The Cool World (1964)
Directed by Shirley Clarke
Tuesday, July 17 at Light Industry
The opening of Shirley Clarke's The Cool World plays like a hot, white fantasy. Street preachers in Harlem prophesy the end of Caucasian hegemony while the neighborhood's high school students, enjoying a field trip across town, mock George Washington and rough each other up: This black community is so volatile and insular that one can easily imagine it imploding without spraying too much debris south of 110th Street. The film quickly recovers, however, as we're introduced to the internal monologue of Duke (Hampton Clanton), a 15-year-old gang member who's saving up money for a gun that will help him instigate a power shift. His voiceover, often heard atop handheld footage of nut vendors and stray dogs wandering the streets, expounds upon this wish with Charlie Brown-like enthusiasm. And we start to feel very deeply for the kid; as he timidly observes his friends pulling knives on each other and sharing prostitutes, we realize that his childish dream of controlling the Royal Pythons is hopelessly incongruous with the "adult" tools he plans on using to achieve it.
Clarke's debut feature, The Connection, explores addiction through the street-inspired form of jazz, allowing each member of a small group of (fictional) junkies to solo and "riff" on his self-destructive impulse; The Cool World employs the same musical expressiveness to pierce the naïve heart of Harlem's gangland. The result is a biliously black and white fairy tale, a verityé dream. (A purposeful contradiction, in other words.) Clarke's approach occasionally murks up both the movie's cinematography and its ethics—the squalid chiaroscuro too often reduces those who inhabit it to illustrations of urban decay. But Clarke, adapting a highly observant social novel, keeps her focus on the gang's true-to-life hierarchical issues, rather than on what the existence of such wayward adolescents signifies about "modern times". The film marvels at the complexly barbed and often Maslow pyramid-inspired politics of the Royal Pythons while refusing to sympathize with the dead end that violence eventually reaches.