"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Sunday, April 7, 2024

Medium Cool

In 1968, the United States was in turmoil. The country was mired in the Vietnam War. President Lyndon Johnson announced his resignation. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy – two beacons of hope for civil rights and an end to the war – were assassinated. Angry and frustrated, people took to the streets in protest, most significantly at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler was there filming his directorial debut, Medium Cool (1969), a prime example of cinema verité with its brilliant fusion of documentary and narrative filmmaking creating an immediacy and authenticity, with a loosely-scripted narrative set in and among the chaos of the Convention.
Inspired by the socio-political chaos that was going on at the time, he shot the film in Chicago, hoping that something would transpire at the Convention. Incredibly, he was filming as protests turned violent when word got out that the Democrats failed to take a stand against the war. His cast and crew mixed it up with actual protestors and police. The result mirrored what Wexler was trying to say – what is real and what isn’t – by intentionally blurring the line between fact and fiction.
Medium Cool opens with an example of the famous journalism creed – if it bleeds, it leads – as John (Robert Forster) and his partner Gus (Peter Bonerz) film the aftermath of a car accident, an injured person still in the car, only to dispassionately call for an ambulance after they get the footage they need. They then drive off instead of helping or staying with the victim, immediately testing our instinct to empathize with these characters. The opening credits play over a motorcyclist carrying the accident footage through the streets of Chicago at dawn coupled with Mike Bloomfield’s twangy, western score, setting the tone and establishing the city as a character unto itself.

The next scene takes place at a swanky party as a group of people – that includes John and Gus – discuss journalistic ethics. One man says:
“I’ve made film on all kinds of social problems and the big bombs were the ones where we went into detail and showed why something happened. Nobody wants to take the time. They’d rather see 30 seconds of somebody getting his skull cracked, turn off the T.V., and say, ‘Let me have another beer.’”
These words are eerily prophetic as journalistic standards have lowered significantly since then, generation after generation having been weaned on sensationalistic new footage with very little substance.

Wexler adopts the hand-held camera style of Jean-Luc Godard, accompanying a raw, improvisational approach to acting reminiscent of John Cassavetes. This creates an air of authenticity, encouraging us to wonder what is real and what is staged. It feels real and immediate – be it a violent roller derby match that John and Gus attend, or the scene where two little kids free a pigeon on a subway platform and play on the train ride home, in what feels like an unguarded moment. Other times, he keeps the camera mostly stationary with very little movement, simply observing his subjects, such as the scene where we watch the daily activities of Eileen (Verna Bloom), a mother, and her son Harold (Harold Blankenship).
A young Robert Forster anchors the film as an amoral journalist that doesn’t seem to care about anything but his job. He refuses to get involved with the stories he covers, a good thing, objectively speaking, until it is a matter of life or death. The actor brings a rugged charisma to the role and is quite believable as a veteran cameraman. His humanity begins to develop when he gets fired from his job and meets Harold trying to steal his hubcaps, taking him back to Eileen where he befriends the two of them. We see John and Harold bond watching a bunch of birds released into the wild, shot like something out of a Terrence Malick film with its stunning sunset. It is a rare moment where Wexler uses conventional shooting methods.
Wexler does a fine job portraying the different classes in Chicago, using John as a conduit to the more affluent citizens who pontificate on things about which they have little to no actual knowledge. He shows us the rough, economically-depressed neighborhood where Eileen and her son live in abject poverty. John also takes us to a black neighborhood where he follows up on a story about a man who returned $10,000 and gets into it with some of his friends and family, who question his motives as one of them says:

“When you come and say you’ve come to do something of human interest it makes a person wonder whether you’re going to do something of interest to other humans or whether you consider the person human in whom you’re interested.”
His friends give the two journalists a hard time because they are fed up with their perspective being marginalized on T.V. and the media in general.
John eventually gets a gig filming the Democratic National Convention, setting the stage for the film’s climactic scene. Eileen is there, too, looking for Harold, who has run away. What transpires is several actors mingling with a myriad of actual protestors and police officers as things turn ugly and violent for real. Even if you didn’t know that what was unfolding was real, you have to marvel at how Wexler ratchets up the tension between the cops and the protestors. You can sense that a clash between the two sides is inevitable.

Sure enough, violence erupts and we hear the iconic line, “Look out Haskell, it’s real!” juxtaposed with the delegates in the Convention Center who are completely oblivious to what is happening. Wexler cuts back to a montage of shots of protestors injured and bleeding. The cops start randomly beating people and it is absolute chaos.
In 1967, Haskell Wexler started writing a screenplay after reading Division Street America by Studs Terkel. He had been moved by the trials and tribulations of the denizens of the Appalachian ghetto in Chicago. In 1968, Paramount Pictures hired him to adapt the novel, The Concrete Wilderness by Jack Couffer, which focused on a young boy who loves animals. He merged ideas from both novels with what was going on politically in the United States, “because I was engaged with what was happening in the country that was not being reported in the regular media.” He was an active member in the anti-war movement and knew that the Democratic National Convention was going to have concentrated protests so he “junked most of the book’s plot and wrote a script about a cameraman and his experiences in the city that summer.” He wrote scenes of protest in his script: “For my film I had planned to hire extras and dress them up as Chicago Policemen, but in the end Mayor Richard Daley provided us with all the extras we needed.”
Wexler decided to shoot the film in his hometown of Chicago, making a deal with the studio that he would fund the production, but they had to buy the finished film, even though it no longer resembled its source material. During pre-production, he had oral historian Studs Terkel work as a “fixer,” introducing the filmmaker to Appalachian transplants, artists and musicians who portrayed Black militants in one scene, and actual journalists that appear at a cocktail party, arguing about the ethics of showing violence on-screen. Wexler had been away from Chicago for several years and needed someone who knew the lay of the land. The two men were friends in high school, and when they were reunited back in Chicago, spent a lot of time together with Terkel taking Wexler “on an adventure into my own city that many Chicagoans didn’t see being insulated by communities and money and suburbs.”

When it came to casting, Wexler chose Harold Blankenship as the runaway boy that Forster’s character meets – the only vestige left from the novel – and was actually a child from the hill country. His best friend in the film was played by his real-life brother, Robert. The filmmaker felt that the Appalachian residents were “somewhat of a forgotten people” and wanted them represented in his film. While shooting documentaries in the South during the civil rights movement, he had worked with them in Monteagle, Tennessee. To this end, he shot in the Appalachian ghetto of Chicago’s upper north side where mountain people from Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia had settled.
With the assassinations of King and Kennedy, Wexler anticipated trouble at the Democratic Convention and that drew him to the city: “I knew there would be demonstrations and that the police would suppress them, but I didn’t build the story or the script around that. It just sort of unfolded before me.” Wexler talked to Mayor Daley who approved police officers on the first day of filming but Wexler quickly realized that with them present, “nobody in the street would come out and talk to us. From then on, I said, ‘Look, I don’t want cops around when I’m shooting.” Wexler came to regret that while filming the riots in Grant Park where he and his crew were tear-gassed for their troubles. The famous line uttered during this scene, “Look out, Haskell; it’s real!” was actually added in post-production. During filming they didn’t have a sound man present and his assistant, Jonathan Haze, said something resembling those words when the Nation Guard shot tear gas at Wexler.
Wexler sensed that there would be trouble at the Convention, thanks to a leaflet the police had put out a month prior that had a list of new crowd-control weapons.

Paramount had no idea what to do with the finished film, sitting on it for months, telling Wexler that he’d have to get releases from all the people in the park sequences. They also objected to the casual carnage and nudity. When Medium Cool was released, the MPAA gave it an “X” rating, which Wexler felt was politically motivated: What no one had the nerve to say was that it was a political ‘X’.”
Medium Cool ends as it began – with a car accident, only instead of John reporting on the incident, he is the incident. A car full of people pass by and much like what he did in the opening scene, they take a picture and drive on, leaving it for someone else to do something. He is treated with the same indifference he showed to the accident victim early in the film. This rather nihilistic, downbeat ending comes as a surprise and is Wexler’s most cinematic flourish, taking the ending of Easy Rider (1969) and giving it a meta spin when the camera turns on him filming footage of the end. He faces the camera as if to say, it’s only a movie.
Cronin, Paul. “Mid-Summer Mavericks.” Sight and Sound. September, 2001.
“Haskell Wexler on the Criterion Collection Release of Medium Cool.” Time Out. May 22, 2013.
French, Piper. “High Visibility: Reexamining Medium Cool on Its 50th Anniversary.” Los Angeles Review of Books. August 23, 2019.
Lightman, Herb A. “The Filming of Medium Cool.” American Cinematographer. January, 1970.