Monday, March 30, 2009

Obama, Li, and the quest for the Dark Tower

Shaft himself was definitely a cool minority character. Not only was he unique because of his work in a typically “white” job, but he also had all of the quintessential elements of cool. Shaft was disconnected from the world, incredibly tough, in style with his clothes and women, and of course he was 150% devoted to his cause. The role of minority characters is not always cool of course, as we see in many movies where the minorities are the ones sought after for their crimes or work with gangs. In Shaft it was the other way around though, and we saw the old school white mobsters being hunted by the suave African American private detective. Minorities don’t seem to be considered for the main, cool roles very often, perhaps because the writers and directors want the majority to be able to identify. I think this will change in the future, and perhaps has already begun with the election of Barack Obama, but for now Shaft still seems to be a minority in the entertainment industry.

A similar person who comes to my mind is Jet Li. Li started his martial arts career as a child and devoted his entire life to his work and training. Now, of course, he is also a well-known actor and performs his incredible martial arts skills for everyone to see on film. While kung fu movies might not be “cool” in many people’s opinions, Jet Li and his characters should certainly be considered that way. Li’s skills are mind-boggling, especially for people like me who have no such talent to claim. The best example that comes to my mind is one of his most recent films from last year, The Forbidden Kingdom, in which he played the legendary Monkey King or Silent Monk. So not only is Li a definite minority in America, he is also a martial arts icon across the globe. His undying devotion to his career makes him a definite member of the transcendent cool class.

On a completely different note, I must mention how one of my favorite writers, Stephen King, provides a good example of a cool minority in his epic Dark Tower series. The main character is gunslinger named Roland Deschain; he is the last of his kind, and thus is a definite minority. Roland belongs nowhere in the world and is feared by most that he encounters. Similarly, his quest to find the “man in black” and the “Dark Tower” that holds the crumbling universe together alienates him from the rest of humanity. Roland is a prime example of transcendent cool because his entire life revolves around and is his quest. Nothing else and no one else matters in his world. Not to mention the fact that he also has many of the typical cool qualities we look for in a character— detachment, amazing skills, moral ambiguity, etc. While Roland’s ethnicity makes him a part of the majority for our society, his profession and heritage make him the last of a long line of gunslingers from the land of Gilead.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Coolness of Suffering

I’m still not sure how I felt about the movie we watched this week, Shaft. I’ve never been a fan of action/cop movies, and this was definitely was definitely one of those movies. There were a lot of good qualities to the movie though, so I haven’t completely marked it off my list of good movies.

One thing I really liked about the movie was its depiction of the 70s. The “jive” lingo the main characters used was perfect. It helped viewers feel in the moment with the characters, as did the on-scene shots that were present all throughout the movie. Other than those shooting techniques, the aspects of the movie that I really liked were the controversies that Shaft faced in his daily life— I thought his personal struggle was intriguing and very cool indeed.

On a daily basis Shaft faces the tensions of race, work, and his private life in the Harlem black culture. Shaft has a job that is very typical for white, rather than black, men. As a private detective he works closely with numerous white men every day, and this often makes his personal life in Harlem rather difficult. His own people tend to view him as a traitor for the work he does, but really he isn’t at all because most of the work he does is for the betterment of his neighborhood and people. Shaft had the hard-core, tough-guy image working for him, but at the heart he was really well-intentioned and caring. Most of the other aspects of his life were filled with tension and conflict as well though. Shaft’s work inherently brings him into conflict with the white mafia as well as the local gangs and the police that he has to work with every day. Shaft’s entire life was in constant turmoil it seemed, but he still find time to do simple things to support his community, such as giving money to a poor little boy or taking time out to chat with blind newspaper salesmen. While his world was full of action, crime, drugs, and cultural warfare, Shaft maintained his independence from it all and kept his values in tact. In my opinion he was one of the most grounded characters I ever seen in a movie such as this because he kept his individuality and personal ideals in the forefront of his busy, conflicting life.

Without the tremendous amount of tension and struggle between his multiple realms of existence, I don’t think I Shaft would have been nearly as cool as he was. He just would have seemed like another stoic detective if he had not handled his crazy life with so much composure. Struggle and pain are two vital components to the kind of cool Shaft was; without those obstacles in the way Shaft would have seemed like nothing more than a really strong guy running around solving crimes and shooting people. Once you realize what he puts up with everyday though, you start to respect who he is and what he does.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Classic Rebellion

The type of cool portrayed in Easy Rider last week was a very stereotypical idea that most people can probably relate to. Wyatt and Billy were rebellious, wore leather, rode motorcycles, and just had the laid-back, tough guy attitudes that are often associated with the word “cool” in America. So while watching this movie, of course it was the stereotypical characters that came to my mind.

I’m sure most people know who I’m talking about when I mention “The Fonz.” This iconic television character from the 70s could have been the poster-child for cool. The show Happy Days was set in the 50s and 60s, and Henry Winkler played the cool, rebellious kid in town. Just like Billy and Wyatt, he rode into town on a motorcycle, and that alone established his reputation for cool. His overall attitude on the show furthered this idea of cool. He walked with confidence with his leather jacket slung over his shoulder and his hair slicked back, he could get girls to come running at his beckoning call, and every guy in town wanted to be just like him. The scene in Easy Rider when the guys walked into the small town restaurant to try to eat reminded me a lot of Happy Days. On the show the parents and adults were much like the police were in the diner— they wanted their children to stay away from Fonzie and his motorcycle because he was a bad influence. Similarly, the teenage girls in the movie thought Wyatt and Billy were amazing, much like all the kids on the show idolized The Fonz and wanted to be just like him. Fonzie had that stereotypical cool that seemed to become predominant in the 50s and 60s, but much like the characters in Easy Rider, his cool appealed mainly to the younger generations and was feared by the adults.

This weekend I got bored and decided to watch one of my favorite 80s teen movies, Dirty Dancing. As I was watching it, I realized that Patrick Swayze’s character was a lot like Peter Fonda’s role as Wyatt. Swayze played a male dancer named Johnny Castle in this movie, and Johnny was as cool as could be. Once again, he played the stereotypical cool-guy role of the 60s. He drove a tough car, had amazing dancing skills, had a detached attitude towards most of the world, and everyone idolized him. By everyone, I once again mean that the younger generation all looked up to him and most of the parents were afraid he’d run off with their daughters. Swayze portrayed a lot of rebellious cool guys like Johnny in his career, for example his roles in Road House as Dalton and The Outsiders as Darrel Curtis. Swayze was just one of those actors that had a strong persona and was easily capable of pulling off the tough rebellious role very well. I could easily see him as one of the guys in Easy Rider.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Being Free is Cool

Easy Rider was perhaps the best summary of the sixties that I’ve ever seen or heard. It showed little slices of everything that was going on in America at the time, the urban and farm lives of everyday Americans, the prejudices of the South, and of course the communes going up all over the west. Most of the movie was laid-back and even comical, but if you look past the surface you see that it really spoke wonders about the state America was in at the time. A lot of the older generation today complain about the state of the nation’s youth today, but really I think they should all just watch this movie to reflect on the times they came from as well. It wasn’t much better then, and in some ways it might have been worse— the drugs, the racism, and the whole counterculture movement had everything in turmoil.

Despite all of those negative things the movie portrayed about America, though, Easy Rider was the most quintessentially “cool” movie we have watched in class thus far. From the motorcycles and long hair to the freedom the main characters seemed to have, this movie embodied the stereotypical ideas of cool. Freedom was probably the biggest cool factor for me though, because while the people around them seemed to think Billy and Wyatt were free and therefore the ultimate in cool, I’m not sure they were at all. Both men were tied down in ways that they didn’t seem to realize. Wyatt was removed from the world around him, but he was still a prisoner to the drugs and the money and the prejudices around him as well as falling prey to his own ideas of freedom. We saw this in the end when he told Billy that they had failed— he had done everything he thought he was supposed to do once he got rich, but he still wasn’t satisfied or happy. Billy was the true free-spirited hippie of the pair, but even he wasn’t as free as he seemed to be. He was always the victim of his own worry mind, constantly afraid he was going to miss something or not get to where he needed to be. So while the girls in the small southern diner thought this dynamic duo was so cool and free, really they just hadn’t looked deep enough to see all the ties holding these men in place.

The character that I thought was really, truly cool was Jack Nicholson as George Hanson. George had his problems— alcohol more than anything— but he actually seemed to be more free, happy, unaffected by the world’s problems that the others. If nothing else, at least he realized the state that they and the country were in. He summarized it all while he was sitting around the fire with Billy one night. He said, “I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace” and then went on to explain how true freedom scares people and makes them crazy and violent. In the end he was killed by people just like those he was referring to, proving how right he really was. Above all the others, I think George was the coolest because he realized what was wrong with America’s idea of freedom, and therefore he came closer to finding that freedom than any of the others ever had the chance to do.

Monday, March 9, 2009


While watching Blow Up, you can’t get used to any of your surroundings because as soon as you do, they’re all going to change. The movie, much like its main character, Thomas, was in constant motion, making the watcher wonder what’s real and what’s just a figment of Thomas’ imagination. Sometimes it all seems real, much like the dead body in the park, and other times you think it can’t possibly be real, like the sounds of the mimes playing tennis. In the end you have no idea; it’s all just a matter of opinion.

The overall feel of this movie reminded me of the 2007 movie I’m Not There about Bob Dylan. That movie was filmed in a similar matter, leaving your mind reeling and thoughts wandering in every direction. Between the six different actors, you get six different perspectives on Dylan and the world around him. If you’re anything like me by the end of the movie you can’t imagine living a life with so many personas and varied ideas of your surroundings. Dylan was a lot like Thomas in that he was always on the go and almost always wondering what was real. The tagline for I’m Not There showed this concept perfectly: “All I Can Do Is Be Me, Whoever That Is.” Dylan wasn’t the only person who’s ever struggled with that conflict; whether Thomas realized it or not, he was too. His life was nothing but conflict: his role as a fashion model conflicted with his desires to show real pain and suffering, his busy lifestyle conflicted with his desire to freeze the world around him, and his ideas of reality certainly morphed once he participated in the mimes’ game of tennis. These searches for truth and self were main focuses of the 60s, and perhaps that why two movies made decades apart seem so similar— they were both set in a time of self-discovery and utter confusion for cultures all over the western hemisphere.

The works of M.C. Escher also play into the ideas of Blow Up. Thomas was trying to capture the real world in his photographs, and what he got was a lot of mixed signals. In the end he had no idea what was going on; his world was turned upside down because he had been searching for something that kept eluding him and finally got so caught up in it that he lost all sense of reality. This is what happens when you look at any of M.C. Escher’s works. The optical illusions trick your senses and make you constantly question your sight and rationality. That’s what happened not only to Thomas, but to everyone watching his plight as well. We were left with more questions than answers at the end, much as someone looking at Escher’s drawings is wondering what’s the top, bottom, beginning, end, etc.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Oh, the wonders of the '90s...

As a product of the late 1980s, this generation grew up in a time of prosperity for the United States of America. For most of our young lives the country actually had a surplus budget, the education system had not yet been marred by “No Child Left Behind,” gas prices were low, and the cartoons we were fed on television were actually well animated and somewhat educational.

Some of the staples for child entertainment for our generation included “Winnie the Pooh,” “Sesame Street,” “Mr. Rogers,” the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and other wonderful cartoons such as “Doug,” “Rugrats,” and “The Angry Beavers.” Sure, some of these shows still exist today, but as a general rule, if you ask anyone from this generation, children’s shows have gone steadily down hill. Because seriously, who actually learned anything from Teletubies or shows like Nickelodeon’s latest “The Mighty B?”

This generation was also molded by the up rise of pop icons such as ‘N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, Brittany Spears, Hanson, etc. This group of “boy bands” and ditzy divas molded the young minds and lives of millions of young girls in our generation, but behind the scenes other trends were on the rise in the music scene. In our younger years 80s icons such as Metallica were still going strong; in fact it wasn’t until 1991 that Metallica released their biggest album of their career, the self titled “black album” whose key anthem “Enter Sandman” dominated radio and music TV for years to come. Other music and style trends of this generation included the punk rock and “Goth” movements as well as the rise in the Hip Hop style of music, dance, and fashion that is still going strong today. The pop culture of this generation also brought with it a new phase of television called the “reality show.” From MTV’s “The Real World” to “Survivor” and even the revival of “American Idol,” reality TV took over most networks during the late 90s and early 2000s.

Pop culture wasn’t the only thing that shaped this generation though. We grew up in a time when science and technology were making leaps and bounds almost annually. When our lives began computers were a rarity in homes and cell phones came in the form of a large bag you sat in your seat and plugged into your cigarette lighter. Music and video was predominantly published on cassette tapes, and everyday people would certainly not have considered cloning a fathomable possibility. Yet, during the prime of our generation’s adolescence, technology and science took American culture in a new direction. The entire human genome was mapped, advancing our knowledge of our own bodies tenfold over what it was before, and Dolly the sheep shook the world when she was cloned in 1996. The new reality of cloning took people by storm and sparked more political and moral debates than probably any other single event ever has. We were also the first truly computerized generation. With the arrival and growth of the internet in the early 90s, our generation quickly became more globally connected, and soon we even found ourselves able to access the internet at our fingertips anywhere we went with the huge advances in cell phone technology. We were a generation of growth and advancement in so many areas compared to our parents, and all of those changes set us up to be leaders in a more diverse and globalized society.

Monday, March 2, 2009

For the Love of Men

The theme for this week was cool love, but I'm not really sure that is what we saw in Jules and Jim at all. Catherine was such a flirt and tease that she was unfaithful to both men on multiple occasions. I couldn't believe they kept going back to her despite her behavior. So for her part, there was no cool love present at all. Jules was the man who showed what cool love really was- he was loyal without falter, and his love for Catherine really had no boundaries at all. He would have done anything (or let her do anything as the case usually was) as long as he could be with her in some small way. So while we spent most of class discussing whether or not women could be cool, as it pertains the theme of cool love, we did not see a heroine in this movie who fit into the idea of cool love at all.

A leading woman who does fit that definition in my opinion is Elizabeth Bennett from Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth was a truly cool female character- she was independent, intelligent, defiant, and refused to marry someone she didn't ardently love, no matter what her mother had to say. Through Elizabeth's relationship with Mr. Darcy, Jane Austen showed her readers what cool love was all about. For starters, it doesn't have to be a perfect fairytale love story. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy suffered immensely before they ended up together, and she even rejected his first proposal. In the end though, we saw that they loved each other enough to do anything to be together. He had to right the many wrongs their false judgments had caused her family, and she had to defy the opinions of her mother and father to be with a man they deemed as a pompous ass. But in the end their true love and loyalty prevailed and they were betrothed.

Two other incredibly cool female characters came to mind when I was thinking about the concept of cool love, both from Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy: Arwen and Eowyn. The elf Arwen was madly in love with the human, Aragorn, and because of his mortality, her father refused to let her marry him. Even though it meant giving up her own immortality and not accompanying her people to their new homeland, she waited through the war against the dark lord Sauron to be with the man she loved. The devotion and patience she showed throughout the trilogy are both characteristics of a cool kind of love in my opinion. The other character I mentioned, Eowyn, was much more heroic in showing her love. When her people went to war to fight against Sauron her father ordered her to stay behind with the other women and children; instead, Eowyn disguised herself in men's amour and rushed into battle alongside her father and brother. She loved her people and her family so much that she was willing to risk her life to defend them in the most dangerous of battles. Once again, she showed what cool love really is. It's not about sex or money, it's about devotion and unconditional sacrifice to be with someone who mean's everything to you.