Many of the time-capsule films of the late 1960’s don’t play nearly as well as they used to. Last time I watched The Graduate I found it slightly more awkward and kitschy than I recall. Also, Easy Rider was a little bit too in love with itself last time I saw it a couple years ago. Same goes for Midnight Cowboy, which although wonderfully acted, is a bit self-conscious despite the fantastic acting. Each of these films I really like for the most part and consider them to be fine American films from their era, but none of which I would consider to have much of an impact upon me and my understanding of cinema today outside of their historical perspective. I think their scope goes little beyond their time-capsule quality as a window into the late 60’s. Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool is an exception to this rule, however. For some reason, Medium Cool was not canonized the way that it should have been. There are small circles, especially among critics, who have sung it’s praises, but I’m hoping the recent Criterion release will shine more light on it.
Wexler wrote, directed, and photographed this masterful piece of 60’s filmmaking that just might be the best American film of that decade to my eyes. In the film, there are a few converging plots lines that are at first loosely framed and then slowly begin to coalesce around the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, where the riots took place between the Chicago Police and demonstrators protesting the Vietnam War among other things. We follow a news photographer named John (Robert Forster) and his sound man, Gus (Peter Bonerz) through Chicago on various outings as they film a car accident, and cover various stories. We also follow the exploits of a young boy, named Harold (Harold Blankenship) and his single mother Eileen (Verna Bloom), who are living in a small apartment. These stories cross when John catches Harold near his car and chases him, thinking he’s trying to damage his car. In the chase, Harold leaves behind a pet pigeon in a box with his home address on it. John arrives at the home to return the pigeon, where he meets the boy and his mother, with whom an initial attraction is made. They tentatively begin a relationship, and just when things start heating up, Harold runs off into Chicago on his own, and Eileen goes searching for him through the crowds and rioters protesting in Chicago, while John is filming the coverage at the convention.
Unique in its presentation, Medium Cool is an influential film with lots going on. It is one of the most effective, and one of the first, to portray the weaving of fiction and non-fiction within the same film. We have fictional characters winding their way through actual events (The Convention, The Riots etc.), with the lines between the film’s sense of fiction and reality continually blurred by the context within which it was shot. This blurring effect occurs even more so, by the fact that Wexler photographs the film with a cinema verite style, making the film feel like a documentary, even as he weaves pastorally beautiful sequences together, particularly the flashback memories of Harold and his father, making the film feel life-like and also cinematic at the same time. This approach can also be seen over twenty years later in a film like Kiarostami’s magnificent Close-Up, where he continually blurs the lines between reality and truth and our perception of them. With most of the Wexler's film made in Chicago, it’s also very much a slice-of-life in big city Chicago 1968, with lots of outdoor sequences of the El Trains, the projects and ghettos, and also Grant Park etc. Most of the film is particularly un-shy about topics of media distortion and ethics, racism, women’s liberation, sexual liberation, war and violence, political upheaval…..it all makes me feel like I understand what it was like back in 1968, far more than those other films I mentioned above. Medium Cool captures a tenseness and angst present in those times, with the memories of assassinations and social/political unrest fresh in people’s hearts and minds. I find there are element’s of Wexler’s film that can also be seen in something like Lee’s Do the Right Thing, where angst and tension is on high alert. It’s also a film that speaks to us today, with the topic of media manipulation and the way we cover national tragedies on our news stations that continue to be divisive. There’s a particular sequence where John and Eileen are watching a news presentation on the television, and John has a monologue reflecting how the nation has begun to get used to national tragedy and we have a procedure for how the media covers these events and how the nation reacts with almost premeditation and desensitization. These statements feel just as relevant today as they would have back then. The particular instances might differ….rather than assassinations we have terrorism…..but the underlying commonalities are there.
Few photographers of his era were better than Wexler. This film is one huge example of his talent, using a variety of camera techniques and framing devices to capture the spirit that he was intending. In the film's final centerpiece, the riot sequence is amazingly well captured, with Verna Bloom wearing her bright yellow dress, standing out amidst the police and demonstrators….the hand-held camera roving about capturing the chaos. It’s almost hard to believe Wexler was able to pull this off as it’s so shockingly spontaneous. His sense of humor is also rather amusing, throwing in sly jokes just to keep the film from getting too high-minded, like the overlapping sound technique of using crowd noise during a sex scene among other visual and aural gags throughout. Although it’s not really a film of memorable characters, the ideas therein and the conceptual design really are the major assets. This is often the focus of European films from the 1960’s, like those of Godard….where the politics and ideas relegate the human element to the background. Stylistically, the film also belongs to a certain sense of the American New Wave, along with works by Cassevetes, which to me are also playing extremely well these days. As a lasting work of cinematic innovation, there are few American films that are as striking and memorable as Medium Cool.