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Entries in Cool as Ice [1991] (1)


Cool as Ice (1991)

Wigger Mortis

Wow. It's not often that a well-reasoned reader review crosses my Inbox--especially not ones from PhD candidates! Sure enough, Martin Correy, a third-year Memetics Major and intern at Cambridge's prestigious Fors-Maste Institute, wrote me the other day.

He took issue with a review draft I'd posted on their "Critical Tinkerings" forum (hey, these pieces don't write themselves); I've gotta say, he impressed me so much that I not only scrapped my write-up in favor of running his, but he actually changed the way I look at Cool as Ice. Enjoy.*

Hell0, Ian.

I've followed Kicking the Seat since spotting your twentieth draft of the infamous Love Happens review on the CT boards a few years ago (personally, I'm glad you removed the profanity and non sequitur musings about "banana boobies"). Though we generally disagree on most films, I've never felt compelled to "call you out"--until now. Your most recent piece, a review of the 1991 Vanilla Ice vehicle, Cool as Ice, is one of the laziest, most uninformed assessments of a film I've seen.

With great snark and relish, you dismiss the movie as "gaudy" and "a wiggerific, unflushable turd". These sentiments align with two-decades-old popular wisdom, but I'm surprised you didn't catch the deliciously subversive, forward-looking themes of social engineering in David Stenn's screenplay. Or that the script was just the tip of the iceberg in Universal Pictures' plan to shape youth culture in the early part of the new century.

That's right, Cool as Ice was not, as you might assume, a bland cash-in on a wildly successful music act; it was the foundation for at least half a dozen trends we see in youth culture today--including bringing hip-hop to white, affluent communities; spawning the next twelve generations of anti-animal-cruelty activists, and even re-shaping perceptions of global conflict for all of Western civilization.

I'll leave discovering the other three memes up to you, but to demonstrate how not-crazy I am, allow me to explicate points one through three. First, a little background:

In case you're unfamiliar with memes, they're ideas transmitted through culture in much the same way genes are passed along. Famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the word in 1976, shortly after which the field of memetics was born. Imagine pouring a cup of red food dye (a new idea) into the center of an Olympic-sized swimming pool (collective consciousness). Though relatively small, the change agent will eventually shade every bit of surface water, and possibly go much deeper. Memeticists study the origins and effects of the dye in order to better understand the pool.

Cool as Ice's splash was significantly smaller, debuting in fourteenth place on opening weekend and quickly vanishing from the national scene. At a glance, this beats-and-rhymes remake of Rebel Without a Cause plays like a cross between Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Say Anything, and Edward Scissorhands; aspiring white rapper, Johnny (Ice), cruises the country with his all-black posse in search of gigs. When one of the gang's bikes breaks down, they have no choice but to stop in a small town full of squares.

To the polite citizenry, Johnny is a freak. His clipped words of wisdom wrapped in bizarre hood-speak and over-large, brightly colored outfits make him as alien a creature as E.T. (though Spielberg's puppet never dreamed of saying things like, "Yo! You need to drop the zero and get with the hero."). Though director David Kellogg sets his film in post-segregation America, Johnny's friends are the only people of color to be seen in the whole town.** Race doesn't manifest as an issue, except in the subtext of Johnny's corruption by a sub-culture that sees education and politeness as proverbial shackles hearkening back to literal ones.

Johnny's gang spends ninety percent of the film waiting in a local repair shop for the bike to get fixed, while Johnny puts the moves on a cute high schooler named Kathy (Kristin Minter). The sub-subtext here diverges neatly: the immediate effect is that the scary black people are well hidden from the out-of-touch, old white folks; longer-term, Johnny functions as an emissary for broader, Afro-centric concerns. In the years following the movie's release, rap music and icons of non-white culture invaded the suburbs, degrading not only language, but youth perceptions of the importance of language itself.

Johnny's random cries of "Aaawwwwww yeaaaah" as a substitute for a lingual expression, over time, became the rule instead of the exception. Language is always the first cultural domino to fall, followed by fashion--less than two decades on, the most profitable, youth-targeted clothing brands are marketed to "gangsta" lifestyle blacks--but are kept in business by the parents of affluent white kids.

Most sociologists agree that a person's demeanor (a combination of looks, language, and attitude) informs not only their self image, but the way others perceive them. Just as Johnny's new neighbors can't get past his loud, pointless, anti-establishment posing, neither can modern culture accept the downturn in youth concerns for manners, empathy, and the concomitant uptick in their collective sense of achievement-free entitlement. How else to explain the disturbing advent of "LOL" as a widely accepted expression of an idea?***

Speaking of disturbing, this passage from your review struck a particularly sore nerve with me:

"This movie's uglier than its characters. Whoever shot this thing should be shot."

You may be interested to know that the film's cinematographer is two-time Academy Award-winner Janusz Kaminski, who began working with Steven Spielberg on Schindler's List shortly after Cool as Ice wrapped (if this were one of your reviews, I'm sure you'd highlight the fact that these two films have probably never appeared in the same sentence). I know you're not a fan of visual subtext unless it's so obvious that it borders on just plain text (this is not a slam, just a recognition of trends--I've read your Tree of Life review several times, in utter disbelief), but you really should revisit this movie.

In his beatific depictions of small-town America, Kaminski stirs the most primal emotions of tribalism (patriotism), a theme that would permeate many future collaborations with Spielberg. As long shots of peaceful, Midwest countryside are tarnished by Johnny and his friends tearing along on loud, silly-looking motorcycles, the message is clear: it is our national duty to preserve the national character from invading forces. Kaminski worked the meme beautifully into the arc of his career, showing the innocuous effects of capitulation in Cool as Ice; the results of too much rolling over in Schindler's List; and the darkest-hour, global bailout scenario of Saving Private Ryan.

"And then they came for me," indeed.

Today, we see a hyper-vigilant version of this attitude, and a call to return to the "good old days" on the national political stage. From the Tea Party to the Occupy Movement, both sides of the cultural spectrum are outraged at what they perceive to be a society highjacked by sinister foreign interests (if not literal, then figurative foreigners--corporate interests whose ideals run contrary to our understanding of the nation's founding principles).

Everything from TSA body scans to increased interest in border security to calls for the black President to produce his birth certificate are, believe it or not, the poisonous, low-hanging fruit of a tree planted two decades ago by David Stenn and Vanilla Ice. To suggest that Kaminski merely pruned the leaves is to discount the importance of aesthetics in propaganda.

The animal-activism point is the lowest-hanging fruit. At least six hundred cows were sacrificed to Ice's wardrobe, and the numerous shots of livestock grazing peacefully illustrates the point loud and clear: These unintelligible foreigners are here to mock us with their casual, gross exploitation of our resources. Ice's most frequently used puffy jacket in the film is a black leather number with white, leather slang stitched into it, such as "Ice", "Freeze", "Danger", and, most quizzically, "Yep"--which my more conspiratorial (and slightly racist) colleagues insist is an acronym for "Youth Ebonics Power". Saving animals, then, becomes not just a righteous cause for interspecies relations, but a crusade against corrupting cultural influences.

One last nugget for you, and then I'll go. The film's casting is key to understanding its sinister nature. Michael Gross, the hippie dad from Family Ties, plays Kathy's uptight father. John Haymes Newton, who played Superboy on television a few years earlier, plays Kathy's uptight, jerk boyfriend. They're literally and figuratively cuckolded by the Johnny character; one of them is eventually seduced by his pouty-lipped, arched-eyebrow charms.

The message is two-pronged and clear: truth, justice, and the American way are no match for the attractive vulgarities of change, and permissive liberalism cannot go unchecked, for fear of the national identity melting away entirely. Johnny's declaration, "It ain't where you're from, it's where you're at" speaks to a lack of grounding that can sway the maleable-minded (in this case, teenagers) in potentially dangerous directions.

I don't necessarily agree with anything I've written, from a philosophical standpoint--but the memes are real and their effects are undeniable. So, before you write off another film as "cheap, stupid thrills masked as mad skillz", I suggest you recalibrate your brain and actually pay attention.

Thanks for letting me ramble. Looking forward to whatever's next.


*Thanks to reader feedback on the last reader review I posted, I've taken the liberty of including paragraph breaks and inserting requisite bolds, italics, and cast information. Fortunately, I didn't have to touch the grammar, as Mr. Correy can apparently use Spell Check.

**I should have written, "the whole town proper". A few African-Americans can be seen hanging around a bar on the outskirts of this "Wonder Bread" community.

***Worse yet, the verbal mutation appears to be accelerating: "LOL" eventually became "lol"--which soon left the realm of texting and entered spoken communication. People began pronouncing "el-oh-el" instead of actually laughing out loud.