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The past few months have been a time of reflection for me (and so far, with no posts to show for it!). I almost never write with “theme” in mind. I’ve always adhered to the philosophy that you stick with the narrative and that’s it. And yet, I’ve been seized by the spiritual and moral questions provoked by the rewrite of “Inside-Out, Outside-In.” So in the next few weeks, I’ll write about those questions. Here’s the first piece, called, “Is ‘Cool’ cool? Reflections on the New Religion.”
“I’m spiritual, not religious,” so say a great swath of Hollywood Types and their well-meaning emulators. In theory, this accommodating declaration indicates an evolved consciousness free of the troubled history, strident dogma and lingering prejudice of the world’s major religions. Alan Miller of “The Huffington Post” recently wrote an opinion piece declaring that the “spiritual but not religious” attitude developed out of a lazy moral convenience for its loose band of followers and should be rejected (read it here, I agree with some, but not all of it). Miller resists the reality that people have become disenchanted with major religions for good reasons. All too often, the major religions have been taken over by power-hungry extroverts seeking to exert control over their fellow man through self-serving rules and condescending, didactic attitudes. So, unlike Miller, I think people are not lazy because they choose not to go to church or the mosque, they are genuinely conflicted or disillusioned. But one cannot escape religion simply by stating one’s independence from it over a latte at Urth Café while your passé in-law sits in a pew. That’s where I think Miller, and all the Hollywood “spiritual but not religious” types, are wrong. Indeed, they have not simply rejected religion. They have created a new one. It’s called, “Cool.”
“Cool” has always been around as an archetypal force, signifying an aesthetic sophistication or cat-and-mouse game with the status quo. It’s an archetype we need as a culture. It keeps us interesting. Cool’s ascendency to a religion can be traced to James Dean, who continues to personify “Cool” and now resides in the upper echelon of the gods of the new polytheism. This is ironic because Dean, at least from what I’ve read and surmised, positioned himself as an adversary to authority. His “coolness” was essentially a rejection of the dominant, conformist ethos of his time. He certainly never intended for his image to become the dominant ethos of a culture. Indeed, his nature seemed much more masochistic and it appears (at least if you believe the insightful biography “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” written by Paul Alexander) that submissive gay sex was both a path of career advancement and spiritual growth for young Dean. Unlike many of today’s followers of “Cool,” James Dean actually used the space provided by his own “coolness” to explore shadow sides of life and himself. He read philosophical texts and sought answers from older mentors, several of whom were apparently fucking him as well. He looked cool, but in practice he was a man in transition, travelling between an empty, dominant religion that left no room for his vulnerability and experimental sexuality to a primal, sensual promised land yet undefined. His car wreck symbolized a crash of ideals, a crash that will be repeated en masse unless we, as a culture, learn to explore and understand the un-illuminated territory that sent Dean to his death.
Subsequent generations of Hollywood misunderstood, then codified the beginnings of James Dean’s “Cool” into a self-serving religion whose shifting rules quickly took on a life of their own. At first, they provided a needed alternative for creative types disillusioned and disappointed with our dominant Judeo-Christian religion. I repeat – it was a needed alternative. But now, improbably, the religion of “Cool” has actually become our Dominant Religion, a somewhat perverse turn of events since the domination of “Cool” is the exact opposite of its intended use by Dean. (Hmmm….power hungry extroverts at work again?)
If you need proof that the “Religion of Cool” has taken over, just check out the “Rules of Cool” compared to the traditional Christian tenets of “the meek shall inherit the Earth” and “love thy enemy as thyself” (which in practice of course conflicted with The Crusades, the persecution of so-called witches and other atrocities, but still….).
The Rules of Cool
- Anxiety is not cool. But knowing some answers about life is cool.
- Unrequited love isn’t cool. Being the object of unrequited love is cool, though.
- Enthusiasm isn’t cool. Having an understated passion is cool, if you keep it in check.
- Being caught acting like a fool is cool IF you’re a certain age or personality type, but uncool if you’re a different personality type or older (unless you’re so old that it’s cool again). For example, if you’re Prince Harry, it’s cool if some naked Vegas pictures leak out but if you’re a politician who does the same thing with women not as physically attractive, it’s VERY uncool.
- Confidence, confidence, confidence is the key to life.
- Being devoutly religious is uncool. Being “spiritual but not religious” is cool.
- Having way more Twitter followers than people you follow is cool (admittedly this is a new rule).
- Talent is cool.
- Tattoos are cool (be careful – this is sure to evolve into ‘tattoos mean you’re trying too hard.’)
- Skinny jeans are cool (this rule also may be temporary)
- Abs are cool (this is unlikely to change anytime soon).
- Being a celebrity is cool, as long as you’re the right kind of celebrity.
- Smoking is cool, as long as you’re under 30.
- Pot is cool, but crack is whack.
- Alcohol is cool. Getting drunk is cool. Becoming a hopeless drunk is uncool, unless rehab sticks after the first round. Then you’re super cool.
- Gay marriage is cool. Lesbian sex is cool. But sex between two men is uncool, especially if there is photographic evidence of it (unless you are an attractive gay male dealing ONLY with other attractive gay males – in this case, being a star of pornography is super, super cool IF it’s the right kind of pornography).
- Being an artist is really, really cool as long as you’re being well compensated for it in terms of money and fame.
- Being young and hot is cool.
- Tis better to reject than be rejected.
- Caring without caring too much is cool.
- The Rules of Cool are subject to change by the Cool People.
In terms of the Rules of Cool, if you’re lacking in one area, you can try to make up for it in another. For example, if you’re a devoutly religious man and enjoy gay sex, that’s uncool. But you can make up for it by being even younger and hotter and a gay marriage activist (or if you don’t care about hanging out with straight people, a porn star). Or if you’re not young and hot, you can make up for it by being famous (for a good reason) and getting a well-placed, meaningful tattoo exuding confidence.
The Religion of Cool is tricky at first, but better get the hang of it. Otherwise, un-coolness follows. And what follows un-coolness? Irrelevance. And not just irrelevance to the culture at large, but even within your own family and friend circle. After all, what kid these days wouldn’t rather spend time with someone cool than his own grandfather (unless said grandfather is cool)? Not understanding or adjusting to the Rules of Cool is dangerous. But here’s the real dark side of the Religion of Cool. Conforming to the Rules of Cool also spells D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R.
Other than the internal quality of talent, Cool doesn’t really address inner tension or turmoil or moral prescriptions, other than to give indirect advice to channel whatever conflict you have into whatever brings you as much fame and resources as possible (without looking greedy for it, of course). Cool’s lack of guidance is responsible for why the children of celebrities (who achieved priest status in the religion) are almost universally fucked up. It’s also why the religion’s main priests (celebrities themselves) end up in rehab so often. They are given an amazing set of guidelines for navigating the politics of fame, but nothing for when something real happens or, God forbid, goes wrong. Of course, they try here to apply Rule Six – the “being spiritual but not religious rule” – but sometimes it doesn’t seem to work.
“Cool” was meant as a stop-gap rejection, a phase from which to gather strength from refusing to accept societal norms. It has evolved into a societal norm more punishing, random and soulless than its Judeo-Christian predecessor. The future of wisdom depends on this generation’s ability to create, deepen or properly re-invent religion on the basis of meaningful soul exploration that Cool’s original author attempted. Maybe it was worth a try, but the Religion of Cool just doesn’t work and if we keep praying to the temple of Brangelina, we’re all gonna crash.
And that will be uncool way too late.
Hunter Lee Hughes is a filmmaker and actor living and working in Los Angeles and the founder of Fatelink. His current feature film Guys Reading Poems is touring film festivals and this blog is dedicated to the process of making his second feature film, “Inside-Out, Outside-In.” If you enjoy the blog, please support our team by following us on Facebook, Twitter (@Fatelink) or Instagram (@Fatelink).
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