Seething Tension: 'Medium Cool'

Haskell Wexler captures the heat of dangerous unrest in the United States, 1968.

Medium Cool

Director: Haskell Wexler
Cast: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Marianna Hill, Harold Blankenship
Distributor: Criterion
Rated: R
Release date: 2013-05-21

There were 532 reported murders in Chicago in 2012. Perhaps not surprisingly, a striking amount of these killings occurred in poor, predominantly black neighborhoods. After Chicago tore down housing projects like the infamous Cabrini-Green building, gang members scattered to other neighborhoods, bringing violence into new territories.

Gang violence and black on black crime are a blight on the city of Chicago that should shame policy makers. Is this what progress looks like?

In the beginning, Medium Cool moves like Robert Altman’s Nashville. Quick cuts and interconnected linear storylines proliferate into an enormous, shared experience. One feels the city of Chicago itself is a living being. Polyphonic characters are shot from a distance. Dialogue is hard to hear and at times overwhelmed by diegetic noise. Expansive shots are coupled with rumbling Western music.

The film is about unrest. Political tension is seething in 1968. You can almost feel the itchy energy about to boil over in the summer heat. Military marches against protesters are filmed in a documentary style but seem staged nonetheless. Cinéma vérité clashes with the conceit that the camera is creating propaganda. Conspiracy theorists and kids jeering at “pigs” bleed in from all sides of the periphery.

Haskell Wexler was, until writing and directing this film, a cinematographer. As one might expect, Medium Cool asks often heavy handedly about exploitation in journalism, about the nature of the camera, about mere recording versus telling a story. How much do the cameraman’s choices affect what is seen? Why are people so hungry to see violence on TV? These questions are some of the least interesting, and most dated elements of the film. They are a detraction, but one can still see the forest through some decrepit trees.

Once it has sunken into its paranoid atmosphere, the story begins revolving around two main characters. John Cassellis (Robert Forster) is a television news cameraman. His politics are ambiguous, but he finds himself embroiled in the heat of the 1968 climate in Chicago because of his profession. A gun for hire, his sidearm is more phallic than incendiary. Cassellis is a masculine archetype, he boxes and chases beautiful women, pursuits that seem to consume him in ways that politics never will.

A very powerful sequence in the film occurs in the ghetto. John and his crew are sent to do a story on a black man who found $10,000 in the backseat of a cab and turned it in. When they arrive at the man’s house, the black people inside are hostile and implicitly threaten violence with their increasing scorn. Candid shots of black men allow them to speak to the injustice they feel and their slanderous portrayal in the media; acting as a negro vs. a black man; jive interviews” trying to capture in 15 minutes what it took 300 years to develop: grief. The question of “human interest” in journalism looms large.

John’s careless attitude changes once he hears that the television station he works for has been providing information gathered by journalists to the FBI. In a bitter rage he has a falling out with the television company and is fired. In this way he is aligned with the anti-establishment forces; the Good Guys. He is very beautiful, after all, and it would be a shame to prevent us for rooting for him.

In the midst of all this he meets a woman Eileen (Verna Bloom), who moved to Chicago from West Virginia with her young son. Obliquely, it is implied that the father is in Vietnam but this is never made entirely clear. Eileen is less flashy than the Brigitte Bardot types Cassellis usually goes for, but something down-home, maybe even maternal draws him in and they begin a relationship. Cassellis tells the son that they are going to be good friends.

As the car radio plays the news broadcast from the Chicago riots, the two main characters drive down a country road. In a choppy scene the car crashes. Another car drives down the road. It slows down so that one can snap a picture and drive off. The camera zooms out with the car radio news still playing. Crackling over the transmitter, a man says: “I came down here thinking that these kids were a bunch of bums but when I got down here I realized, the kids are right”.

Simplicity of message in a film is not necessarily a fault. Wexler did not write a dissertation. He made art and as such he should be arousing our passions. In 1968, revolution in America seemed a much more real possibility than it does today. Anger was visceral and tangible. Now, 2013 is host to so many ways of defusing political anger. What we have today is Vice journalism -- sensationalism masked in the specious garb of critique. Wexler captures the heat of dangerous unrest in the United States. His camera may be exploitative. It's certainly biased. But it records human dignity and rage for those of us too detached to feel such things.

The Criterion release of this DVD comes with two audio commentaries, one featuring Wexler, editor Paul Golding and Marianna Hill, the other featuring historian Paul Cronin. These are interesting but two sets of commentaries is a bit excessive. The technical aspects of the film are interesting to expound upon but one really doesn’t need all that detail.

There' a second disc containing an interview with Wexler, excerpts from , a documentary about the making of Medium Cool, excerpts from Sooner or Later, a documentary about the actor Harold Blankship and finally Medium Cool Revisited, a video by Wexler about the Occupy movement in Chicago. Finally, and best of all, the extras include an essay by film critic Thomas Beard.


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