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.