1960s, Drama, Political, Thriller

Medium Cool (1969)

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Director/Screenwriter: Haskell Wexler

By Roderick Heath

Over fifty years since its release, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool remains one of the great unrepeated feats in cinema. Perhaps that’s a good thing: no-one should expect filmmakers to thrust themselves into the midst of a real, live riot for the sake of art or reportage, as recent events have proven. But Medium Cool is much more than just a unique record of cinema verite happenstance. During the fervour and fractiousness of the late 1960s, many filmmakers felt obliged to try and connect directly with the zeitgeist and get involved, to create movies with a direct connection in method and message with the cultural and political furore of the moment. The Chicago-born Wexler had a long and fruitful career as a much-lauded cinematographer. He initially gained regard for his incisive and palpable black and white shooting on films like Irvin Kershner’s Hoodlum Priest (1961), Elia Kazan’s America, America (1963), Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), and Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), for which he won his first Oscar. His textured colour on In the Heat of the Night (1967) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) helped define movie cinematography for the next decade in blending a documentary-like sense of immediacy and utilisation of diverse light sources with a rich and sensitive palette, reinventing glossy Hollywood moviemaking for a new era.

In the 1970s Wexler would win Oscars back to back for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Hal Ashby’s Bound For Glory (1976), and later worked with Terrence Malick, Dennis Hopper, and repeatedly with John Sayles, who had, ironically, signalled himself early in his career as a Wexler acolyte in making his script for the glorious B-movie Alligator (1980) into a sort-of sequel to Medium Cool. Simultaneously, Wexler, an unabashed leftist with an edge of the provocateur, essayed an equally respected career as a director, mostly of documentaries, beginning with his 1963 record of a Freedom Rider excursion, The Bus, winning yet another Oscar for his Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1970), and interviewing members of the fugitive Weather Underground for the 1976 film Underground. His only two feature films as director were to be Medium Cool and Latino (1985), a film about US involvement in Nicaragua.

Medium Cool infamously saw Wexler, his crew, and actors staging portions of their movie amidst the Democratic Party’s 1968 National Convention in Chicago. Partly through serendipity and partly through his cultural antennae working at a fine pitch, Wexler was on hand to film the swaggering repression dealt out upon the anti-Vietnam War protestors who had gathered in the city streets by the Chicago police and Illinois National Guard. The event both exemplified and amplified schisms between protestors and authority, factions in the Democrats, and the national and international political dialogue at large, to a degree that still echoes in fundamental ways. Wexler’s immediate inspiration was writer and theorist Marshall McLuhan’s treatise on the emerging age of mass media and television as the new, primary delivery system for it, diagnosing it as a medium that tended to dampen any sense of immediate emotional and social connection: the “medium cool” of the title referred to McLuhan’s description of TV as a cool medium, lacking urgency for all the speed it could deliver news and connection with.

Medium Cool unfolds partly as a traditional dramatic narrative, partly as a documentary, and overall as a kind of thesis statement on the nature of visual media, methods and styles colliding until they form their own integrity, speaking to each-other with their own forms of authenticity. Wexler’s focal point, John Casellis (Robert Forster), is glimpsed at the film’s opening taking footage of a car crash he and his sound man Gus (Peter Bonerz) have chanced upon on the freeway, shooting the bloodied female driver slumped upon the ground whilst the jammed car horn blares out impotent alarm, before returning to their car as John comments in blasé fashion, “Better call an ambulance.” Wexler strikes a note here that’s become a pervasive cliché since, in questioning the motives and engagement of news collectors who seem more dedicated to feeding the beast of the mass-media with marketable images of gore and chaos than to the reality of what’s in front of them, but at the time it surely struck hard as a cold repudiation to the more familiar portrayal of heroic journalists solving public ills in so many Hollywood movies. But the scene is more neutral than it seems in also offering the lot of the reporters as one where they always become witness to tragedy and strangeness that has usually already occurred, recording the visual evidence for posterity with frigid bewilderment.

The film’s title appears over a shot that was something of a signature for Wexler as a cinematographer, an out-of-focus zoom shot of blurred lights, in this case the hazard lamps on the rear of the news crew’s van, redolent of a bleary and abstracted sense of the modern world’s strange textures. This segues into a stark yet mysteriously epic sequence unfolding under the credits as a motorcycle courier takes the film of the crash from the roving new crew back to the TV station for broadcast, traversing the empty streets of early morning Chicago, mapping out the city in a deserted and near-eerie state in pointed contrast to the later scenes of the film as the streets become an amphitheatre of human conflict. Wexler, oddly, stated this sequence was inspired by the otherworldly motorcyclists of Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1949), a film which blended mythical concepts with a buried metaphor for the experience of Nazi occupation. Both facets inform Wexler’s quotation in context of his movie: the sense of blurred zones of life and death encouraged by technology as well as the more immediate portrayal of political violence and repression. John and Gus are next glimpsed as party guests as they and other journalists talk with guests, arguing over the vicissitudes of their profession and its impact upon society at large. “All good people deplore problems at a distance,” a black intellectual comments. A producer comments the approach of news programs with their emphasis on fragmentary episodes of calamity excises analysis and understanding out what leads to such events.

Medium Cool dedicates itself in part to portraying precisely what lies behind the climactic images of riot and affray in a manner contradicting this statement about the limitations of TV news, with Wexler utilising all the resources at his command, including both authentic footage of real events, recreation, improvisatory performance and scripted exchanges to present a coherent panorama. Wexler offers footage of the training of the riot responders working with a horde of people hired to stand in for a unruly horde of anarchic hippie protestors. The training session sports a surprising degree of good-humoured satire from the mock-protestors, particularly the man pretending to be Chicago’s then-mayor Richard Daley, who tries to mollify protestors: “I let you use the swimming pool every Fourth of July! We’ve operated the liquor stores at a minimum of profit!”, even as the National Guard file in with fixed but sheathed bayonets and jeeps festooned with barbed wire-clad bumpers, the hard edge of a militarised response to expected unrest revealed with a sense of foreboding. The relative jollity of the preparations and the pleasant and optimistic demeanour of the Robert Kennedy boosters interviewed in the Chicago downtown still bespeaks however a sense of things still working largely as expected.

Kennedy’s assassination is portrayed obliquely as Wexler surveys the functioning steaminess of a large kitchen, evidently supposed to be that of the Ambassador Hotel, as the cooks and staff go about their business whilst Kennedy’s speech is heard on the soundtrack. The door to the kitchen bursts open and a brief tumult is glimpsed, men jostling and TV lights glaring, as Kennedy, team, and media prepare to pass through, just before his killing. Wexler cuts hard to TV equipment already set up for his funeral parade, with John noting with queasy irony how good they’ve gotten since Jack Kennedy’s death at preparing for such events. Wexler’s eliding approach here relies on the audience to grasp the context as well as the unstated mood of dislocation and confusion that follows it, contrasting the infamous TV images of Kennedy’s bloodied form on the kitchen floor. Medium Cool purposefully weaves in a sense of workaday banality with the sense of history careening. Much like the kitchen staff whose activities directly adjoin a violent spasm of history, John and Gus shuffle their way through a variety of momentous events, plodding in mud as they try to capture a Civil Rights demonstration in Washington D.C. (with Jesse Jackson glimpsed amongst the rallying). The electrifying images that form posterity through news and documentary footage, however authentic, are themselves the carefully parsed remnants of events composed largely of milling distraction, confusion, and boredom.

It could be argued that Medium Cool reached back to an older ideal in documentary filmmaking less concerned with recording strict reality than with attempting to offer a panoramic concept of life in a given zone, associated with major practitioners of the form like Dziga Vertov, Robert Flaherty, and John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit, filmmakers who espoused the possibility of finding poetic form and expression in carefully crafted fragments of reality. “Did you know for every man in Washington D.C. there are four-and-a-half women?” Gus notes as he and John ready for another day on the job in covering Kennedy’s funeral, whereupon Wexler works in a Vertov-ish visual gag as he cuts rapidly between four different women filmed on the street and just the legs of one to register the “half.” The scripted and improvised scenes offer connective tissue that tries to present Wexler’s perspective on what he thinks the events he captures mean, which is to a certain extent a repudiation of the general supposition behind much documentary cinema, that it can be and should be a passive and neutral record of fact, whilst also contending with the basic question of what fictionalising means.

Forster rarely had so good a role after making an early mark in films like Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), and he was only slotted into the role after John Cassavetes, who was going to appear under his own name – hence the similarity in the character’s name – dropped out. John makes for an intriguingly astringent avatar for its photographer-author, with Forster embodying the miner at the coalface of the mass-media, playing the interlocutor for reality and image-play. Forster plays John with facets of both intelligence and also a certain bullish, insensate machismo that seems to signal he has working class roots, as if shooting footage for the mass media is in a way not that different to humping around lumps of meat in the stockyards, and also still has a bit of the boxer it’s signalled he once was in his mentality – hit hard, hit fast, don’t let the gore distract you. His distracted fascination in the fancy toys he’s tricked out his apartment with, bringing him into the space age for bachelor pads, has a glint of the deprived child now revelling to it even as he tries to act hard-bitten, one hit why he and Harold eventually strike an accord. Early in the film John has a girlfriend, Ruth (Marianna Hill), who’s a nurse, a relationship that’s barely more than a fuck-buddy partnering and clearly on its last legs. A key scene early in the film sees the couple shacked up in John’s apartment, sexual shenanigans blending with aspects of mutual contempt and spurned need, with Ruth lambasting John with a blend of forced humour and real feeling – “You’re a bastard. Why don’t you admit it?…A rotten, egotistical, selfish, punchy cameraman.” – whilst John listlessly shows off the wonders of his new centrally wired electronic system.

Ruth provokes John’s coldness by hinting it stems from his profession driving him to treat even his own life in the same way, prodding him to remember a scene from the infamous Italian shockumentary Mondo Cane (1963) where turtles deranged by Atomic bomb testing couldn’t find their way to the sea and asks why the filmmakers couldn’t help the animals. “How the hell do I know what they did?” John questions, “Those were Italian cameramen.” The scene resolves with the two chasing each-other naked about the apartment, play-acting a semblance of nature-child frivolity and spontaneity whilst actually sublimating their frustration and aggression. Ruth’s provocation becomes the thread of the whole film as Wexler ponders whether detached observation retains its own dignity or simply frees one from responsibility when faced with urgent truths. Is it the media’s job simply to watch as society stumbles in irradiated and madcap circles or to try and steer it towards a goal? And who gets to decide what goal is worthy? The note of elided reality recurs in a very different context as John, back in Chicago, is drawn into the lives of Eileen Horton (Verna Bloom), a young mother recently moved to the city from the rural South with her young son Harold (Harold Blankmanship), after John spots Harold seemingly about to steal the news wagon’s hubcaps and leaves behind a basket that proves to have one of the pigeons Harold likes to train within. John takes the basket and its charge to Eileen’s home in a crumbling neighbourhood. Both John and Eileen have a crucial relationship with the cultural texture around them, John through his work and Eileen in having lost her husband in Vietnam, a truth she’s been keeping from her son, who thinks his father is still alive. Harold is first glimpsed with a friend riding the L and releasing one of his birds downtown.

The glimpses of Harold, often reminiscing on times spent with his father or on the prowl trying to treat the city as merely another open habitat where he can roam and play, are imbued with a sense of lyricism that cuts across the grain of the urban-sophisticate zone John inhabits, allowing Wexler to take a breath with a languorously dreamy shots of pigeons wheeling across the sky, father and son tramping through rural brush, wildflowers, and mud, and Eileen being immersed in water, recollections charged with a sense of communion with a natural environment and connection with people living nominally on the fringe of the great American life but contrasting the squalor of the Chicago slums Eileen and Harold now subsist in. This sense of contrast also comes invested with a sense of clashing value systems quickly fraying in the harsh glare of the moment. Harold reads a book about pigeon mating habits and remembers his father advising him that a man has to rule his home and must resist all efforts by his wife to take control, whilst Eileen has reveries of attending country church meetings and being baptised. Meanwhile as John and Eileen drift into a relationship John inducts Eileen into the freakish vicissitudes of psychedelic nightlife and contemplate the juddering sense of reality beamed at them through the TV in the corner. John finds himself taking up a fatherly role for Harold to the extent that he can, giving him haircuts and schooling him in working a punching bag.

The intersection of news gathering and social tension, and the no-man’s-land between the blocs of power and claim, is illustrated when John encounters a black taxi driver, Frank McCoy (Sid McCoy) who becomes newsworthy when he hands in a parcel filled with $10,000 in cash that he found in his cab. John and Gus film Frank at the cab company office only to witness Frank being aggressively and provocatively interviewed by a police detective (Edward Croke). Later John talks his boss into letting him go out again to interview Frank at home, feeling his story could provide a rich human interest piece. They arrive in Frank’s black neighbourhood and immediately find the locale simmering with aggression and hostility, and Frank’s apartment is crammed full of local hotheads and radicals furious with him for playing the good citizen for whitey. John and Gus sweat their way through conversations with an air of threat in the air, with one woman claiming to be an actress demanding John film her, and a man intervening to save John from two provocateurs only to demand with equal force acknowledgement for saving his life. The encounter makes a mockery of John’s initial intent to celebrate an act of good citizenship which Frank now regrets, a sop to an ideal of society sustained like a zombie by a corporatized sense of social reportage and all too rudely contradicted by the undercurrent of seething anger of the black community.

Wexler pauses mid-film after this sequence for direct-to-camera speeches and testimonials by black radicals, including one (Felton Perry) who explains how even a seemingly hopeless and pointless act of random violence for a black man in the ghetto can become a brief but transfiguring moment of social and psychological potency. Wexler removes the nominal barrier between viewing of a drama and being spoken at for both journalist and film viewer here, with John finding himself both intimidated but also granted a peculiar shield through representing the intruding vision of the media, a wire connecting him infrastructure of social oppression. With mordant humour as well as cunning dialectic, Wexler cuts to John and Gus filming women being trained in pistol shooting, readying themselves for the great upheaval, with Peter Boyle appearing as the manager of the shooting range who unctuously jests with the newsmen before comparing learning to use a gun to learning to drive a car. The reactionary age is gathering steam, ready to meet protest and upheaval with a bullet, wrapped in bland and conciliatory language. Wexler’s approach here keeps in mind the theories of dialectic montage inherited from Sergei Eisenstein, using his contrasts to construct an intellectual case.

As well as the nods to Cocteau, Vertov, and Eisenstein, Wexler betrays a magpie eye for then-recent fashions in art cinema, particularly the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, quoting his Week-End (1967) in the recurring images of car accidents and blasé gawking and the direct-to-camera addresses that break down the barrier between drama and monologue, political themes and agitprop. Antonioni, too, registers in the early scenes depicting John’s detachment from emotional reality. But Wexler is ultimately a more pragmatic and journalistic talent than such filmmakers, trying to get in close to the moment and capture the fleeting blur of life in motion. Where for Antonioni in Blowup (1966) the image dissolves into ambiguity with a closer look Wexler merely suggests he’s pointing his camera in the wrong direction, wrestling more with the problem of context and the limitations of human awareness and empathy. John works up bardic verbal concision as he explains to Eileen how the whole thing works as the watch a televised memorial for Martin Luther King, the conversion of reality into a carefully shaped and packaged ritual, where even the nominal shame and social criticism – “A lot of experts saying how sick our society is, how sick we all are” – are part and parcel of the ritualised form, offering catharsis without struggle.

The question Wexler asks most obsessively throughout Medium Cool is whether true record through a visual medium retains a terrible isolate power or whether it becomes, however presented, simply an aspect of a stimulus-response mechanism on a par with the many more overt and sophisticated attempts to manipulate it, from the structuring of a TV soap to a mouthwash commercial, that the news itself becomes just another televisual spectacle, and therefore the authentic becomes instead part of a manufactured sense of reality. Or, as McLuhan put it, “The medium is the message.” A couple of years after shooting Medium Cool Wexler commented in Take One on one of his documentaries, Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971), about how people kept telling him that one of the people interviewed, a survivor of political torture, nonetheless came across as insincere on screen, and noted, “Once it’s reduced to a medium like film or tape, we automatically make a theatrical judgment.” His approach on Medium Cool shows he was already aware of this problem, and incidentally finishes up repudiating the core tenets of Neorealism, which famously made use of non-professional actors with the directors carefully manipulating the appearance of reality around them: Wexler instead weaves professional actors into the texture of the everyday reality he’s encountering.

It’s bordering on superfluous to note that the disparity Wexler analyses has only become more urgent in the intervening half-century, leading to our present moment as digital technology threatens to shatter any faith in the image as truth and where many choose to find a paranoid, internet-informed rabbit hole of bunkum more convincing than any other reference point. In the years since more and more value has been heaped upon the ephemeral charge to be located in what can only be called dramatized reality, be it the carefully crafted pseudo-realism of reality television or an increasingly memoirist approach to literature, in a manner completely opposed to, say, the project of modernist literature which was to not necessarily tell “true” stories but actively try and replicate the concept of experience. A crucial pivot in John’s story comes when he chats with one of his fellow station employees, Dede (Christine Bergstrom), and she hints that he’s angered the station management in some fashion by letting another show’s team have some unused footage he took. John, alarmed, forces Dede to explain what she’s alluding to, and she hesitantly tells him that the management has been letting the police and FBI look at the footage taken at protests to identify radicals. John’s fury is palpable as he realises the paranoid signals he’s been receiving on the street have a genuine cause, that he’s been incidentally acting as a surveillance agent for the state: “It’s a wonder more cameras haven’t been smashed.”

Injury quickly follows insult as John learns he’s been sacked for no given reason, dashing between offices seeking explanation with increasingly frantic wrath, experiencing spasms of anger as he stalks up and down blandly functional institutional corridors. Wexler here seems to be tracing the outer edges of a kind of political thriller twist, but little more is made of it – there’s even some signs John might have been sacked more because he’s a pain in the ass rather than because he’s fallen afoul of politically tinted malfeasance. Getting fired doesn’t truly shake John: “Do I look worried?” he asks Eileen as she queries whether he’ll be okay. Time off work actually seems to benefit John in fact as he spends more time with Eileen and Harold. The microcosmic and macrocosmic begin shifting into unexpected and alarming alignment when Harold catches sight of John and his mother kissing passionately after returning from a night out dancing, a sight that at last fractures the fiction that Eileen has sustained with her son. Harold takes off with one of his friends and rides the L into the Chicago downtown, wandering around Grant Park in general obliviousness to the furore that’s being unleashed as the convention begins and the street clashes wind up, first glimpsed in jarring, spasmodic nocturnal footage where bodies flail and lights flare. Realising Harold is missing, Eileen heads into the city after him and finds herself in the midst of the protest. Meanwhile John has landed a job with another news service to film inside the convention hall.

Wexler’s use of pop music of the moment is sparing and smart in turning to what even then were offbeat acts, employing Love’s “Emotions” as a motif throughout with its twanging guitar and march beat, helping generate the film’s hippie-noir, nerve-jangled tone, and utilising several songs by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention to offer deadpan-sardonic counterpoint to the onscreen action. Wexler dubs one of their numbers over footage of another band playing in the nightspot John takes Eileen too, the pleasures of climbing aboard the counterculture bandwagon mocked: “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet / psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street.” There’s a great little touch in this scene as Ruth is also glimpsed at the nightspot, dancing close to John as if to both tease him and his new girl whilst also offering a kind of forgiveness. Early in the film John takes Ruth out and they attend a roller derby match where Wexler sarcastically plays the version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” associated with the athletic hijinks of the Harlem Globetrotters over footage of fights breaking out between the players, a sequence that comically promises the oncoming spasm of violence so far mostly contained by the fencing of the derby rink. Later, Wexler employs a recording of “Happy Days Are Here Again” over footage of the convention hall as the delegates celebrate in divorcement from the riot on the streets outside, with hints of ironic recollection of the New Deal consensus emerging from the collective suffering of the Great Depression, the showmanship of democratic ritual contrasted with images of battered and bloodied protestors being treated. Harold has already been glimpsed offering his own incidental satire on political grandstanding as he announces himself to the empty stalls before a bandstand, happy to boom out his name as master of his private universe.

The final reel of Medium Cool is deservedly legendary in the way it captures as readily as any news crew, and surely better, the furore of the Battle of Grant Park as it was later dubbed. Bloom in character wanders amongst and with the protestors, confronted by rows of advancing cops and National Guards, before being caught up in the tumult in the park, climbing over park benches stacked as a rough barricade by the protestors to try and hold off the marauding cops. For a few moments all boundaries between art and life, performance and experience, completely dissolve in the face of events unfolding before the camera. The most famous moment, in which one of Wexler’s crew can be heard crying to him as he films undaunted even as a tear gas shell erupts before him, “Look out Haskell, it’s real!”, is itself at once real and falsified – Wexler had the voice dubbed in to show his own thoughts at the moment. It provides the essential singularity for such a blurring of boundaries, filmmaker suddenly a character in his own film, his own spectacular professionalism both celebrated and highlighted as the ultimate example of the detachment he’s been criticising. Bloom’s costume, a buttercup-yellow dress she chose herself, is a genius touch, exactly the sort of thing a modest country girl like her would be wearing whilst still trying to seem vaguely with-it whilst out on the town, and manages to stand out as vivid before both the dress of the protestors and the uniforms, imbuing her with a strange untouchable distinction amidst the madness, a country wildflower adrift between the madly clashing tides of society.

Wexler patterns his editing here after Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) as he counters the clashing, advancing tides of protestors and cops and soldiers. But there’s a fascinating dynamic wherein the clash of theatre from both sides could well be encouraged and amplified by the presence of cameras to perform for: a cop bellowing “You stinking Commie!” as he picks out a hapless young student to wallop as if auditioning to be John Wayne and the screeching retorts from some of the protestors seem to anoint themselves as tragic actors in their own provoked drama. At one point the protestors are heard crying for a new van that seems to be driving off to come back, for fear that without the media eye the violence might be worse, or remain undocumented. Wexler’s cameras peek around the edges of the bloody theatre, noting the National Guards chatting with onlookers and one solicitously speaking with Bloom as she slips through a cordon, rifle in hand. Wexler films Bloom from a car as she strides down the avenue, passing by marching troops and jeeps as if caught up in some fascist invasion of a Stanley Donen musical. Eileen finally manages to track down John after encountering Gus in the park who then draws John out of the convention by radio, and they head off together in the news wagon to track Harold down, who has already made his way back home and gazes in through the window, forlornly beating on the glass.

A loud bang causes a jolt that causes John to veer off the road and collide with a tree. The cause is vague, perhaps a tyre bursting or perhaps some random shot fired off by some passing loon caught up in the delirium. A jolting twist of fate that nonetheless is not a surprise to the viewer, having heard on the soundtrack a news report that states Eileen dies and John is left in a critical condition moments before it happens. The random tragedy is a fait accompli in the matrix of the media, the cool medium supplanting the anguished event. It could be said Wexler here struggles to place an appropriate cap on his cinematic experiment, groping back towards a hoary brand of dramatic irony with John falling afoul of the same fate as the woman he filmed at the outset contrasting his embrace elsewhere of happenstance. The similar ending of Easy Rider the same year succeeded in representing the jagged psyche of the moment whilst also feeling believably random and cruel, where Wexler seems to be straining to make a point, as he stages a long zoom out before turning to reveal another cameraman who then turns the gaze of his camera on the audience, reality dissolving within the hall of mirrors that is the filmed image, retaining a moment and remaking it into something perpetual yet slippery. Nonetheless it is still an effective ending for its evocation of severance and pathos, with the added irony that John, in finally gaining something that tethers him to real life in its fine grain, also finally risks the danger of that life, the place where the camera is no defence. Another little drama lost amidst the din of history and the cold glare of the lens, blurring into an acknowledgement of falsity that makes reality more real.

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