Tony Rayns

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

Far from being the luridly cautionary tale that [a] narrative outline perhaps suggests, The Cool World works primarily as a flow of everyday incident, in much the same way as Shirley Clarke's earlier feature, The Connection; for every calculated 'dramatic' scene there are at least three others that draw their interest from the commonplaces of life in the Harlem ghetto. The film's dramatic focus, of course, is on Duke as central character: both the turns of the plot and the generalities are filtered through his growing self-consciousness of his position, explored in a series of introspective voice-overs. But these interior monologues … are only one element in an exceptionally well-thought soundtrack—the method might best be described as an extension of Kerouac's narration for Pull My Daisy—which 'orchestrates' Duke's voice and Mal Waldron's mournful jazz score with direct and post-synched sound into consistently rich, fluid aural textures. This uncommonly active use of sound [is a major strength]…. [The] script makes occasional forays into redundant social comment through overt irony (as police manhandle Duke into their car a radio commentator enthuses about the plan for astronauts to plant the American flag on the moon) or crude schematisation (Douglas Thurston is introduced all too pointedly as a black who has acquiesced in the white system, unlike his diametrically opposite brother, a resolutely delinquent junkie); and some of the dialogue—notably monologues on loneliness by Duke's mother and Miss Dewpont—carries a poetic charge out of key with the prevalent authentic street slang. In the event, none of these misjudgments damages the film at all seriously, and several are accommodated in such a way as to work to the film's advantage…. With the film's good and poor qualities … in miraculous balance, the element that registers most powerfully is the sheer energy of the characters, their capacities for delicacy and anger alike. Ms. Clarke's subsequent Portrait of Jason reveals that she became as suspicious of the kind of artifice that drives The Cool World as most of her contemporaries. But The Cool World was made at a time when the American independent and underground film-makers saw themselves as presenting a viable alternative to Hollywood, rather than (as now) working within an entirely different aesthetic. And among the 'alternatives' of the day, from Guns of the Trees to Echoes of Silence, The Cool World now stands as the film most controlled and inventive in its methods, and most spiritedly committed in its vision. (p. 45)

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Tony Rayns, "'The Cool World'," in Monthly Film Bulletin (copyright © The British Film Institute, 1974), Vol. 41, No. 482, March, 1974, pp. 44-5.

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