The Paradox of Cool


One thing that’s immediately noticeable is that no one says anything is “cool” anymore. I understand that you will hear people say “that’s cool,” which would appear to contradict what I just said in the previous sentence, but you’re paying attention now and that’s good.

Coolness is a complex and elusive concept. People are commonly aware of the designations of “cool” versus “uncool,” but are not always certain how exactly to apply these distinctions. Is Justin Bieber cool? Lots of girls want to bang him; he drives flashy, expensive cars (and gets pulled over for speeding!); he vandalizes public and private property; and he’s overtly disrespectful to authority figures. He meets several qualifications for coolness, but saying Justin Bieber is cool is kind of like saying McDonald’s salads are healthy.

Is Kanye West cool? Can anyone trying that hard to convince the world how cool he is ever REALLY be cool? Isn’t coolness supposed to be effortless? Isn’t shouting how cool you are ridiculously uncool? Jay-Z seems way cooler than Kanye.

It can get very confusing. Thankfully, as with most things in life, we can use movies to help us understand.

You have the people who are obviously cool, but at the same time are not cool because they are cool. This is a problem that plagued The Lone Ranger, World War Z, and most movies with “awesome” trailers. You have those who aren’t cool, but are uncool in a way that is socially acceptable and thus: cool. Good examples of this include the new Star Trek movies, This Is the End, and the Harry Potter franchise.

There are those who are not cool, but have no desire to ever be cool, so they kind of ARE cool, but are so far off the radar that they don’t even register as people to the obviously cool kids (James Cameron’s Avatar) who are not actually cool. This would be a movie like Primer, Joaquin Phoenix’s I’m Still Here, or, I guess, any independent movie that “you have to see.”

For every layer of coolness, there’s a layer or two beneath it. (Just like Inception!*) Video games have become cool, but playing video games all the time means you have no life, which is decidedly un-cool. Just as it’s cool to love the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, but not cool if you can speak Quenya. (Even knowing that Quenya is a form of Elvish is dangerous territory.) Retro games have become cool, but only in a sort of lip service “I-appreciate-the-aesthetic-value-of-the-original-NES-controller” type of way.

Mentioning that you once programmed a game for the Commodore 64 would make you way too nerdy to be cool. This is similar to the disparity between liking the Avengers movie and actually knowing the original Avengers roster. (Guess what? Captain America wasn’t a member!)

Having an iPhone is cool, but hating the iPhone is also cool. (This is similar to how franchises like Twilight and the Transformers are both simultaneously adored and loathed.) Reading is cool again, but taking books out of the library is not cool. Trying to be cool is not cool (John Carter, Sucker Punch), unless you are trying to make a point about how uncool that is (21 Jump Street), in which case you are cool (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang).

And some people are just a lost cause; they’ll never be cool and never become uncool enough to benefit from it. I’m looking at you Last Airbender.


*It’s amusing to think that Inception’s REAL legacy will be people invoking it whenever there are more than two layers of anything.