Thursday, November 17, 2016

#2,253. Medium Cool (1969)

Directed By: Haskell Wexler

Starring: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz

Tag line: "Dateline: Chicago August '68"

Trivia: The movie was originally rated "X", but re-rated "R" after an appeal

During my first year in college, I took a class on mass media, and part of the course required students to work on video presentations, some assigned by the teacher, others for outside sources (the art department, student government, etc). 

Early in the semester - before we were assigned to any projects - our instructor related a story about a shoot he headed up a year or two earlier, an interview with a teenager who was dying of cancer. After answering one of several questions posed to him, the teen, who our instructor said had remained composed throughout, betrayed his emotions ever so slightly, and a single tear ran down the boy’s cheek.

As you can imagine, the classroom fell silent, but it didn’t remain so for long once the instructor told us how he reacted to this emotionally charged moment.

I thought to myself”, he said, “what a great shot!

I remember a few of us gasped at what we felt was an insensitive comment (considering the circumstances). The instructor picked up on this and backpedaled a bit, but added a few minutes later that it’s a filmmaker’s job (especially in a news environment, which is what this course was geared towards) to point... shoot... and not get personally involved.

I was reminded of this as I watched the opening sequence of writer / director Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool; lead character, John Cassellis (Robert Forster), a cameraman for a Chicago TV news station, rushes towards a traffic accident that just occurred. Accompanied by his sound man Gus (Peter Bonerz), John takes his time setting up one shot after another, circling the wreckage. 

We eventually notice there are still people inside the vehicle, and we can hear a woman moaning in pain. Once their work is complete, John tells Gus to call the accident in, and have them send an ambulance right away.

I couldn’t help but wonder how my college instructor might have reacted to this scene.

The callous nature of the news media is but one of several themes explored throughout Medium Cool, a 1968 motion picture filmed on the streets of Chicago that culminates with the riots at that year’s Democratic National Convention. 

An energetic, sometimes explosive, and always fascinating look at America during one of its most troubled periods, Medium Cool is a masterpiece, and Haskell Wexler - who was also an award-winning cinematographer - was the perfect man to piece it all together.

Life is good for John Cassellis. Along with his exciting job, which affords him the opportunity to travel to different parts of the country (he and Gus are even sent to Washington to cover Bobby Kennedy’s funeral), John is also dating Ruth (Marianna Hill), a beautiful nurse who seems to be head-over-heels in love with him. 

But times are changing, and John is doing his best to keep up. 

Right around the time his relationship with Ruth begins to deteriorate, he meets Eileen (Verna Bloom), a single mother who lives in a poor section of Chicago with her son Harold (Harold Blankenship). 

In addition to the changes in his personal life, John is fired by his station manager, who thinks he’s a loose cannon, and therefore too risky to employ. In need of a job, John agrees to work for a documentary crew that is covering the Democratic National Convention, an event destined to become much more chaotic than anyone ever imagined.

Inspired by the European style of filmmaking (especially the French New Wave), Medium Cool feels like a documentary, and in many scenes that’s exactly what it is. Early on, Wexler and company shoot a training exercise carried out by the Illinois National Guard, which is practicing crowd control for the upcoming convention; and later on, when John drives into the ghetto to interview Frank Baker (Sid McCoy), an African-American taxi driver who returned $10,000 in cash left in his cab, he’s stopped by several black militants, who, towards the end of the sequence, talk directly into the camera, telling the world exactly what is on their minds. 

This real-life approach even extended to the cast: Harold Blankenship, who plays Eileen’s son Harold, was not an actor, but an actual kid from the Chicago slums, hand-picked by Wexler.

The height of the film's realism, though, occurs during the riots that shook the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Wexler and his team were smack dab in the middle when all hell broke loose (at one point, a cop tossed a smoke grenade directly at Haskell Wexler, who nonetheless continued filming for as long as he could). 

Wexler balances footage of the riots with scenes captured inside the convention (as police and national guardsmen are battling the protesters, the song “Happy Days are Here Again” is playing on the convention floor), as if to demonstrate the deep divide that existed in America at that time. Medium Cool has more than its share of dramatic moments, but nothing compares to the electricity of these scenes.

A movie every bit as hectic as the period in which it was made, Medium Cool has something to say about a good many things, including racism, violence, poverty, women’s rights, and the media in general. It is more than a motion picture set during a tumultuous period in American history; it is a time capsule of a chaotic era, as well as one of the finest movies to emerge from the latter half of the 1960s.

1 comment:

Eric Gilliland said...

Thanks for sharing your personal anecdote, really speaks to the themes of the Medium Cool. I don't own too many Criterions,but this was the first one I ever purchased.