Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Wicked Awesome

Over spring break I didn't have a lot of time to watch t.v. and movies, but I did get the opportunity to see three awesome musicals in New York City: Wicked, Guys and Dolls, and Avenue Q. I've read the novel that the musical was based on, but this past week was my first chance to see Wicked in musical form. It was pretty different from the book, but the main character Elphaba (also known as the Wicked Witch of the West) was much the same in both mediums and was, as always, very cool. Elphaba is kind of an outcast her entire life, not only because she is different on the outside but because she has a not so conventional personality as well. She accompanies her favored younger sister to University, where she finds her calling in life and learns that what makes her different also defines her purpose.

In a strange way, Elphaba's type of cool sort of reminded me of Shaft. Both characters have a take-no-crap kind of attitude and both couldn't care less what other people think of what they do. Shaft and Elphaba also both have a gentler side, though, and have certain groups that they feel a need and duty to protect. Elphaba can be snarky and prickly and a bit unpleasant, but she is also fiercely loyal to her friends and causes she wishes to uphold. Later in the show, she is also publicly demonized as being "wicked" because she chooses to go against the grain, but she still has an in with the wizard who rules Oz and her friend Glinda, the powerful and popular Good Witch of the North. Shaft is the same in that he too has a duality of his nature: he works with the law establishment to fight crime, but at the same time he teams up with street gangs and other criminals to get his job done. Like Shaft, Elphaba will also do whatever it takes to get her job done.

Shaft can also be compared to another character who is snarky and prickly and a bit unpleasant, and maybe even a little bit wicked. Yes, Dr. Gregory House is all of those things, but if I had a practically undiagnosable ailment with horrible symptoms, he is certainly the doctor I would want on call. House takes Shaft's confidence and pay-the-world-no-mind attitude through the roof and although it drives everyone around him crazy, it gets the job done. Like Shaft, House fosters few personal relationships and seems to live almost solely for his work. The interesting thing about House, though, is that although his character is cool on t.v., he is probably not someone you would want to interact with on a day-to-day basis. I often wonder if House would be cool in real life, especially if he were someone I had to see every day, and I think that Shaft would fit under the same category. These types of characters just go to show that you can be kind of a jerk as long as you make up for it by being completely awesome.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Oh Yeah, I Can Dig It

I had never actually seen Shaft before last night, but somehow I was familiar with many elements of the film. With a movie that culturally iconic, it's a bit hard to not recognize the jive beat, smooth voiceovers, and oh-so-seventies dialogue as being from Shaft. However, I had never perceived Shaft as much more than a blaxploitation action movie (which is probably why I hadn't seen it) that was cool in the same way as Rocky or Die Hard. While in a way Shaft kind of fulfilled my expectations in that respect, it was also a pretty potent commentary on how views on race relations were changing in a major way in the 1970s.

If I had to use one word to describe the character of John Shaft, it would be dominating. Now, don't read me wrong, I don't mean dominating in a domineering sense. Shaft is clearly the guy in charge, from the opening sequence as he walks across a busy New York street like he owns the town to the very end when he delivers the last word to the Lieutenant Androzzi. Shaft is completely in control of every situation that he enters into, regardless of who he happens to be dealing with. He deals on his own terms and no one else's, be it with the white mafia or one of his many ladies. He maintains this attitude with everyone in the movie, though different facets of his personality tend to show when he is dealing with different people.

I noticed that the way Shaft treated people had very little to do with color, and much more to do with status. Shaft has a paradoxically irreverent working respect for the white police lieutenant, an equal distaste for the Italian mafia and black crime boss Bumpy Jonas, and a gentle kind manner with all of the regular people on the street that he appears to know regardless of color. Shaft's ability to be in complete control of every human encounter says a lot about how race relations had changed since the 1950s and 1960s. Racism was still very evident in several scenes, but it was made very clear that Shaft (or any other black person in the movie) was not going to take anyone's crap. This is the very reason that Shaft is such a culturally significant film. For the first time, there was a black action hero who projected pride and power to an audience of all races. Shaft not only contributed to the movement that forever changed the African American role in Hollywood, but it changed the way America viewed minorities and their cool. That, my friends, is something I can dig.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Living the High Life

I wrote in my blog last week about how the movie Easy Rider includes many of the same thematic elements as more contemporary stoner movies. However, it seems that as the years since the counterculture movement go by and fade into memory, cinema looks back with nostalgia at the good parts of free love and all its effects on society while somewhat neglecting the negative aspects of sex, drugs, and rock n' roll. While Easy Rider starts out as many stoner movies do, the recent genre tends to have a much more comedic, lax view of drug use and all that it entails. There are a few stoner movies, though, that expose the more negative side of drug use, even if the manner is not as grim as that of Easy Rider.

One movie that jumps out particularly in my mind is last year's Pineapple Express, the Judd Apatow comedy about two friends (stoners, naturally) who accidentally see a cop murder someone, get caught witnessing the killing, and get caught up in a crazy adventure as they try to avoid being offed. Seth Rogan and James Franco star in the film, and their characters are even somewhat parallel to those of Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. Dale Denton, played by Seth Rogan, is somewhat serious and realistic about his lot in life toward the middle and end of the film, though he starts off the movie as just another aimless pothead who makes a living serving court orders. During the middle of the movie, he seems to realize what a meaningless existence he's been leading thus far, and that drugs may not necessarily be a great thing for him. He sees his own immaturity and inaneness much more clearly than his trusty sidekick, Saul Silver. James Franco's character Saul Silver is a bit more like that of Dennis Hopper; he doesn't really see a problem with the whole scene and thinks that he will eventually be able to make something of himself even though right now he does nothing but deal pot, watch t.v., and visit his bube in the nursing home. Both characters eventually somewhat come to realize that they might lead more productive lives if they stop smoking up so frequently, and that drugs aren't all fun and games.

The majority of stoner movies, though, don't really show the downside to drug use. One recent movie that I think falls into this category is Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. The entire premise of the film is brought on by smoking pot and getting the munchies, leading the two main characters on an adventure that results in epiphanies/major life changes that are relatively positive. Even though Pineapple Express and Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle can both be put into the genre of stoner comedies, they have very different messages. It seems as if most movies that focus mainly on drugs have to be comedies these days, even if they do have a significant message to relay.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Tonto and the Lone Ranger Do Counterculture

From the opening credits to the end, I think Easy Rider has to be one of the most stereotypically "cool" movies we've watched all semester. Filmed during the first part of 1968, Easy Rider exemplifies the best and the worst about the booming counterculture going on all across the United States, and sort of foreshadows the darker turn the movement would make shortly after the filming of the movie. The movie kicks off with lots of drugs and lots of rock n' roll (don't worry, we'll get to the sex a little later), much like a lot of stoner movies nowadays. However, I seriously doubt that Easy Rider could be classified as a stoner movie--although the main characters are indeed stoned for a good deal of the film--due to its serious outlook on American society and grim themes violence and the less happy side of drug culture.

Like most movies in the bildundsroman genre, Easy Rider has the main protagonist and his sidekick. Now, I think we can all spot the fact that Peter Fonda's character Wyatt is the main protagonist from a mile away--for the love, Billy calls him Captain America! That, of course, leaves Dennis Hopper's character Billy as the ever-faithful sidekick. From the very beginning, they kind of reminded me of an amoral Tonto and the Lone Ranger. However, in this story, I don't feel that Billy supplemented Wyatt's personal growth; rather, he provided a contrast to the sort of life that Wyatt thought the counterculture was all about. Billy lived off of and actively participated in the counterculture and all of its glories and excesses, but in the end his mindset was not so different from that of a staunch old Republican: take advantage of capitalism and make a fortune, then find a nice condo in Boca and settle in for the rest of your days. He is very casual about the whole journey, from the commune to Marti Gras Billy is along for the ride, having a good ole' time.

Wyatt is another story. Much more reserved and removed, everything Wyatt does has an air of sacredness to it. Take for example the acid trip toward the end of the movie. Wyatt deals out the tablets like he is a priest delivering the Eucharist on Sunday morning. He also seems to subscribe to a somewhat virtuous code of living, at least when it comes to hospitality and being a polite guest. He makes sure to compliment the owner of the farm on his "nice spread" and in the commune he gently chastises Billy for wanting to refuse some of the women a ride to another place, pointing out that he and Billy had eaten their food and therefore owed the women a ride. Unlike Billy, Wyatt is not so much into the coke dealing and living off of other people's money. At the commune, he seems genuinely interested in the idea of being self-sufficient and living off of the land, and appears pretty impressed with the farmers, even though they are almost certainly doomed to failure.

Between Wyatt and Billy, I'd have to say that Wyatt is most clearly the epitome of cool within the film. However, the question must be asked: are either one of them that cool? Sure, they are kind of free and definitely represent freedom of the open road, but what is the frame of reference for coolness? Personally, I don't find the drug scene all that cool, and they were both pretty deeply involved in that. I think what Easy Rider said most to me is that there is no hard and fast rule of cool.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Cool Is As Cool Does

The movie Blowup was a bit confusing to me, but it was pretty clear that it dealt with the subject of London and its youth culture. During the 1960s, it seems that London was in constant motion; the film's main character, Thomas, embodied this trait, especially in that he was always going but never really got anything done. The film highlights all that was cool in London in the 1960s, most notably the fashion and music.

The way in which Blowup featured Thomas running all over London and hitting up the hippest places in the city kind of reminded me of the John Hughes movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, in which the title character and his two friends skip a day of school and take a trip to Chicago, all the while avoiding getting caught out by parents and the vehemently anti-Ferris principle, Mr. Rooney. Throughout the film, Ferris and company are constantly going, both to cram the best of Chicago into one day and to stay one step ahead of any authority figures. Ferris Bueller is admittedly much more light-hearted than Blowup, but for me it still had the same sense of futility. Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane stayed crazy busy all day, attending a museum, a baseball game, lunch at a ritzy restaurant, and even participated in a parade. Still, at the end of the day, nothing had really changed for them. They were still in high school, still at the same level of maturity, and Ferris still didn't have a car.

Another more recent film that explores a major city and its people is Paris, Je T'Aime. This film takes a fairly avant-garde approach to storytelling by using eighteen short films, all by different directors, to encompass the city of Paris and all the different people who inhabit and experience it. These arrondissments range from comic to heartbreaking to uplifting. Some are very realistic, while some deal in the area of pure fantasy. As different as all of the shorts are, they all have one thing in common: all eighteen leave the viewer thinking, "Nowhere but Paris." This is the exact effect that Blowup has on London, though the Antonioni film makes its point in a very different fashion. Paris, Je T'Aime displays the city's diversity of types of people and cultures that exist side by side, while Blowup does more to display the futility of London's youth culture and the people that make their living by becoming parasites who leech off of it.

Blowup is a fairly difficult movie to compare to others, as it is (at least in my experience) a pretty unique film. However, themes of swinging scenesters, the futility of hip lifestyles, and the endless search for cool can be found in all sorts of media, if only you look hard enough.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Obamanation Generation

The crowd is massive, over two million people thick, standing room only for most. People from all different walks of life are there, from the young suburban mom types to the radical students, to rabbis and priests to old distinguished politicians and lawyers. Blackberry-toting texters abound, as do multitudes of tech-savvy urbanites with digital cameras and phones whipped out to capture a momentous, once-in-a-lifetime event. At the front of it all, a young African-American family is the center of attention as millions watch history being made. The place? Washington D.C., right in front of the Capitol. The date? January 20th, 2009. The event? President Barack Obama's inauguration, an event that will undoubtedly define our generation.

I know I've mentioned the Obamas in passing before as being exemplary of coolness in our generation, but I really do think that the 2008 presidential election and youth involvement in the Obama campaign has redefined what it means to be cool here and now. Like F. John mentioned in class last night, since the turn of the century and emergence of geek chic, obsessive cool has replaced ironic disattachment as the main aspect of popular culture. Everyone who is anyone is getting political or getting involved in some sort of humanitarian project. Angelina Jolie has her thirty-seven adopted kids and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador gig, Ophrah openly supported Barack Obama in his campaign for the presidency, and satirical political shows like The Colbert Report and The Daily Show actually focus on world events, bringing news to the youth of America in a hip, up-to-date way.

Even though Washington D.C. is the epicenter of cool action, technology has made it possible to experience this coolness anywhere in the world. There are some crazy advantages to being members of such a technologically connected generation: with stuff like podcasts and Youtube anyone can make his or her opinion known, and millions of people use the advent of the Internet fully for self-expression. It only seems appropriate that in a class about finding cool, we use blogs to share our writing assignments with the world. With our newfound connectedness, it seems as if cool for our generation is all about a search for community, trying to connect with people worldwide and make some sort of difference. Despite all of the problems with the world right now, I find ours to be an inherently optimistic generation, continuously working to make things better and brighter.

Yes, my friends, right now D.C. is the place to be. No longer does politics belong solely to old, stuffy guys and gals in drab grey suits. A newer, fresher face is in town, and though I don't know how long this political involvement thing will be hip, right now it seems to be what defines our generation. It's a pretty awesome definition of cool, and I can only hope that it lasts long enough for me to fully take advantage of our cool culture.

Monday, March 2, 2009

What's Cool About Love?

The major theme for Jules and Jim was cool love, but in class I think the sub-theme we discussed at length in class after the movie--is cool long-lasting or ephemeral--is also important to take into consideration. Can love be cool if it is long-lasting, or is the ephemeral trend of serial monogamy that we see prominently played out in our society more hip in popular culture? I think this is one of the many cases where aspects of cool can be found in both situations.

Conventional wisdom tells us that the happily-ever-after ideal is something to strive for, something that is really cool. As the children of the generation who have a fifty percent divorce rate, we ourselves can relate to this idea of cool. You see the idea of couples who last forever everywhere in pop culture, from the most recent film adaptation of Jane Austen's classic Pride and Prejudice to the phenomenon that is the Twilight series, in which Edward and Bella literally stay together forever. We've even got our very own fairy tale couple living in a big white castle (er, executive residence) in Washington, D.C. Every picture of Barack and Michelle Obama positively exudes happiness; they constantly show their affection for one another, just another new and romantic aspect of the change the Obamas have brought with them to the White House. Staying together forever is the ideal for a romantic relationship. After all, how many kids tell you that when they grow up they want to be an astronaut, get married, and then probably get divorced?

However, there is a flip side to this idea of long-lasting cool love, and to see it, we have to look at reality instead of focusing on the ideal. The fact of the matter is not a whole lot of people end up staying together forever, whether it's a dating relationship or a marriage. And let's face it, where's the cool once all the romance is over and done with? No one wants to read Twlight: Edward and Bella File a Joint Tax Return or Pride and Prejudice: Darcy and Elizabeth Go to Home Depot. This seems to be part of Catherine's behavior in Jules and Jim. Once all the excitement and sexiness is gone from a relationship, she either moves on to a new one or rekindles an old one to start some sort of drama. This kind of behavior is wildly apparent in the serial monogamous nature of most relationships in American culture. We want to stay together forever, but we also don't want boring and mundane lives with the same old person day after day. Doing the dishes and taking the kids to soccer practice just doesn't factor into the idea of cool.