sense of community and collectiveness throughout the movie up until the parade scene. They had places to eat, fix their motorcycle, and stay. Everyone watched them because they were interesting; for some of the movie, they were met with smiles and waves and for the rest with hostility.

The entire movie mimicked the journey of any counter culture at any time. Once they grow strong enough, the majority gets scared and defends tradition with anything necessary. The tragic ending of the three riders, Captain America, Billy, and the lawyer, is a result of traditionalists defending their beliefs. African Americans, gays, and all counter cultures are faced with this abuse. There are people like Matthew Shepard who are killed because they threaten others' beliefs. It’s scary that human nature is so evil that a man could kill another because of the ideal he represents. What does this say about American freedom? You are allowed to be free as long as freedom conforms to the American idea of free. Religion without intelligence is dangerous because to appeal to someone who will internalize whatever they are told leads to misunderstanding. A man riding through a small, southern town with long hair on a motorcycle causes such unfounded hatred in all these towns. The men in there are not at all practicing the Christian values on which their town likely relies; however, this is consistent with where we are today in small towns. The attitude in these Southern towns is “this is how we have always done it; so, it’s right.”

The gay and lesbian movement was an offshoot of this hippie turned activist movement. The Stonewall Riots occurred in 1969 fueled by the environment of rebellion and the necessity to fight for equality. The environment of equality and free love that the sixties created was a great opportunity for other groups, like gays and lesbians, to join in on the fight. Unsuprisingly, many of the places where these hippy movements began, New York, San Francisco, and Vermont, have been the first to advance LGBTQ rights. Counter cultures feed off one another and create environments conducive to change.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cool Through Your Own Eyes

The cool people in this world are not the ones who sit back and observe life; they are the ones who live and forge new paths for others to follow. The camera man in Bruce Lee’s movies is not cool because he caught amazing shots of Bruce Lee; he was watching cool, not living it. The same as Thomas is not cool since all he does is find what others see as cool through his camera. It’s great that we have people willing to spend their lives capturing cool, but by choosing that path, they basically surrender their own chance at cool to record others. Thomas was never cool as a famous fashion photographer; he was just being used by people who thought he could make them cool. The cool people in the film, if there were any, were those actually living their lives, in whatever way they decided to do that. Someone willing to take a chance, step out, and face rejection is cool. It’s not the ones taking the pictures that are cool, it’s the ones in them.

Movies are about the people who stir things up and do their own thing no matter what. Characters, like Thomas, aren’t memorable or classic, and definitely are not cool. Sylvester Stallone in Rocky or Al Pacino in Scarface are cool, timeless characters. People identify with them more than the plot of the movie because they do what most people couldn’t or wouldn’t; they defy rules and norms to live above the system. Cool is nonconformist but not anarchist. They still follow some set of rules, even if it is their own. The mimes running around in Blow-Up weren’t especially cool, just strange. All cool people have a purpose, some incentive or driving factor, usually internal.

Thomas wants to find purpose and meaning but can’t; he wants it so badly, he makes up meaning. We want to identify with the cool character and their meaning. So, if we don’t accept that her driving force is a valid one, whether or not we agree that it’s right, she isn't cool. Thomas has a reason for living, as does everyone, but he’s not cool. Serial killers in scary movies, like Hannibal Lector, Saw, or the killer in Texas Chainsaw Massacre aren’t cool, the people who stop them, the detectives, are the cool ones; we relate to their goals. The movies themselves may be cool, but when we aren’t able to identify in any way with the characters' motives, the characters don't transcend the movie and achieve cool.

The characters behind the scenes, like Thomas, searching for meaning in life, but in actuality just wandering around pointlessly are not cool. It's the one’s that take the risk of making mistakes and living with a definite purpose that we, as viewers, can identify with in some as cool.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Who is Cool Today?

In contemporary times, there are so many different forms of cool, like in sixties London.

Scenario #1: Ryan Smith is the star quarterback for the university’s football team. Everyone around campus knows him. He isn’t very focused in school but does enough to get by; his main focuses are football and social life. He stays single because he wants to have fun, but is respectful to any girl he dates. This Friday night after the game he is having a party at his house with all the other athletes, most his friends being athletes. He is the one at the party talking to everyone. He isn’t overly loud or obnoxious, but he is definitely “one of the boys.” They play drinking games, and he wins them all but isn’t loud about winning just like in football. He is respectful to everybody and is humble in all his different achievements, but everyone knows he is the best. He doesn’t mind sitting by himself to eat dinner with his quiet confidence or sit with strangers and make new friends.

Scenario #2: Shauna Smith is laid-back and enjoys hanging out on the lake and drinking beer with her friends. She likes hanging out with the guys sometimes, but normally she is with her group of girls. They do everything together, but they aren’t your typical group of girls. They like watching football, hiking, being on the lake, and just hanging out. They’re headed to camp on the river this weekend with the normal group and some new friends they met at their L Word watching party last Sunday. Shaunna is easy-going and the planner of the group who makes all the decisions and organizes weekends and Spring Breaks. She’s excited this weekend to be on the river with all the girls and just have a good time.

Scenario #3: Josh Smith is a local singer and acoustic guitar player. Tonight he’s playing at a local coffee shop. He writes laid back music and is easy to talk to. He’s good looking and writes music about past and current relationships. He’s good with the audience and a great people person. His songs are the kind you listen to in a coffee shop, people aren’t up and dancing, they’re listening to him play and cheering when he’s done, then waiting intently for the explanation of the next song. Josh loves what he does, singing is his passion; he loves his fans and playing at the coffee shop. He jokes with the audience and has fun.

Scenario #4: Stacie Smith is a soccer player in the Delta Zeta sorority. She is beautiful, fun, and extroverted. She is always looking to make new friends. She loves talking and learning about people. Her genuine personality makes her everyone’s best friend. Tonight she is going with the rest of her sorority sisters and some new friends to watch her boyfriend play baseball. After the game, they all go out to dinner and laugh and joke. Stacie is the center of attention, always making everyone smile and laugh.

Scenario #5: Carrie Smith is a pre-medicine major in the honors college, she is very smart and has a 4.0 GPA; at the same time, she is down to earth and easily able to relate to all sorts of people. She is very often studying in the library or at Starbucks with a group of people. If they aren’t studying, they are having intellectual conversations and debates. They are not overly intellectual though; any of the above people could easily jump into the conversations and fit right in. Today she’s sitting at Starbucks talking about Obama’s newest presidential action with strangers and old friends. It’s a fun, respectful conversation, and, although competitive, not uncomfortable.

Obviously, pretty much anyone can be cool today; it’s not so much about what you do or your credentials as much as your personality.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Caring is Sharing, it's Not Cool

Cool is doing what you want, as represented to some extent in Jules and Jim. Being a free spirit is cool, but you have to truly transcend society and society’s rules. Catherine definitely ignores the rules, starting affairs anytime she feels like it; however, she really is not free from societal constraints. She needs to feel wanted which keeps her moving from man to man. In order for her to be cool, she would have to be independent of everyone. Running down the street in men’s clothes shows her rejection of societal norms and indifference to the rules. She obviously doesn’t care what the greater society thinks; she lives with her husband, daughter, and another man she is having an affair with in the same house. Regardless, she is overly concerned with what the individuals around her feel about her, and she uses sex as a mode of gratification, to get a feeling of acceptance and love.

Independence, a rejection of conformity, is cool. Ren McCormack in Footloose, Ferris Buller in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Danny Zuko in Grease, Juno in Juno, and Idgie Threadgoode in Fried Green Tomatoes are all cool because they disregard what society tells them and decide to forge their own path. Many of us couldn’t imagine stepping outside the box and living just to live, not living to fit in or appease an authority figure. We consider these characters cool because they apparently live without thinking of the consequences, and some even appear to live above the consequences. Without being bound by the rules, there are all kinds of new doors that open up. It’s easy for us to relate to most of these independent characters because there is a part of all of us that wants to reject the rules and live without the ominous thought of consequences, rules, and norms. They are cool because they have the courage to step away from the majority and be different.

Another aspect of cool represented in Jules and Jim, is the cool of self-respect and dignity. Ironically, none of the characters in the movie displayed this cool, but by characterizing the opposite, they highlight the cool. If any of the men would have left Catherine after she cheated on them, it would have been cool. We would have respected this character because they can stand on their own two feet; they respect themselves enough to get away from a bad situation. It’s cool to be without any kind of emotional ties. We look up to people who can live alone or people, like the ones above, who are completely content making their own rules and living their life without a care in the world. Cool people are the ones who can live their lives, or at least give the appearance of living their lives, carefree. There’s isn’t a single person in the real world who is honestly carefree; its human nature to worry, stress, and have emotions. This is what makes it so cool to be completely free of worries; nobody can really achieve it. So, it becomes a contest of the artifice of carefree. Who can be the most seemingly carefree? A major factor in cool is being self-motivated, lighthearted, and indifferent to the rules so you can live an independent life “without stress.”