Knowledge, Community, Irony, and Love
Jay Michaelson

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about how I've tended to associate being cool - that is, being the sort of person that other people want to be - with knowledge. In reality, I suppose cool is something innate, a kind of personality trait like calmness or determination that, if we're not born with it, it's at least something we acquire at a very early age. But I've long believed, or hoped, the contrary: that cool is a matter of what you know, i.e., something you can learn. If you just learn enough about the right social codes or records or books or films, you can develop cool taste, talk cool, act cool. Cool is largely a matter of sincerity and confidence, but to be confident and sincere about one's opinions, they have to be considered. Then (and only then) whatever that personal taste is, it's cool, if you've thought about it, and considered it, and figured out what about it resonates with something inside of you.

Obviously, there is no one cool genre. Some people will really groove on heavy metal music. For others, antique furniture. Whatever. But it's cool because there is an authentic connection between the art/social code and the person who espouses it. If you're trying to look like a rave kid because you think it's cool, but it's not really you, then you're a stupid poseur who needs to get real. On the other hand, if you're really into country music, because it speaks to something inside of you and you live the ideals for which it stands, cool.

(The only thing it would seem impossible to be cool about is mass-produced sentimental crap like Michael Bolton or Hallmark cards, which are inherently insincere, as they market phony sincerity in a calculated way. Of course, you can wallow in the cheese of it, but then what you're really into is irony, not the particular objects of your irony.)

Communication, then, is essential to this form of self-definition. Whether it is fashion or oil painting or construction or dance or music or witty conversation or any other form of human expression, an audience made up of people who are really, sincerely into it forms a bond of community with the artist. And this, of necessity, means shared values. It means that we, artist and audience, for reasons we may or may not be able to explain, are united in our appraisal of what art best captures the human experience, of how the "essential facts of life" are most poetically conveyed. Obviously, these understandings are tacit and generally not articulated or expressed. But they underlie the artistic communication process, and create tribal communities that may transcend conventional boundaries.

Recently, I attended a short film festival downtown, which was the culmination of an 18-day long experiment. The idea: put writers, directors, and crew together - people who didn't know each other before - and give them two weeks to make a ten-minute film. Eight teams were assembled, and eight films shown at the festival. (Info about the festival: Raw Impressions Website) The results were mixed, with some films being entirely hilarious (e.g., a largely-improvised meeting of Elton John fans who share their pathological obsessions) and others quite tedious.

One film, though, stood out for being totally incomprehensible, and exemplified the issues of artistic communication discussed above. It's not that the film was particularly avant garde or opaque - on the contrary, it was all too easy to watch and absorb. What was complicated about the film was: is it a parody, or is it sincere? Are we laughing with it - or at it?

A few facts about the film. It was called "Vicious Cycle." It was a ten-minute faux-Broadway musical (think an L.A. version of "West Side Story"), interspersed with a hyper-expressionistic interpretive dance number. There were three characters: a thirty-something man, his girlfriend, and his girlfriend's best friend, who he sleeps with. The girlfriend finds out, the man is dumped, the best friend instantly regrets what she has done and throws out the guy out of regret, then tries to get him back, etc. Everyone ends heartbroken. Along the way, the audience is treated to ludicrously awful song lyrics (e.g., "I've always fallen for men/Who aren't my type/But I'd hoped you'd be the one/To break the vicious cycle."), lots of over-the-top ballet-Flashdance fusion dance (featuring three underwear-clad dancers roughly dancing out the dynamic of the three characters), and even cheesy video editing effects.

This was bad, bad film. The question: was it intentionally bad?

Image: Richard Jones, Burning Man 2001

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June 2002

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