Harlem has enough sadness for a hundred movies. Unfortunately Shirley Clarke has tried to make all of them in The Cool World. It is a confusing melange of believe-it-or-not realism, human interest, and Vicarious kicks.
Miss Clarks tries to give the movie a documentary look by editing in footage of Harlem streets and faces. Exhibit A in her social expose is the Royal Pythons, a perversion of "Our Gang" spawned by the poolrooms and tenements of Harlem. Their aspiring leader, 14-year-old Duke Custis, represents the final product of all this deprivation. The message in his story is clear: that the vicious cycle of Harlem life forces people to twist their human potential into grotesque and destructive channels.
But the indignation we are meant to feel is undercut by the "cool" aspect of Duke's existence. Like James Bond, he and his companions appear to have a sort of moral license to enjoy the forbidden pleasures of promiscuity, drink, and bloody adventures. Their hip talk and brotherhood in crime have an alluring in-group quality. Miss Clarke allowed this deceptive appeal to enter her argument when she chose adolescent protagonists.
The closed culture of Harlem is really a set of defenses. Violence and sexual abandon arise as the most natural outlets for courage and energy among limited alternatives. They are last resorts, founded on a certain despair. But Duke radiates the glamor of a criminal and debauchee without knowing the suffering. He and his gang act out the forms laid down by their elders, without yet knowing why.
It is pure sleight of hand, then, when the slick, funky, jazz in the background reminds us that this boy knows the sore; he has lived with the blues. Miss Clarke throws in an ineffectual white schoolteacher to thump the point home. She used the same heavy-handed stroke of irony with the paunchy filmmaker in The Connection.
Furthermore children are an easy mark for sentimental demonstrations. Here, as in Charles Dickens, childish naivete is set against hopeless circumstances for maximum pathos.
Pursuing this social realism angle, Miss Clarke throws out little cliches of social criticism. Duke's mother gives a self-conscious declamation against government indifference, a busload of Harlem schoolboys is shown touring Wall Street, a college boy comes home unable to understand his junkie brother.
This propagandistic effort destroys the coherence of Duke's personal story. There are too many characters thrown in. Sordid incidents are strung together in an impressionistic way that works in photographic sequences, but diffuses the story. No doubt violence does rear up without warning in real Harlem life, but these scuffles come too fast in the movie to glean any human relevance. The audience I sat with laughed lightheartedly when a member of the gang pulled a knife on his father, when Duke stole a purse, and when a rival whom Duke stabbed rolled over and said "Thank you," and died.
The cool world that Shirley Clarke attempts to portray in these incidents exists for sure only in her own imagination.