What is cool? Used so frequently in everyday vernacular, the “cool” has acquired various ambiguous shades of meaning. In a talk on December 4, Beazley Kanost (PhD candidate, English) challenged our ordinary notions of the cool, taking up and carefully theorizing both the idea of the “cool” in 60s counter culture and the implications of the political stance that lies behind our assumptions about the “cool.” Kanost’s “Whose Cool? The Direction Truth Takes in Portrait of Jason” draws from her work on experimental film of the 60s, particularly material from her visit to the Shirley Clarke Papers archive at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research in Madison, Wisconsin, funded by a graduate research grant from the University of Rhode Island Center for the Humanities. Central to Kanost’s argument is the way in which the subject of Clarke’s film projects is often the “cool man.”
Kanost’s discussion examines how Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967) both uses, but also complicates ideas of the cool and of documentary and cinéma vérité that were an important influence at the time. “Cool behavior,” Kanost argues, “does not display agitation,” but it does agitate witnesses as they recognize it and conjecture about cool subjectivity. Analyzing the influence on Clarke of Andy Warhol’s films from the same era, specifically Chelsea Girls (1966), Kanost notes how Warhol uses the idea of shame and the gaze within the film to “draw the gaze [of the viewer] only to repel it.” Such moments of tension produce what proponents of cinéma vérité considered a moment of “truth” on the screen.
In Portrait of Jason, Clarke’s relationship to the camera, Kanost suggests, is strikingly different than that of a cinéma vérité director, working against the idea of an achieved or revealed moment of “truth” in the film. Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason interviews the “eminently cool, Jason Holiday [who] was also the first gay African-American hustler-queen-addict-con artist to star in a widely-publicized, feature-length film.” In an 1983 interview, Clarke asserted she didn’t film herself because she “didn’t want to tell the truth.” Using the complexities of truth telling in Clarke’s work as a catalyst, Kanost asks why Clarke can’t tell the “truth” and how Clarke’s cinematic work potentially problematizes the notion of cinéma vérité. She cites Gavin Butts’ comment that in the film, “who controls the apparatus of cinema becomes ambiguous and unclear.”
Noting how Clarke’s Portrait of Jason was filmed in her home over the course of an entire night, the film itself, Kanost suggests, acquires characteristics of a home movie. She examines the film’s trajectory: from its opening inquiry about how Jason came to get his name, through his descriptions of working as house boy and hustler and recounting his desire to perform in night clubs, through climactic moments that ostensibly produce cinéma vérité’s “truth,” as Clarke’s and collaborator Carl Lee’s offscreen questioning push Jason to tears. Kanost uses these examples to examine how Clarke toys with notions of truth and falsity and how the film plays with accepted boundaries between diegesis, documentary and other film genres. Within the complications that thereby arise, Kanost notes the role of Jason’s “coolness” within the performance: he does at times display agitation, but by continually shifting from one affect to another, his performance ultimately suggests a cool that dominates; he thereby subverts any clear cut moment of cinéma vérité’s affect-driven “truth,” so that the certainty of the situation’s “truth” always folds back in on itself. Kanost’s discussion explores how a position of the “cool” implies agency and potential power, and she concludes that “Coolness always depends on who is watching whom.” Clarke’s films are a prime example of how that dynamic comes into play both on, and one might say, across the boundaries of the screen.
“Whose Cool” was sponsored by the University of Rhode Island URI Center for Humanities and English Graduate Colloquium.