Truth is Fiction

The Work of Haskell Wexler, Part 2, 'Medium Cool'

by David Charpentier

13 December 2011

From Medium Cool (1969) 

The camera and the cameraman are responsible for this mating of styles. The film questions the adoration of the camera and art. Dialectic exists between appearance and reality, the ability of the camera to turn brutality into beauty. According to Canby it is a “visual dissection of visual art,” a process turning violence and pain into pleasure. Despite the serious questions raised about the veracity of media imagery, the film itself gives over to exploitative Hollywood melodrama. It creates awareness of the influence of reality on fiction, and the ease in which truth can succumbed to illusion. The power of media to subvert, exploit and desensitize its audience and targets.

Many concepts in the film were based on rumors that turned out to be true. A riot was likely to occur at the ’68 DNC; Wexler was just there with his cameras in case it happened. Remarks about the government examining footage shot by news crews to profile protesters, a suggestion by Wexler as to the power media could have when in the wrong hands, was also true. It was reported that three-fourths of the people with news credentials at the DNC were actually government agents. Newspapers and journalists were selling news to the FBI, violating the freedom of speech and press that filmmakers would later have to fight to maintain.

The film’s use of actual footage from the DNC riots and criticism of the governments involvement in the media made it a threat to the establishment. The Democratic Party told Paramount’s owner, Gulf and Western, that if the film received a wide release, things would not work out in their favor with upcoming energy bills. In addition, Wexler notes, “the film was given an X-rating which was part of the compromise that was made so it basically kept an audience of any consequence away.” The government was worried about the power of the people, or rather if the people recognized the power they had, in both the protests and through the use of media. As Canby notes, it is “a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence.”

Wexler continued exploring the middle-ground between truth and illusion in his documentary work. For his next directorial feature, Latino (1985), Wexler employed a style of mixing documentary and feature footage like that of Medium Cool.  The film was set in the backdrop of the conflict between the U.S. backed Contra rebels and Nicaraguan Sandista government. It featured controversial footage of guerillas fighting and killing innocents in their quest to control the government. Fearing the backlash of his prior political films, no studio would release it. It ended up playing in a few specialty theaters before going to video.

With such projects, Wexler’s reputation as a political filmmaker grew. In the mid-‘70s, Emile de Antonio (another millionaire socialist) sought him out for a film on the revolutionary group known as the Weather Underground. Though the film ultimately fell flat, for Wexler, the process, the experience was everything. He once again learned the concerns of the government over media. The sound lab that was used tipped off the FBI, and De Antonio and Wexler were subpoenaed. The case was eventually withdrawn, but the film was never shown to a wide audience. The experience, however, did set a precedent that ruled documentary filmmakers were part of the news media and granted them freedom of the press. For Wexler, this proved that film, media had power to influence an audience to change and rethink social values.

Like Medium Cool, the lasting image from Underground features Wexler and his camera. Here he sits on top of a pyramid with the director, sound designer and revolutionaries beneath him. The message is clear: the power wielded by the cameraman in contemporary society. To record, to influence, to make change; to present fiction or fact, to blur the ideals of reality and fantasy. Filmmakers such as Oliver Stone and Spike Lee have used this technique to make statements on the variability of public memory with regards to historical events.

In JFK (1991), Stone utilizes a complex structure of fictional scenes, documentary-style reconstructions and actuality footage to shape his visual field of events. News commentaries and fictional dialogue are heard over images, both real and manipulated that serve to charge the film’s political accusations and comment on the distortion of reality. Stone continued this philosophical doctrine in Natural Born Killers (1995), showing the power of the media to create, influence and glorify violence and social mores.

Lee similarly used mixed media in Malcolm X (1992), shifting between black-and-white and color to compound the sense of authenticity and drama. Elements from traditional genres like musicals and film noir are featured in early scenes, while documentary conventions predominate for Malcolm’s later life. The film is book ended by shots of the American flag, Africa-American children and celebrities stating “I am Malcolm X,” and video footage of the Rodney King beating and riots—a bold statement of Malcolm X’s contemporary relevance, noting that much work still needs to be done.

It may be a documentary by Wexler’s son that best demonstrates the ability of the camera to manipulate and ascertain. Tell Them Who You Are (2003) is an attempt for the son to reconcile his relationship and understand his famous father, to separate the man from his work. Through the process of the film, the father also comes to respect his son, as a filmmaker and an individual. In the end, both father and son come to realize that it is through Haskell’s legacy, through the power of film that they were able to make peace. The camera can just as easily be used to distill truth as create fiction. Both father and son learn through observing, through the use of the camera.

Wexler’s legacy has been one of learning through observation, of the power of the camera to enlighten and obscure. Aesthetically, it is a style of cinema verité and narrative illusion, a wedding of documentary and feature. What is important is separating the truth from fiction. All art involves control, manipulation; it’s a specific depiction of society. Wexler notes in an interview with Film Quarterly (Winter 1973) that a “good filmmaker…should say something. He has to have something burning. In the end, that’s the only defense against what we’re all afraid of. The seduction.” It is the issue of seduction, of misconstrued compromise, which has rendered a media where truth is fiction.

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