Revenge of the Uncool

I was recently having a general meeting with an executive up here in La La Land.  (For the uninitiated, general meetings are meetings where an executive who’s read your work meets with you to get to know you.  If you’re not quick on your feet and good in a room, such meetings can wind up being bladder-straining, because an assistant will give you a bottled water when you walk in, and you will drink it because you don’t want to look like an idiot sitting there with an unopened, undrunk water bottle, so you drink it while you wait for the next 10-15 minutes, and once you go into the meeting you will spend your time wondering how quickly you can wrap up the meeting so you can get out of there and find a bathroom, all while trying not to think about Noah’s Ark, roaring waterfalls, and the ocean — which are naturally the only things you can think about.  Which really gets in the way of the brainstorming.

(But I digress.)

In this meeting, I was pitching an idea to an executive.  He’s a smart guy, produced some of the most innovative films of the last few years, and we’re both young fathers, so there’s plenty to distract us.  Especially potty-training.  I have found you can talk with executives for hours about poop — especially because they’re oftentimes such experts in it.

(Digressing again.)

Anyway, I kicked out this idea, he responded to it, we played with it a little, and then he said, “It’s about something.”

And that’s when I knew he didn’t like it.

You’re confused.  I understand.  It sounds like a compliment, and to the uninitiated, it might actually come across that way.  But it, tragically, was not.

There is an old adage: “if you want to send a message, use Western Union.”  (For the uninitiated, before Western Union became “the fastest way to send money in America,” they actually sent telegrams, which were kind of like text messages except other people would type them for you.  Which I guess is kind of like the NSA.  So I guess nowadays, if you want to send a message, use the NSA.)

(Serious digression.)

Back to my meeting.  We chatted amiably for another five minutes, I walked out, called my manager, he asked if the executive responded to the idea, and I said, “Nope.  It’s dead.”

This was not the first time.  Two years ago I met with a manager who seemed interested in working with me.  We did the same thing — he read some of my stuff, we kicked ideas around, and then he said the thing that told me that he would not be working with me: “You’re a very earnest writer.”

Now “earnestness” might be a compliment anywhere else in the country, but in Hollywood, it’s the opposite.  Frank Capra was earnest — and looked down upon, his films dubbed “Capra-corn” by his contemporaries.  Even Hitchcock derided young earnest writers and distanced himself from them — referring to them as “self-important types with something to say.”

“Earnest” means, “you aren’t cool.”

Coolness, just like in high school, is the ultimate compliment in Hollywood.  I met with a producer recently about a directing gig, and she said, “what we really want is someone cool.”  Coolness symbolizes a person of taste.  A person who’s slightly ahead of everybody else.  And, most often, a person who is detached.  Too cool to laugh at a joke, too cool to give a real hug, too cool to take stuff seriously.  Coolness is cool.

As someone whose life is driven by core values of Faith, Hope, and Love, and who longs to reflect those virtues in his stories, I am constantly reminded that I am not cool.  I could try, I suppose — I could try to affect a middle/upper class ennui, wear too-thin jeans and wax rhapsodic about French philosophy all while wearing Ray Bans.  But that’s not me.  I talk too loud, I love too deeply, I laugh too hard, I cry too easily (usually about whatever amazing thing my little girls just did).  I believe too much.

I am uncool.

I’m not sure where the archetype came from that great artists are cool, but it exists.  This perplexes me, since some of my favorite artists don’t fall under the definition of cool.  U2 spring to mind (but then, they always spring to mind).  Springsteen too is uncool; so is Coldplay.  Watch Chris Martin perform and try to convince me he’s cool as he pogos about the stage, lost in the music.

The defining characteristic of some of my favorite artists is passion, and passion is uncool.

I wish I had some Scriptural verses here to buttress my uncoolness.  I wish St. Paul had said something like, “It’s cool to be uncool, dudes.”  Maybe he did; it’s been a while since I’ve read the Message translation of the Bible.  But until I dig up that translation, I will choose to find hope (and, I suppose, reassurance) in the oddest of places:  Cameron Crowe’s ALMOST FAMOUS.

In this little autobiographical film, a 15-year-old wannabe-rock-music-writer (Patrick Fugit) meets fabled rock critic Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Bangs sees through the young, impressionable kid, and once the kid comes back from his first road trip with rock stars, Bangs lays it to him straight:

“Aw, man. You made friends with them. See, friendship is the booze they feed you. They want you to get drunk on feeling like you belong.  They make you feel cool.  And hey, I met you. You are not cool. …Great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love — and let’s face it, you got a big head start.”

And then he says this:

“The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what we share with someone else when we’re uncool.”

Being uncool means living passionately.  Being uncool means being engaged.  Being uncool means diving to deep places and straining back to the surface and exploding out of the water breathless because of the excitement of what you’ve just seen.  Being uncool means risking looking like an idiot for the things and the people that matter most.  Being uncool means living life with eyes wide open, with a constant state of wonder.  Being uncool means saying two of the most powerful phrases a human being can utter: “I’m sorry,” and “I love you.”  On a regular basis.

And, I am convinced, being uncool makes me a better artist.  A better husband.  A better father,  A better teacher.  A better follower of Jesus.  A better human being.

So I find myself reflecting on this question: “how do we impact our culture for Christ?”  That’s a pretty broad question, with lots of places to explore.

But I’ll tell you what I think it starts with:

Being uncool.

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