The fo­rum

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Lex Hall

THERE is a scene in Woody Allen’s 1972 com­edy Play It Again, Sam in which the pro­tag­o­nist, Al­lan Felix, is at his wit’s end. His wife has left him and he faces a life bereft of fe­male com­pany. “What’s wrong with me?’’ he cries. Why can’t I be cool?’’ Through­out the film he con­fides in a spec­tral ver­sion of Humphrey Bog­art, who acts as a sort of deus ex machina, striv­ing to per­suade Felix that it’s only by be­ing cool that he’ll suc­ceed with women.

Screened last month, the film of­fers a cu­ri­ous les­son in cool. These days, the cul­ture of cool is a global phe­nom­e­non, ac­ces­si­ble to all. To be cool is to be in con­trol, look sharp and say the right thing. Right?

Well, it’s not quite that straight­for­ward if you be­lieve cul­tural critic Mal­colm Glad­well. In his 1997 es­say Cool­hunt, Glad­well lays down the laws of cool. Cool can­not be man­u­fac­tured, he says, only ob­served. And, to recog­nise cool, one must al­ready be cool.

Read­ing PG Wode­house won’t nec­es­sar­ily arm you with the Bri­tish au­thor’s cool wit, nor will a paw print tat­too on your nape turn you into a Ri­hanna-like paragon of style.

At first glance then, Allen’s Felix — neu­rotic, ac­ci­dent prone, poorly dressed — fails on ev­ery score. Ex­cept one: he’s funny. We laugh at him, but we also laugh with him — and he knows it. As he bum­bles his way to se­duc­ing his best friend’s wife, Al­lan/Allen — as char­ac­ter and di­rec­tor – is para­dox­i­cally show­ing us that play­ing the un­cool is, in fact, a form of cool.

For fel­low ac­tor Steve McQueen, crowned the “King of Cool’’ for his turns in films such as The Great Es­cape (1963), the con­di­tion seemed in­nate. But where does it orig­i­nate?

Per­haps Allen was tucked up at home ac­quaint­ing him­self with the Yoruba and Igbo cul­ture in 15th-century Western Africa. For it’s here that the no­tion of cool and its link to black cul­ture has been traced. In his 1973 es­say Aes­thetic of Cool, Yale art his­to­rian Robert Far­ris Thomp­son tells how itutu, the Yoruba word for “mys­tic cool­ness”, was one of the key prin­ci­ples of that civil­i­sa­tion’s re­li­gious phi­los­o­phy.

Thomp­son ar­gued that whereas in Western civil­i­sa­tion cool was first as­so­ci­ated with con­trolled re­bel­lion and com­po­sure in stress­ful sit­u­a­tions, for the Yoruba and Igbo cool was al­ready a more poly­mor­phous term, con­not­ing gen­eros­ity, grace, mag­na­nim­ity and spir­i­tual de­tach­ment.

Cen­turies later on the other side of the At­lantic, African-Amer­i­can slaves were seen to em­body the no­tion of cool for their re­sis­tance to the bru­tal­ity of their masters. “Slav­ery made nec­es­sary the cul­ti­va­tion of spe­cial de­fence mech­a­nisms which em­ployed emo­tional de­tach­ment and irony,” ar­gues philoso­pher Thorsten Botz-Born­stein.

Or per­haps the birth of Allen’s cool can be traced back to an­cient Greece. Af­ter all, much of his comic ge­nius is rooted in his ir­ra­tional­ity. He frets over things that are be­yond his con­trol, be it the weather or whether the girl he has yet to meet will like him.

Epicte­tus the Stoic, on the other hand, drew his cool from the fact this was pre­cisely the type of think­ing he avoided. As Botz-Born­stein writes, “ev­ery­thing that can­not be con­trolled by us — death, the ac­tions of oth­ers, or the past, for ex­am­ples – should leave us in­dif­fer­ent. Through this in­sight, that all the things upon which we have no in­flu­ence are best ne­glected, a cool at­ti­tude is nur­tured.”

In this sense, Han Solo was never the coolest char­ac­ter in Star Wars for he was al­ways los­ing his cool. The real king of cool was Alec Guin­ness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi, who en­cap­su­lated the teach­ings of that scholar of cool, Aris­to­tle.

Fast for­ward to early black rap stars, who with their witty rhymes, hip clothes and non­cha­lant non-con­formist at­ti­tudes, were once thought to epit­o­mise con­tem­po­rary cool.

But it seems their suc­ces­sors of to­day no longer match it for cool. Their lyrics and at­ti­tudes, once bat­tle cries for equal­ity, now cen­tre on lit­tle more than the crazed ac­cu­mu­la­tion of riches and “bitches”.

Like Allen’s Felix, they’ve lost their bal­ance; they’ve bro­ken Aris­to­tle’s rules; they’ve ex­ceeded the golden mean. That ain’t cool.

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