Why is Slo-Mo cool?

Summer 2008

I have been pondering this question.

"Why is slo-mo cool?"

When the hero of an action movie and his/her gang-members stride into the climactic battle of good with evil, they almost inevitably stride in slow motion. (The Bourne Ultimatum is an exception, where they seem to speed the movie up so you cannot see anything at all.) The Matrix exemplifies the slow-motion-hero-is-cool theme. Keanu Reeves is not inherently a very bright or cool or interesting person, but put a big leather coat on him and play back the film at 1/4 speed and ... hot damn! I gave myself a boxed set of Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns for Christmas, and although not filmed in slow motion (Leone could probably not afford the technology) Clint moves as if in slow motion at all the critical scenes. And soundlessly, which is another good feature of the slo-mo scenes: no speech. Adverts for everything from cars to toothpaste have also realised that slo-mo is cool. A car driving through a puddle is just - a car driving through a puddle. A car driving through in slow motion is, for some reason, cooler.

I have an answer to this, but it is not one I like because it means that I will forever be un-cool unless I choose to be very ill.

What is cool? 'Not you' say my dear offspring, and they are right - cool relates to your social group, and means the person who is admired for their social status, as signalled by their clothes, speech, walk, friends, food, car, music, music player, everything. 'Cool' means 'top of the social hierarchy'. Above all, cool means 'I don't have to try to impress you, you have to try to impress me', even though of course they do try, very hard.

What is un-cool about the imitator who tries to join the social group? They can mimic the clothes, speech, walk and so on, and everyone laughs, because they are busy trying to do it. (Think Woody Allan, think the fat programmer in Jurassic Park who is trying to look cool and relaxed as he runs off to screw his employers). The cool guy just has to glance at someone. The un-cool pretender has to attract attention, wave their arms, babble. Babbling is definitively uncool.

In fact, what really distinguishes cool from un-cool is lack of motion of any sort. When the cool, dominant, alpha male wants everyone to leave the room with them, they get up and walk across the room, in their own time. They do not question the sure and certain knowledge that everyone else will get up and follow them. They do not talk about it. They do not even look round. They are cool: of course everyone else is following them. Woody Allan says 'So, OK, I guess we had better be going, OK guys? I mean it is getting late and we don't want to miss the movie,...' and rushes back and forth between the door and the group he is trying to move. And everyone laughs. Har har har look at him pretending that anyone is paying any attention. Think of Samuel Jackson in the apartment scene in Pulp Fiction. "Oh, I'm sorry, did I break your concentration?" He has just shot a guy, and he just stands there, while the subdominant (and soon to be dead) boy quivers. He has just killed someone and he scarcely twitches. Most people would at least look round to see if the guy was dead.

In slightly less bloodthirsty mode, I remember a conversation with several eminent molecular biologists in 1991 about ... well, it does not matter. (No, I cannot remember, but it was related to sequencing by hydridization). There half a dozen of us were arguing in increasingly agitated tones about whatever it was. There was a pause. "Well, I think there is something in that." said Ed Southern laconically, and suddenly all the excited posturing of the rest of the group looked like just that, and Ed had established that he was actually the top dog there. I am sure that was not his intent - after all, he was the top dog there. But that is the point. Top dogs just say, quietly, what they want to say, do, quietly, what they want to do. They do not need to argue or wave or jump up and down. They can just focus on the goal they wish to attain, and then attain it.

In short, cool is goal-focused behaviour. You decide to go from A to B, you do it. There is no extraneous movement. There is no extraneous talk. You want to light a small cigar before blowing someone's brains out? You light the cigar, you blow their brains out. There is no extraneous movement at all. That is what you are going to do. The thought that anyone will fail to fall into your plans does not even enter your head. It certainly should not enter theirs. Confidence just oozes from them.

Now, it is not possible for real people to be that cool. When you walk out of a room, you will glance round. You will adjust your coat. You will hesitate slightly, or make any one of a hundred little intention movements that say 'I hope everyone is following me', which everyone will pick up on. You want to imitate Clint with the cigar, you will drop the first match, or check the gun is loose in your holster first, or your right hand will twitch once or twice towards your Magnum 45 as you light up (sorry, mixing movies here). If you walk slowly down a street, it is incredibly hard not to glance around to size up the terrain and the people around you, check out your social as well as physical environment. (Men do this in particular - the first thing a man will do when walking into a room is glance round at everyone else there, into the corners, through open doors and windows. It is programmed in, guys. Women focus on who they are coming to see. This is why women are cooler than men.) So you cannot be ultimately cool in the real world.

But - you can make it look that way. You can tell someone "Walk really fast towards the camera. As fast as you can without running. Big strides. Go!" and off they will go, totally focused, not glancing aside or taking little pause steps or fiddling with their cuffs because, heck, they do not have time and they will fall over. But when you play it back at ½ speed, it looks as if they are walking slowly, but with utter confidence and concentration. They stroll down the street in slow, ground eating paces, no pauses or glances to the side, as if they simple know that the rest of the world is falling into place behind them. (Of course, being 6 foot tall and impossibly good-looking helps too.) They radiate cool.

So, the Bains Theory of Cool. Cool is the lack of activity that appears to come from the total confidence that everyone is falling in with your idea of how the world should be arranged. Uncool is the gibbering idiot who is obviously trying to convince everyone else.

That is why slo-mo is cool.

This is why it is possible for old people to be, if not formally cool, at least damn stylish. Clint, again, Sean Connery. Cool is not about looks, or youth (although as the young set themselves up as the arbiters of cool those are major components of real-world cool.) Cool is about the focus that comes from confidence.

It does mean that I am destined to be forever un-cool - manically waving my arms about and babbling at people. But it suggests an interesting pharmacological approach to cool.

What would a 'cool drug' look like? Basically, it would damp down extraneous motion, without completely immobilising you. (People under general anaesthesia are definitely not cool.) So you want something that will delay those impulses by a few fractions of a second, either through central pharmacology or peripheral neuromuscular blockade. Interestingly, central pharmacology suggests we dose people with whatever they use to treat Tourettes, and one of the things that Tourettes' sufferers find helpful is smoking, and, yes, smoking has always been considered cool, which suggests that nicotinic agonists would be a good way to go. Nicotinic agonists have been suggested by serious people for treating Tourettes, so this is not as silly as it sounds. (Other drugs suggested include everything from anti-psychotics to botulinus toxin, which suggests the most common approach to treating Tourettes is to completely immobilise the patient).

Things that slow neuromuscular response are harder - just a tad too much and you fall over paralysed - but how about just making the joints stiff? A TNF-a agonist would do it (and have the added benefit of pushing your temperature up to 103oF, making you feel completely spaced out). Or you could catch influenza - hmm, maybe not. Oddly, being very thin is also meant to be cool, and I suspect that this is not all to do with how clothes hang off you as if you were a coat-hanger. It is also starvation-induced euphoria, and the economy of motion that only the truly hungry achieve as their bodies conserve every calorie.

So, anorexia and smoking. Is this a price worth paying for being cool? Personally, I have my doubts - I will just continue to live on-line and remain as un-cool as it is possible to be in real life.