So I see a lot of people had the brilliant idea to watch Medium Cool this Summer. Something about the looming Republican Convention, I’m sure. There are also a lot of people saying 2016 is 1968 all over again. It isn’t, though there are parallels.
There is unrest. There is seemingly unending domestic violence. There is change in the air, some hope (myself included). All these are playing into that hot-take cauldron proclaiming a carbon copy of 1968. No wonder so many are investigating this intriguing snapshot of that time.
First of all, Haskell Wexler is a name to respect among cameramen and cinematographers. Go look at that IMDb entry, and find out why so many were sad when he passed away just after Christmas last year. Now consider that in 1968, he felt ready to direct a feature film, and that film was nearly The Concrete Wilderness, the story of a transplanted Appalachian boy raising pigeons in the slums of Chicago. The remnants of that story are still evident in Medium Cool, but what we really get is a story about Haskell Wexler.
Robert Forster is John Cassellis, a cameraman for the news department of a local station. We meet him as he’s filming a dead woman at the site of a recent car wreck, along with his sound man, Gus (Peter Bonerz). As they pack up their gear, John says to Gus, “Better call an ambulance.” Despite that questionable intro, we soon find that John has something of a conscience, along with some misgivings about his trade. He tries to follow the story of a black cabbie turning in a lost bag containing ten thousand dollars, against the wishes of his news director. And the day he finds out – to his dismay – that his footage has been routinely turned over to the police and the FBI so they can scope out radical elements, he’s also fired.
John has also, by sheer accident and misunderstanding, met Harold (Harold Blankenship), the aforementioned boy, and his mother Eileen (Verna Bloom). A romance begins to blossom – there’s something in Eileen that John doesn’t see in his current flame, the nurse Ruth (Marianna Hill). Eventually, John gets another gig jobbing in as a cameraman during the 1968 Democratic Party Convention; he doesn’t realize that Harold, seeing his mother getting intimate with John, has run away and is basically bumming around Grant Park until it’s safe to go home. Eileen, still wearing her yellow party dress from the night before, is similarly roaming the streets trying to find him – as the protests around the Convention begin to move toward the riots that would dominate the media that Summer.
This is probably the most famous aspect of Medium Cool, that Wexler and his cameramen (only one or two, past Wexler himself), are actually in the streets filming, and Verna Bloom is right there, wandering around in character, occasionally in harm’s way, as cops in riot gear and National Guardsmen in barbed-wire festooned jeeps get into position. There’s also footage of Forster in the Convention, as in the background we hear things starting to go to shit on the floor. This is a remarkable piece of filmmaking, with everybody on their game. It gets especially tense as you realize that is most definitely Verna Bloom in there, evidencing brass balls the size of Gibraltar, getting those shots. Wexler apparently tried to get her to go home as the situation intensified, and she refused.
One of the most referenced shots involves Wexler, as a National Guardsman – tired of being on camera, perhaps – lobs a tear gas grenade at his feet. As the gas drifts up, you see the camera shakily moving back, and you hear someone say, “Watch out Haskell – it’s real!” Wexler says the line was added in post production, but that it was pretty much what was going through his mind as the first sting of the gas hit him (The shot is in the Criterion Three Reasons clip, below).
On the other hand, in a shot that was meant to provoke a reaction, Bloom cuts through a line of Guardsman and addresses their commander – in character, telling him she’s looking for her son. The commander waves her through, and even points the way toward someone who might be able to help her.
I referred to the movie as “a snapshot”, because the Convention footage doesn’t have the only message Wexler wants to convey; after the car wreck opening we have a sequence at a party where people are hotly discussing the role of news media, and the increasing danger and resentment they face. Later, in a post-coital talk, Ruth asks a question about Mondo Cane that I also asked when I first saw it at 10 years of age (which sort of explains a lot about me, I guess). John’s attempt to follow up on the cabbie story leads to a discussion of the black experience, circa 1968. John and Gus go on other stories before John’s fall, including the riot training of the same National Guardsmen we’ll see in Chicago, and Resurrection Town near the Lincoln Reflecting Pool, soon after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr.
There’s more, more more. A slow pan around a hotel kitchen as we hear Robert Kennedy’s last speech, and if you lived through that time, you know exactly what is coming, and you feel your pulse rate quicken. Mass media critiquing over a TV special containing footage of King’s greatest speeches, about media being complicit in a week-long catharsis so regular business can resume. There is more that was excised, some of which is excerpted in a documentary about the making of Medium Cool called (appropriately) Look Out Haskell, It’s Real involving the politicization of Eileen with a real-life speech by the Rev. Jessie Jackson (Jackson still crops up in the Resurrection Town footage).
Jonathan Haze was a line producer (yes, that Jonathan Haze, Little Shop of Horrors and a bunch of others), and had connections with the local activists, so Haskell knew where to set up the next day for protest footage. (If you look quick, you can catch footage of Wexler and Haze being treated for tear gas exposure during the riot footage) Even then, there’s a counter-balancing sequence in which John takes Eileen to a go-go, where even in her yellow dress she is quite the fish out of water. There’s a band playing what the subtitles assure us is “Psychedelic rock”, though what is actually playing – out of sync, which makes the strobing and quick-cutting even more discombobluating – is The Mothers of Inventions’ “Go to San Francisco”, which has Zappa singing “Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet/Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street”.
In a few minutes, though, we’ll be separating the phonies from the real revolutionaries. The real ones will the ones that are bleeding. And they are a diverse lot, not the cartoon hippies Zappa is satirizing.
Medium Cool is a startling blend of the real and unreal, until the viewer reaches a point where one is not quite sure which is which – until the third act, when the reality becomes undeniable – and then that controversial final scene, echoing the beginning, where we are challenged once more to define for ourselves what is real and what is not. And that is a thread that runs through the movie, even though Wexler claimed he had never read Marshall McLuhan – the necessity of the viewer, while taking in the imagery of a “cool medium” like TV, to rise above the simple, non-interactive nature of that medium, to inquire, to judge, to determine what about it is real, if anything.
It may not be 1968 all over, but that central message is more important than ever.