Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The Cool World

THE COOL WORLD         A-  
USA  (105 mi)  1964  d:  Shirley Clarke

There goes Duke, he’s a real cold killer.     
—from the imagination of Duke (Hampton Clanton)

A landmark film, coming on the heels of John Cassavetes’ SHADOWS (1959 – both versions), each set on the streets of New York where the documentary style, cinéma vérité reality brings the city to life in ways never seen before, so vividly depicted that it actually becomes the lead character of the film.  This is a true radical work, however, using an in-your-face experimental style that is never comfortable, where the freewheeling visual style matches the frenetic intensity of the Dizzy Gillespie jazz-driven musical soundtrack, written by Mal Waldron, along with the starkly superficial, plainly dubbed in spots, overlapping, improvised speech patterns of non-professionals that at times suggests the need for subtitles, that might be more representative of the first, rarely seen, entirely improvised, and perhaps more amateurish version of the Cassavetes’ film that fellow avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas preferred.  From the opening shot of a Black Muslim street preacher who doggedly derides and degrades the white man’s place in the world, this is truly something different to behold, especially coming years before the rise of the Black Panthers or any Black Power movement in America, and must have been stunning to behold when it was released.  Made immediately prior to Michael Roemer's Nothing But a Man (1964), among the best American black-themed films I've ever made, each starring the first two roles of actress Gloria Foster, both films currently in the Library of Congress National Registry, which contains few black films, though both interestingly enough were written by white Jewish men.  Adapted from the novel by Warren Miller, set entirely on the streets of Harlem, the novel was a favorite of Harlem-born author James Baldwin who couldn’t tell if the author was black or white, this film predates Claude Brown’s epic street novel Manchild in the Promised Land, released in 1965, which similarly features young men growing up too fast, told with a lightning speed quickness that provides a visceral, spontaneous feel for the rhythm of life on the streets of Harlem.   

Literally a story about a young teenage boy who wants to buy a gun, thinking this is the way to ensure his young gang will be protected from outside interference, namely other gangs, and where he envisions respect as he passes down the street, until he realizes too late that this is a foolhardy plan.  Instead the film rises and falls on small incidental details of each passing day, where friends meet on the street, or a young street gang meets in a clubhouse, playing music, smoking pot, drinking, and having sex with a girl Luanne, Yolanda Rodríguez in her only screen appearance, brought in as exclusive property of the gang.  The aggressive intensity of the film is mildly offset with nocturnal images of the city set to a smooth jazz score, luminous impressionistic moments of quiet before each day bursts with energy anew.  The oldest gang member Blood (Clarence Williams, later Linc from TV’s The Mod Squad) initially intimidates and manipulates the younger members, but they soon realize he’s rarely around to enforce his gang rules, so Duke (Hampton Clanton) quickly rises to the leadership position, supplanting Blood, who becomes an addict, seen here as the lowliest, most pathetic dregs of the earth.  As the leader, Duke is pestered into providing the game plan for taking out their rival gang, which he assumes will be no problem with a gun, but he can’t raise the $50 bucks needed to buy it from an older gang lord named Priest (Carl Lee, script co-writer, later seen in SUPERFLY [1972]).  

Along the way Duke takes Luanne to the ocean for the first time in her life, as it’s something she’s always wanted to see but never realized it was accessible by subway.  The Coney Island scenes are memorable for the mad rush of energy they provide, where they soon realize there’s a life outside the few city blocks where they live, leaving Duke more hesitant than ever to carry out his own plans of gang revenge.  The aggressive nature of the film will surprise viewers, as will the jarring or at times hard-to-hear overlapping layers of dialogue which were recorded before the era where director Robert Altman specialized in this specific cinema technique.  While Altman reduced the actual words to secondary status, making character the central focus of the film, Clarke’s improvised dialogue provides windows into her various characters, many of whom continue to be introduced as the film evolves.  Duke also has narrated passages that flow over the sea change of street activities captured by Baird Bryant’s highly active camera.  This is nearly a first person, stream-of-consciousness, coming-of-age story that encounters unexpected difficulties each passing day, each of which changes the landscape for this young man, whose future slips farther and farther away from his grasp, instead capable of living only in the present.  By the finale, by the sheer audacity of filmmaking bravado, the audience has lifelong impressions of Harlem that are surprisingly authentic, even when seen 40 years after the film was made.  Of interest, this film was produced by documentarian Frederick Wiseman and working with Shirley Clarke represents his initial entry into the film business.

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