Medium Cool: Criterion Collection
May 30, 2013
Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) is a prime example of cinema verite with its fusion of documentary and narrative filmmaking to create an immediacy and authenticity. He is a legendary cinematographer by trade (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night, etc.), but also had a lot of experience in documentaries. This led to him being torn between observing what was happening and getting involved. Wexler found a way to do both with Medium Cool, which is a loosely-scripted narrative set in and among the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The film saw his small cast and crew mix it up with actual protestors and police, thrillingly blurring the boundaries between what was real and what wasn’t.
John (Forster) is a television news cameraman for a local Chicago station. We meet him capturing footage of a car accident. Only after he gets the shot of the driver lying on the road does he and his partner – soundman Gus (Bonerz) – go back to their call and call an ambulance. The next scene features John at a party with his fellow journalists as they discuss the ethics of reporting, which basically boils down to the old adage, if it bleeds it leads.
We get to know John by seeing him at work and going on a date with a beautiful nurse. We see him doing every day things in addition to his work. A young Robert Forster anchors the film as its protagonist. Even though we spend most of the film with him it is still difficult to get a handle on his character. What does he want out of life? What is his goal? Forster brings a rugged charisma to the role and is quite believable as a veteran cameraman. At the same time, we also get to know a boy named Harold (Blankenship) and his mother Eileen (Bloom) who live in a rough, economically depressed neighborhood. They cross paths with John when the boy tries to steal John’s hubcaps and he befriends Eileen.
Medium Cool is very much of its time, commenting on the Vietnam War and race relations in a particularly powerful scene where John and Gus do a follow-up on an African American taxi cab driver in his apartment deep in the ghetto. His friends give the two journalists a hard time because they’re fed up with their perspective being marginalized on T.V. and the media in general.
Wexler employs hand-held camerawork extensively in Medium Cool, which only enhances the authenticity of a given scene because it feels like real life, like the camera is intruding on these peoples’ lives. The film’s climax occurred famously at the Democratic National Convention on a day that erupted into violence as an initially peaceful protest outside the convention center turned ugly. The local police and the National Guard moved in and started busting heads for real with the cast and crew caught up in it along with everyone else, thrillingly blurring the boundaries between fact and fiction. The rather nihilistic, downbeat ending comes as a surprise and is Wexler’s most cinematic flourish, which he seems to acknowledge in a meta moment when the camera turns on him filming footage of the end only to turn and face the camera as if to say, it’s only a movie.
Medium Cool has never looked better on this newly minted Criterion Collection Blu-Ray. The colors look vivid while the transfer still retains the texture of the original film stock.
There is an audio commentary by director Haskell Wexler, editor Paul Golding, and actor Marianna Hill. Wexler addresses the criticism of the opening scene and how the two journalists don’t help the accident victim. He mentions being faced with that decision several times in his career. All three praise Harold Blankenship’s performance and how real it is. Wexler and Golding point out that during the protest scene at the end, tear gas was really shot at them, but the famous line, “Look out Haskell, it’s real!” was added later.
Also included is a commentary by historian Paul Cronin who examines the origins and production of Medium Cool. He expertly analyzes the film’s themes while also delving into what led Wexler to make it. Cronin points out that Wexler paid for the film himself and then the studio paid to distribute it. He explains the fascinating backstory to the film’s famous line in this great look at how Medium Cool came together.
There is a trailer.
There is an interview with Haskell Wexler where he talks about the origins of Medium Cool and how he was going to direct another film, but realized that something was going to happen in his hometown of Chicago and wrote the screenplay for the film. He discusses the influence of documentaries in this engaging interview.
Also included are excerpts from Paul Cronin’s 4-hour documentary on Wexler entitled, Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!, that focuses on the making of Medium Cool. Wexler, a few historians and key cast members take us through the production in this absorbing documentary.
There are also excerpts from a documentary about Harold Blankenship, who Eileen’s son in the film. He grew up in a rough neighborhood in Chicago, but now lives in the wilds of West Virginia. He recalls being in Medium Cool in a kind of fragmented way and it is startling to see how much he’s changed over the years.
Finally, there is “Medium Cool Revisited,” which sees Wexler return to the city for the 2012 NATO Summit. He ended up shooting a documentary about the Occupy movement and this 30-minute featurette takes a look at how he did it.