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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Medium Cool (1969)

 I'm thrilled to be joining the Classic Movie Blog Association's Fall Blogathon, appropriately celebrating Politics in Film. Click HERE to access links to all the blog posts today through Friday of this week. 

“The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!”
(Chant by anti-war protestors confronting law enforcement in Chicago, August 1968, during the Democratic Presidential Convention)

Opening title in Medium Cool (1969) Click HERE to view 
original trailer.

Some movies have a well-paced, transparent narrative that satisfies on first viewing, and others can leave you scratching your head, requiring you to watch them again to fully appreciate them. Haskell Wexler's politically charged docudrama, Medium Cool (1969), falls into that second category. Wexler presents us with a sensory collage of seemingly disconnected scenes tied together with the most tenuous thread; the only establishing shots come in the opening credits, telling us with both images and titles that we’re in Chicago in 1968. And then the film jumps back and forth to other locations with no introduction, which, to 2020 viewers with only a cursory history of social and political events of the 1960s (including me), will likely not be recognizable. Add to that our wondering what's real and what's fake, and it emerges as a film that rewards digging into its history, and context, and rich themes.

Considering the film blurs what remains of lines between fiction and reality, it’s appropriate that our experience with it asks us to confront a fundamental question in media and in life – how does an observer of events integrate and translate those observations into meaning? Like a set of Russian nesting dolls, the question appears on multiple levels.

First, a bit of context. When shooting Medium Cool, Wexler (1922-2015) had already made his mark on Hollywood as a cinematographer, winning an Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia WoolfBut he was also an activist, identifying himself with leftist causes and dissatisfied with not being able to translate his activist passion to art with his camera lens. His foray into documentary film-making was a step in that direction, especially with The Bus, from 1965, documenting a bus trip of a group of San Franciscans on their way to the March on Washington in 1963 during this historic time in the Civil Rights Movement.

Haskell Wexler

His big opportunity to make a political narrative film arrived, ironically, with the novel The Concrete Wilderness, about a young city boy’s love of nature. The film rights were sold to Paramount and native Chicagoan Wexler was hired to helm the project for the big studio. Wexler seized the moment in 1968, and over the course of production, he and his documentary crew envisioned a different kind of story, as they roamed the city filming with hand-held cameras the real-life struggles of poor whites, Blacks, and the increasing civil and political unrest during that fateful summer. According to Wexler in an interview produced for Criterion's release of the film, “the electricity of real events in the country wasn’t being captured by anyone’s camera.” 

So what *happens* in Medium Cool? In 1968, a moving-image cameraman, John Cassellis (Robert Forster) is employed by a local Chicago TV station to film news as it’s happening. Along with soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz), Cassellis's TV assignments range from horrific highway crashes to political rallies, and at least in the beginning he's entrenched in his non-interventionist philosophy. 

Robert Forster with a camera

As the summer of 1968 marches on, Casselis's assignments intersect more and more with the social and political paroxysms of the time - MLK's and RFK's assassinations, struggles by Blacks against racial-profiling and oppression, and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s authoritarian crackdown on anti-war protestors surrounding the contentious Democratic National Convention at the end of August. In the midst of his work, Cassellis meets Harold (Harold Blankenship), a 13-year old Appalachian kid in the Uptown slums, who loves to care for pigeons, and his single mother, Eileen (Verna Bloom). The family is just trying to survive after being displaced from the West Virginia coal-mining country, part of an 'Appalachian migration' in the 1950s and 60s. The warm relationships developing the three contrast with the scenes of unrest, but the film culminates with all three being quite literally caught up in the violent street clashes between protestors and police and the National Guard on August 28th. 

A tender moment between Cassellis and Eileen

An explorer of 'cinema verite', Wexler placed his actors in real events, to observe and react – to be present, certainly not to influence the action. These included a roller derby match with punches thrown and bodies flung; the bloodied protesters in Lincoln Park; the Illinois National Guard going through simulation exercises of confronting protestors, throwing fake canisters of tear gas; speeches being recited on the convention floor, and ultimately the Democratic Convention and the real confrontations with police. Inserted into and between these scenes are scripted ones still filmed in actual like a Chicago TV news station and an apartment in Uptown. In this unique docudrama hybrid, how do we interpret the decisions Wexler's making and what we're seeing from his camera? 

As a classic film fan with less exposure to cinema verite, I found it fascinating that Wexler got away with this approach, and I retroactively feared for the safety of the cast and crew during those violent episodes they were in. Yet Wexler's choice of observation and the ultimate editing of the scenes into the final film were not neutral - they betrayed his strong sympathy with the disadvantaged citizens and antipathy toward the authority figures. Even in the short scene of one of the speeches at the Democratic convention, the audio that was captured was a rebuke of Mayor Daley's "police state" outside the Amphitheater. 

Wexler's filming for Medium Cool caught Jesse
Jackson at the 'Resurrection City' anti-poverty protest in Washington, DC.

If Wexler had a strong point of view, his main characters did not. They were mostly observers rather than influencers of the action around them. In fact, Cassellis and his colleagues make a point of saying that their role as media is to document, not get involved. The argument about the role of media, in general, is front and center early in the film where a group of real journalists, along with actors-as-journalists Cassellis and Gus, gather socially and discuss this very point, often heatedly. Gus says at one point he’s doesn’t have a point of view – he’s the extension of his microphone. 

Cassellis at the 1968 Democratic Convention

This philosophy puts Cassellis at odds with his first girlfriend Ruth, the Black activists he decides to interview against the wishes of his news boss, and possibly, Eileen. Some film critics see Cassellis on a clear journey to political activism during the course of the film's events--I didn't see this. What I did see was the slow melting of some of his cynicism as his relationship with Eileen and Harold tapped a repressed empathy and piqued in him more of an interest in the political events he can't ignore. Another jolt to his worldview was when he learned that his news footage was being shared with police and the FBI - a point that even Cassellis sees as a breach of his neutrality and a betrayal of those he's filming. Yet, this awakening is subtle, as Cassellis still goes about his work without much comment. Here I give Wexler credit, considering his own philosophy of the importance of anti-establishment causes, for resisting the temptation to overdo Cassellis's conversion.

Cassellis is confronted by "Black militants" played by
Barbara Jones and Walter Bradford (?)

The relationship between media and observer is, of course, reflected in the title of the film, specifically inspired by contemporaneous media studies guru and professor, Herbert Marshall McLuhan. McLuhan’s seminal work Understanding Media (1964) discussed different mass media as “hot” or “cool” – with TV being considered a “cool medium.” Essentially he meant that TV requires more effort by the viewer to derive meaning than other media, like movies. It's somewhat ironic that Wexler himself, despite Medium Cool's deep foray into media ethics, said he never really ‘got’ the finer points of McLuhan’s writings (interview on the Criterion Collection DVD release).

As fans and film lovers, we also bring observation to bear on the movies we watch. We evaluate the beauty or artistic quality of the shots or the production design. We critique the actors’ performances and directorial choices. We react emotionally to the images that we take in while sitting quietly and absorbing. For  Medium Cool, I’ll offer my critique. First, the film is stunning to look at. Vivid colors abound, capturing the 1960s fashion and lifestyle, both of the wealthy and economically deprived. One of my favorites was the myriad of colors of cars filling a parking lot. 

Second, the performances were strong, especially Forster (a revelation), and young Harold Blankenship, a non-actor who was just playing himself as a WV migrant in the slums of Chicago. Wexler got the most out of Blankenship’s naturalness – he’s a street-smart kid, but an innocent, one just on the verge of a journey to adulthood. Sadly, Blankenship never got his education, moved back to WV, and died of cancer in 2009 at only 54 years old. 

13-year old Harold (center) teaches his real-life brother 
Robert how to play poker in their Medium Cool flat

At times amusing and other times annoying, Wexler often broke the fourth wall or got overly creative with images: multiple instances of characters (usually the minor ones) speaking directly to the camera; a camera that nods up and down to answer the question of a character; the famous "Look out, Haskell, it's real!" added after the fact to the soundtrack when a canister of tear gas exploded near Wexler and his crew; Wexler himself and his camera pointing at his audience as the last shot of the film; a psychedelically-toned "America is Wonderful" flashing on the screen; a shot in homage to Godard in which Forster posed with a cigarette next to a poster of Jean-Paul Belmondo doing the same from Breathless. Vincent Canby of the New York Times wrote in 1969 that while the film had value, it was "an awkward and overly pretentious movie." 

Wexler turns his camera on his audience at the
end of Medium Cool
Forster as Cassellis channeling Godard

Certainly, as 2020 viewers we are distant from the historical events that were captured, or alluded to, so vividly by Wexler in Medium Cool. But today's viewers will no doubt compare the happenings and messages of the film to today’s tense and polarized socio-political climate, in which protests, often on the same issues like racial justice, are endemic in many of our cities, and real concerns exist that a sitting president may not leave office peacefully if voted out. Given these parallels, could a film like Medium Cool be made today around the current events? A recent essay for the Chicago Tribune articulated some thoughts about if a filmmaker went for a similar approach:

“What happens when you insert actors into real protest environments and let the intensity of that play out on camera? Does this create too many ethical complications in 2020? Today, information isn’t funneled through legacy media only; social media and camera phones have upended that dynamic. There are distrust and skepticism, as well as a savvy and a sense of agency that activists have about determining how their message is shaped and how their images are used. And because of that, I wonder if they’d be willing to be turned into background players in someone else’s movie. The questions become especially fraught if the project in question is a studio movie that has the potential to enrich shareholders and executives who uphold the kind of structural racism that activists are protesting against.”

Regardless, Medium Cool is a thoughtful, engaging film that provides much to digest and discuss. I recommend researching the specific events that played out in front of Wexler’s (and Casselis’s) camera before watching. Along with the political assassinations, movements, and protests going on around the country in 1968, research the phenomenon that was the Appalachian migration of displaced workers to big cities, like Chicago, where they lived together in tenements, not unlike NYC’s Upper East Side of the early 20th century. This knowledge, and a second or third viewing, will make the experience of Medium Cool a much richer one. And remember...:

Medium Cool can be seen on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection, or can be streamed on YouTube here.