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

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.”

Truth and Rumors / Truth in Rumors

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.