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Interesting approach to revealing the world of photo-journalism, news
journalism, and political activism, conceived and directed by awardwinning
cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Fictional narrative features a Chicago TV
news crew intertwined with actual news footage in and around the Democratic
Convention of 1968.
There is a good balance between the fiction and non-fiction elements in as much as Wexler attempts to make his point. The fictional story line (a love story) is real enough to keep us watching and deflective enough to make the harsh realities of the non-fiction elements palatable.
Attention to detail defines Medium Cool as a very personal film for Wexler. There definitely is a political perspective. Second and third viewings will call attention to painstaking perfectionism in construction of shots, timing, and pace--the subject matter and cinematic approach (low budget, hand-held, docu-style) may suggest a `student film' so don't be confused. This is an extremely well-crafted highly professional product. Nice interjects of great era-defining music compliment the visuals.
Inventive, some say ground-breaking, certainly well worth watching.
A rare directorial outing by all-time great cinematographer Wexler, this is generally acknowledged as the most politically radical film ever produced by a major studio. In freewheeling, semi-improvised, ideologically calculated scene after scene, it depicts an apolitical television cameraman's awakening of consciousness and abandonment of the role of passive observer. The class and race politics are four notches up on any comparable contemporary studio feature, that's for sure - with the surprisingly patient explanation of how 6-o-clock-news ideology oppresses minority communities, leading in to a love affair with a working-class single mother instead of some vanguard hippie, you could even argue that this Americanization of Godard has better ideological legs than the master himself. Sure it meanders a tad, and the stylistics can date, but there's nothing else in any movie ever that compares with the climax, as the actors make their way through actual documentary footage of the 1968 Democratic convention and attendant street battles. I mean, how did such a finely balanced mix of integrated narrative, Euro-tics, American underground film and straight-up documentary even occur to them? And how did they then manage to actually pull it off with honors? Pretty damned impressive.
Absorbing, thought provoking and, above all, a unique record of an
important "place & time", why "Medium Cool" still fails to gain the
attention it deserves remains one of life's great mysteries.
First off, it's a pretty good if somewhat disjointed story two "world-wise" middle class news reporters are sent to film the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and become unwittingly involved in its political demonstrations, the inner city problems that have precipitated them, and the lives of a single mother and her young son in this harsh, confusing and seriously under-privileged world. Its acting, in particular from Robert Forster as the lead reporter and the 13 year old Harold Blankenship as the son, is excellent and at times so effective that it's difficult to remember you're watching a rigidly sequenced film rather than a social documentary. And, it's overlaid with some quite stunning cinema-photography from director Haskell Wexler, one of America's very best exponents of the art, backed up by a perfectly pitched late 60's soundtrack.
Good enough so far, but that's just the start. Add-in its extensive live footage from the streets of Chicago as the riots develop, taken by the film's camera crew as they themselves are caught-up in a very "real" political drama, its ominous sequencing of the build up of events from a fun "day in the park" for the hippies/yippies to serious "police state" level violence, its equally chilling images of what was going on inside the Convention Hall while all of this was taking place, and the clever and disturbing scenes of the mother's desperate search for her lost son as Wexler films her within the increasingly anarchic crowds of demonstrators & troops actually on the streets at the time, and you've got something very special.
Part film and part documentary, not all of what you think is "real" in "Medium Cool" is, and the lines between live and acted scenes are sometimes confusingly and frustratingly blurred, as in the famous call from one of the camera crew of "look out Haskell this is real" as a tear gas canister lands in front of them, which was in fact over-dubbed afterwards. But that's the whole point of the film as the final, almost startling scenes reveal. How far is the media in control? Is what you're seeing real, distorted or contrived? Wexler's brilliance is to take this underlying theme and to mould it into a fascinating exploration of inner city life, American society in a period of huge change, and the power/needs of the media in a TV dominated world, while, in parallel, producing a gripping record of what it's like to be in the centre of a demonstration that's spiralling out of control. Juxtaposing the impersonality of reporting with the very personal situations that are involved, it raises a whole series of questions on the way without falling into the trap of most films of the era in trying to ram home too many answers. And, as a result, it remains as relevant today as it did then.
Quite rightly regarded as one of the best "counter culture" films of the late 60's and much richer and more thought provoking than this classification usually implies, it remains one of the most under-rated films out there.
A brilliant film and a seminal one - a product by a major Hollywood
studio handled in cinema-verite' style; besides, the various issues it
raises - social, political and media-related - have scarcely been
treated with such directness and power. The lack of star names in the
cast (Peter Boyle, who appears briefly, was not yet established and,
even if he had debuted in John Huston's REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE
, lead Robert Forster's role was originally intended for John
Cassavetes) certainly helps sell its inherent documentary feel.
Though, understandably, most meaningful to people who witnessed these turbulent times first-hand, and Americans in particular, despite its specific time-setting - Chicago 1968 (partly shot at the actual Democrats convention site, the film proved prophetic because the script involved riots breaking out...which is what actually happened!) - many of its concerns are still very much with us!! Fascinating therefore if slightly overlong - the subplot involving Verna Bloom and Harold Blankenship feels a bit like padding at first (and was actually what remained of a proposed film, with animal interest, about a poor country boy's adjustment to city life!)...but, ultimately, its point is made during the film's latter stages when Bloom goes to look for her missing son - creating an indelible image of a perplexed figure (incongruously dressed in a bright yellow outfit) getting embroiled in all the commotion hitting the streets at that same moment. This, however, results in a goof involving the unexplained presence very early on of Bloom (already wearing the yellow dress but whose introduction proper in the film takes place quite a bit later!) at a cocktail party for members of the press - a sequence intended to immediately precede the riots but which was then pushed forward during editing, so as to deal straight off with the film's major theme of media responsibility! The tragic yet ironic ending - presented as matter-of-factly as any of the news items covered by dispassionate TV cameraman Forster - is very effective.
This is certainly renowned cinematographer Wexler's most significant directorial effort; his camera-work (some of it hand-held) is simply incredible, as is Paul Golding's editing (which must have been quite a headache and, in fact, he mentions in the Audio Commentary that several scenes remained on the cutting-room floor; pity they weren't available for inclusion on the Paramount DVD - nor, apparently, were the rights to the 2001 documentary about the film, LOOK OUT HASKELL, IT'S REAL: THE MAKING OF 'MEDIUM COOL'!). Also essential to the unique texture of the film is the fantastic soundtrack (mostly by Mike Bloomfield but also featuring songs by Frank Zappa, among others).
Haskell Wexler, a cinematographer by trade, practically invented the
technique invented we know today as "cinema verite" with this striking drama
that plays so much like a documentary, you'd never guess it was fiction
without being told. It's less a story and more a voyeuristic look into the
lives of ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, in this
case reporters who are covering a political convention and other Chicago
locals who are just minding their own business when the legendary riots
break out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Even more groundbreaking is the approach Wexler takes in framing the film's final scenes. He had ample warning that there would potentially be some unrest at the convention, so he decided to thrust his cast right into the thick of it, sending them to the foyer and front entrance of the Chicago Convention Center and the crew right along to film the events. No one knew exactly what would happen, making this perhaps the most creative and timely piece of "improvised" drama in the history of filmmaking up to this point.
Every documentary filmmaker who chooses to make his/her film about actions and events rather than simply a bunch of talking heads owes a debt to Wexler and his creative team on "Medium Cool".
This film is a mixture of documentary footage and conventional
It tells the story of a tough news camera-man (Robert Forster) who falls for a young widow (Verna Bloom) and befriends her thirteen-year-old son, against the back-drop of the riots in Chicago in 1968.
The film utilises both professional actors and non-professionals, to very good effect. In fact there are scenes, such as the riot sequences, where there is a genuine sense of danger.
The main flaw in the film is that the love story is not well-handled and often quite dull, the far more interesting events are happening elsewhere.
This is a deeply political work and is savagely critical of the callous and cynical media, which distorts people's perceptions of the world.
Worth watching for anyone interested in the sixties, political cinema or American independent film.
Great soundtrack too.
Haskell Wexler's film generated much debate on just where American Cinema was headed upon its release in 1969. Its narrative revolves loosely around the relationship of a TV cameraman and a lower-class widow living in Chicago during the summer of 1968. The true focus of the film is on the Democratic National Convention and its devastating effects on that city during the "long hot summer" it was subjected to. With the care of an expert social journalist Wexler films the riot caused by the civil authority in that city with an unfaltering naturalism that Soviet Realists would kill for. His cinematographic gifts are never called into question as he edits the body of the film with patches of documentary and staged scenes. It's to the credit of the filmmaker that in one section a fellow cameraman has to admonish him as to the danger he is apparently embroiled in as he shoots a sequence. This wonderful play on the reflexivity so rarely admitted in film is reason enough to give this challenging but brilliant work of art a chance to leave its mark on you.
Movies have a way of capturing the moment better than recreating it. I
can only dread what a recreated 1968 in Chicago would look like from a
Hollywood perspective. It would probably resemble something out of
Forrest Gump. But Medium Cool happened to capture some brutal fight
scenes with police in Chicago as well as scenes from the black ghettos.
You can't recreate this stuff. This isn't a documentary but cinema
verité and combines fiction and non-fictional elements. It's all shot
with Chicago of 68 in the background. A landmark and infamous year for
the US with the assassinations of RFK and MLK as well as the 1968
Democratic National Convention which was met with severe state
repression. The state wasn't negotiating at this time, it was brutally
sending men off to war and attacking those at home with the hired goons
of the police force.
It's a great movie which manages to combine fiction and non-fiction and shows us what the sixties were really like. It wasn't all love beads and LSD, although there is an amusing psychedelic sequence which takes place in a club.
I think what I liked most was that even people who were non-political were being dragged into the politics of the time. Events were that serious at the time and people had to begin picking sides, the pleasant, white, middle-class interior of the Chicago DNC or outside fighting and raging against the police.
This film is better upon the second viewing, the first time I saw this I thought it was somewhat dated or boring, I couldn't have been more wrong. Initially I watched this film because it was directed by Haskell Wexler whose work I admire, and I'm from Chicago and had heard it shows much of the city and the riots of 68. I enjoyed seeing the city forty years ago to see what was the same and what had changed, much has changed yet much remains the same from what I have seen of the people, places, buildings etc. It was great to see the Kinetic Playground on there, Chicago's electric ballroom, and other area's such as Lincoln Park. On the second viewing, I realized that this is a very important film in that it adroitly captures a moment in time, a moment we can never have again that is lost forever, that one second in our history that pivoted us as a nation between innocence and awareness and possibly that crucial moment which has brought us to the point we are at today. This movie is very important as a document of history, not to mention how well it's shot. The angles, the color, the way he goes in and out of focus make this a true gem that gets better the more you see it. Great soundtrack as well, Zappa, Mike Bloomfield and others.
MEDIUM COOL is one of the most terrifying films ever made.
The photography is beautiful, set up by the man who would one day be responsible for the inimitable DAYS OF HEAVEN. The result is visceral. It seems so incredibly "real."
But MEDIUM COOL occupies this bizarre, hollow land on the spectrum of cinematic "realism." Realism is an abstraction. Never attainable and, at least in cinema, never wanted. By nature, movies present a clearly fictionalized atmosphere where events, people, and influences from reality are inserted. MEDIUM COOL inverts that system by inserting fictional characters into situations constructed from genuine human anger and fear. As far as cinematic innovation goes, this may be the most dangerous.
Wexler is fabricating reality. Our culture is so full of corporations, politicians, and interests trying to construct their own portrait of reality. The movies might be the most famous example of this abstraction. However, MEDIUM COOL's danger exists in its presentation. Wexler was a genius. How he thought he could get away with this film I will never know. He inserts Eileen into the climactic riot, helplessly walking against the tide of police officers, clueless about the issues and only concerned with finding her son. His confidence in such direction points to the horrifying fact that he also believes that history is a malleable material. By inserting a fabrication, a symbol, into tangible human danger, Wexler argues for his ability to alter history. That delusion wouldn't be so dangerous if the material were not presented as a veritable document of late-1960's violence and ethics. The counterargument asserting that all cinema is presented such only strengthens this point -- if all films possess the trappings of realism, MEDIUM COOL attempts to create one anew. Ultimately, the moral argument is murky and Wexler's left-wing fortitude is made silly by the bookending car-wreck. The film turns out to be a self-indulgent autobiography on Wexler, himself. He doesn't try to hide his Godardian influence, but it becomes trite and facile with the final hijacking of LE MEPRIS. His obsession with the power of the camera eventually usurps fringe cultural concerns like Racism, Violence, Political Upheaval, and Feminism. They're all there in MEDIUM COOL, but in the end they only exist because of the camera.
Much scholarship is made about Cassellis' responsibility as the hero. So many admire his calm inversion of stereotype. He is the archetypal revolutionary hero. Unmoved and unshaken in the face of tragedy (the opening, for example), he is depicted as someone who lives for the camera. As footage of MLK is shown (who was shot that year), he says "Jesus, I love shooting film." Cassellis is Wexler -- a grounded permutation of "heroic" behavior. But with plenty of faults to balance everything out.
Maybe the most interesting question is -- why Wexler? why 1968? why distort filmic tradition now? The answer might be revealed when Wexler films a series of Black adults in the ghetto. They make (somewhat garbled) pleas for Cassellis to get in touch with the "real people." What was the late-60's revolution but a demand for individual attention and the premature glorification of youth? In MEDIUM COOL, Wexler makes an impossible attempt to faithfully represent the little man. This brings us back to the terrifying message of the film.
All of this is not to say that MEDIUM COOL doesn't have brilliant sequences. If Wexler wandered around with a camera for a year, I would be fixated. The opening scenes at the security base, the final riot prelude (whenever Eileen was absent), and most scenes with Harold are perfect instructions for cinematic suggestions of reality. The pictures are colorful, focused, and energetic and most of the acting is realized successfully. Indeed, as long as the audience has the capacity to understand the fabrication they are seeing, the photography does enough to resurrect the broken ideology into a formal revolution in itself.
MEDIUM COOL is a unique study in cinematic representation. Many passages render and preserve a critical cultural paradigm. One only wishes that Wexler might have actually filmed the events without feeling the need to dress them up.
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