Truth is Fiction: The Work of Haskell Wexler, Part 2, 'Medium Cool'

From Medium Cool (1969)

Medium Cool is the ultimate amalgamation of reality and illusion. Fictional characters live in real situations; real characters exist in fictional situations.

Haskell Wexler’s background in cinema verité influenced feature filmmaking through the Vietnam era, helping to popularize techniques such as the hand-held camera, natural lighting, long-takes and flashing. His documentary style blended reality and fiction, creating a new realism that connected with a disenchanted youth audience who had grown disillusioned Hollywood spectacles. However, the zeitgeist was short lived and verité became another stylistic cinematic crutch of the illusion factory. Still, Wexler had one last comment on the role of media and its repertoire of half-truths: a cinematic wedding between documentary and feature where the camera was minister. His 1969 film Medium Cool would mark an important point in the dialectic between life and art, of truth and fiction.

Medium Cool was Wexler’s feature debut as director and remains one of the greatest treatise on the relationship between features and documentaries. A studio funded film, it follows the exploits of Robert Forster as a cameraman in Chicago during the summer of 1968. In a time of political and social discontent, Wexler used a mixture of documentary and feature footage to bring an urgent reality to the situation. Footage of National Guard recruits training to quell hippy protests brings forth an alarming sense of understanding and dread when they meet the actual protestors in the film’s climax. Fictional characters live in real situations; real characters exist in fictional situations. In the film, everyone, from the National Guard to the fictional characters to the protestors to the cameraman is viewed as political. Every action has a chance for influence, for effect; every action is political.

The film addresses the subject of the cameraman, the voyeur and his responsibilities. It questions the ethics of journalism, of using violence as spectacle. If a newsperson sees something horrible happening, does he shoot or intercede? In the book Masters of Light, Wexler notes that “[t]his is the same problem the cameraman is always faced with: whether you are going to photograph and make a fantastic shot of someone who has just been shot and is dying, or whether you put your camera down and help the guy.” The film starts with two characters having this debate. They observe an accident, shoot footage for the local news, and then finally call the police before leaving the scene. “Jesus, I love to shoot film,” says Forster character as he tries to catch history.

Later in the film, Forster’s girlfriend recalls a scene from in the Italian anthology film Mondo Cane (1963) in which giant sea turtles are filmed crawling the wrong way to lay their eggs and dying in bewilderment. Did the cameraman save the turtles after shooting them? Should they have? For the cameraman, for the media, do their tools and not their humanity define identity? As the film ends, Forster’s cameraman is dying in a similar crash that consciously echoes the film’s opening. A family drives by in a car; a child takes a picture of the wreckage. As the family drives off, the camera pans to follow and reveals another cameraman, his gaze turning from the wreckage to focus on the viewer.

Film and television have the ability to influence, change habits and behaviors. Medium Cool was an attempt to draw audience attention to this. Over time, viewers have been conditioned to believe certain things because the media says it. They need to listen critically, know that the words and images are carefully calculated to elicit certain responses, and understand the filmmakers’ motives. Even in verité, the decision to focus on one subject or another has a particular motivation. The late '60s, Wexler notes in Masters of Light, was “when television really came into its own, when the lines between propaganda and reality were blurred.”

The title of the film comes from the description of television as a “cool” medium, where news and information are presented in snippets, and audiences have to take it upon themselves to fill in the blanks. The inability to do so leads to half-truths, a lack of argument or opposition of what is being fed to the viewer. Can truth break through these formulations of appearance? Is the viewer’s reception cold beyond televisions thirty-second bits?

One scene presents the realization of “true” existence via media. In a ghetto apartment, black militants accost Forster’s character when he tries to interview a cabdriver who returned a wallet with a large sum of money. The cabdriver does not want to be on camera, but the others do. A black actress wants to be put on television; two men call him a chauvinist and accuse him of perpetuating, in the words of Ethan Mordden, “white egomania that was as much part of the political scene in 1968 as Vietnam and the Chicago police were.” These were actors, but were expressing real emotions, both their own and of the community they represented. It brings an unsettling quality to the narrative, as the audience not only worries for Forster’s character but Forster himself.

Mordden notes in the book Medium Cool, it (like the rest of the film) is “a trenchant idea, film that tries to see how real film can get but also film that reminds us that film makes everything unreal.” After these diatribes, a man bails Foster out, letting him off with the simple note that being on “the [television] tube is life.” Being on TV, getting their message across, not only stands as a status symbol but a sign of legitimacy. As the protesters later chant at police while a CBS News truck drives by, “The whole world is watching!” The real question is, what do they think about what they see?

The wedding between reality and fiction reaches fervor in the climactic riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. During this scene the role of the cameraman and media once again is questioned. As a woman looks for her son, Robert Forster’s character is shooting, and continues to shoot so that he cannot help. The woman wears a bright yellow dress, out-of-place amidst the drab colors of the protesters and military police, a fictional character in a real world.

Forster was able to gain access to restricted areas simply by carrying around a dummy news camera. When the riot occurs, the footage of is real. It's the actual riot, with the actor and actress playing their parts amongst the fleeing protesters and military police. At one point a crew member is heard breaking the fourth wall, yelling “Look out Haskell, it’s real!” as the camera attempts to flee from teargas and a surging crowd. Reality and fiction are coupled. As New York Times critic Vincente Canby noted, the movie uses the political events of 1968 as “real places—as backgrounds that are extensions of the fictional characters.”

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