Bright Lights Film Journal

The Whole World Is Watching: Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool on DVD

“Following his interest in the cab driver with a taste for the story, not the politics, John incidentally finds out that — shades of today’s NSA controversies — his station managers have been letting the police and the FBI study his footage to aid in their search for subversives. It is also the kind of reporting, it seems, that can get one fired.”

Medium Cool (1969) was a project shadowed by the FBI, saddled with a market-inhibiting X rating, and released with tepid support from a nervous studio. Not surprisingly, despite attracting very favorable reviews, it was not big hit at the box office. But over the years its reputation rose steadily, and eventually the movie found its proper place in the pantheon of the great films of the New Hollywood era. A worthy recipient, then, of the full Criterion Treatment, with a sparkling new special edition DVD and Blu-Ray; among its many features are a new interview with writer-director-cinematographer Haskell Wexler and the very welcome inclusion of (a slightly edited version of) the valuable but obscure 2001 BBC television documentary about the film, Look Out Haskell, It’s Real.”

As his triple-threat credits suggest, Medium Cool was very much Wexler’s project. One of the hottest cinematographers in the business — just off an academy-award winning turn for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf (1966) and the big hit In the Heat of the Night (1967) — and with the emergence of a New American Cinema that took low-budget chances on new talent, Wexler was given a shot at the director’s chair. And to his credit, the ambitious, confident cameraman didn’t play it safe but threw everything he had into a risky project that he believed in.

With a background in documentary filmmaking, Wexler was influenced by a philosophy associated with the French New Wave (many of whose participants had similar apprenticeships), that challenged the reification of a divide between “fiction” and “non-fiction” films. Documentaries, they insisted, could not show an objective truth but offered only one interpretation of events, presented as a narrative following classical storytelling rules; realities that were, moreover, altered by the presence of cameras that produced self-consciousness and performance. Conversely, fiction films, especially those made on locations and with a new wave sensibility designed to reflect the personal experiences of their creators, were in many ways also documentary records of a certain type of reality. With Medium Cool, Wexler dove headlong into the blurry intersection between the two, embedding a fictional (and often improvised) story within very real situations. Often featuring non-actors going about their unscripted business, in many scenes only the principal players are aware that a movie is being made. At times those actors were exposed to real danger — placed, for example, in the midst of what the report of a National Commission would describe a few months afterwards as a “police riot.” On the streets of Chicago, Wexler’s camera became one among many that were capturing the events as they unfolded — and he was among those tear gassed, and was blinded for twenty-four hours.

The politically sensitive Wexler was irresistibly drawn from Hollywood back to his home town, Chicago, and the Democratic National Convention that would be held there in August 1968. Convinced that “something” would happen there — a violent confrontation, of some type, seemed certain — he crafted a story that could be interwoven into those events, unforeseeable in their specifics, as they unfolded. Wexler was later accused of incitement, but his cameras did little more than anticipate the inevitable explosion. Nineteen sixty-eight took care of the rest.

It was a very bad year. In January, the surprise Tet Offensive fundamentally altered the trajectory of the Vietnam War. The unprecedented communist strikes failed to achieve their military goals, but they made plain that no matter how many troops it poured in, the United States was not going to achieve its political objectives in the war, despite the unceasingly optimistic reports previously proffered by the Johnson Administration. (The U.S. would suffer over 4,700 combat deaths in the first three months of 1968. And with 500,000 American troops in the country, the war was being fought — at best — to a bloody stalemate.) In March, Johnson was embarrassed in the New Hampshire democratic primary by the strong showing of anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy; within days, Robert Kennedy dropped into the race; within weeks, LBJ shocked the nation by dropping out. In April, Martin Luther King was assassinated. Kennedy, campaigning in Indianapolis, delivered the news to a stunned, mostly black audience, and delivered a short, moving speech appealing for calm. Scores of American cities erupted in riots that night, but Indianapolis was not one of them. In June, Kennedy would be assassinated moments after celebrating victory in the crucial California primary, his final words, “on to Chicago and let’s win there,” still hanging in the air as the shots rang out.

On to Chicago — and in a year of escalating police violence, growing dissent over the war, and heightened racial tensions, Wexler was hardly alone in expecting trouble at the august convention. Medium Cool wraps its story around the emerging political awakening of TV cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster, seen recently in The Descendents). John is even more than Wexler’s alter ego in the film — on several occasions John’s camera, in the movie, and Wexler’s camera, making the movie, become indistinguishable. Two opening scenes establish the film’s central questions about the medium — that is, television: what is the responsibility of reporters in the context of their stories, and to what extent does television news exacerbate the violence it covers as a consequence of the need to attract the attention of its audience? The first issue is introduced implicitly, with a documentary-style pre-title scene, where John and his sound-man Gus (Peter Bonerz — aka Jerry the dentist, from The Bob Newhart Show — showing some serious acting chops) shooting film of a car accident, slowly walking back and packing up their wagon, and then, finally, calling for an ambulance. The second is raised explicitly, at a cocktail party they attend that follows the opening credits, where mostly real Chicago newsmen discuss their own experiences. This scene in particular sets the tone for the film, and illustrates Wexler’s desire to “find some wedding between features and cinéma vérité,” and break down “some of the theatrical film convention.”

From there, Medium Cool follows three interweaving strands of John’s life — apparently disparate in theme, they share stylistic traits and each advances the winding progress of John’s embryonic political awareness: scenes of him at work, especially in the context of the city’s anxiety over the prospects for violence as the Democratic National Convention approaches; a transition in his personal life, from the freewheeling Ruth (Marianna Hill) to the more mature Eileen (Verna Bloom); and his pursuit of the story of a black taxi driver (Sid McCoy) who turned in $10,000 he found in the back of his cab.

This last element, especially in retrospect, seems incongruous because unlike the other two strands of the story, it doesn’t have an obvious payoff. (Although it does offer some attractive symmetries, such as the film’s portrayals of white and black poverty, and a ghetto-apartment scene where a second group conversation about media responsibility takes place, this time by some of its subjects, in this case, poor blacks.) This ultimately untied loose end was left dangling because Wexler, forced to choose, guessed wrong. Medium Cool, as it was shooting, anticipated a race riot, not a police riot. Given what had happened, and what would happen, in American cities, this was not a bad guess, and would have more tightly linked together several elements in the movie. Lines like “do you realize how much guns and ammunition $10,000 would have bought,” and “people are afraid the Negros are going to tear up their stores, burn neighborhoods,” not to mention the cut from black anger to white ladies at a shooting range (featuring a nice turn by Peter Boyle as the outfit’s manager, interviewed for the news), would have seemed, if anything, too obvious in retrospect.

But even without that full payoff, it is nevertheless the strand of the film that is crucial for John’s character development and that serves as a vehicle for Wexler’s principal subtext. Early in the film, Gus articulates the philosophy of his craft that John would have surely endorsed (if he gave it that much thought): his professional actions were politically neutral — less than that, even. At work, he insists, he is not a person but “an elongation of a tape recorder,” not just indifferent but morally nonexistent. “A typewriter doesn’t really care what is being typed on it,” he explains. But John learns the hard way that this is a comforting lie that he has been telling himself. Following his interest in the cab driver with a taste for the story, not the politics, he incidentally finds out that — shades of today’s NSA controversies — his station managers have been letting the police and the FBI study his footage to aid in their search for subversives. It is also the kind of reporting, it seems, that can get one fired.

John’s relationship with Eileen is another catalyst of his tentative evolution from passivity toward political awareness. Eileen, the thoughtful single mother, exposes him to social issues that he saw through his camera but never paused to consider, and gives John a taste of the responsibilities of parenting. And as refugees from distressed West Virginia coal mining country, the tenement she lives in with her son gives Wexler’s camera the opportunity to document the living conditions of poor whites in Chicago. (Bloom was so pitch perfect as an impoverished Appalachian schoolteacher, many viewers, and even some industry insiders, familiar with Wexler’s penchant for “reality,” assumed she was the genuine article. Bloom followed Medium Cool with a strong performance in Peter Fonda’s 1971 revisionist western, The Hired Hand.)

With Eileen, John is in transition. Watching a speech by Martin Luther King on television, she is deeply moved, while he at first reacts inappropriately, still the passive cameraman. “Jesus, I love to shoot film” is his initial response; but the “new John” then follows this with a short Wexlerian lecture about how the media scripts tragedy into a comforting, familiar narrative, which anesthetizes the public. John’s increasing maturity also signals the growing seriousness of their relationship, a change underscored when they part company that evening. As it is raining, Eileen lends John the coat once worn by her husband, who is either dead, “at Vietnam,” or flew the coop, depending on which narrative the viewer chooses to select from the potential truths offered.

John and Eileen’s relationship also motivates the flight of her son Harold, which motivates Medium Cool‘s final act. (Harold, played by Harold Blankenship, was not an actor; a street urchin roped into the production, he was very much the child he portrayed. Previous interviews and DVD commentaries by participants associated with the film expressed regret that no one knew what became of Harold once the production wrapped. The Criterion edition includes unnarrated excerpts from a 2007 documentary about Blankenship, which suggests that those regrets are well founded.) Witnessing an intimate moment, a distressed Harold runs away, and, in a justly celebrated sequence the character Eileen searches for him, placing the actress Verna Bloom in the midst of the upheavals in the parks and streets of Chicago. Protestors call to the ubiquitous TV cameras, while John is working inside as the Democrats self-immolate at the convention (Warren Beatty helped get Medium Cool’s cameras onto the convention floor, where they blended in with all the others). Back on the streets, baton-wielding cops pour into the crowds, captured on film beating the kids; Eileen sees it all, wading through history as her story takes place in the midst of reality — in character, Bloom talked her way past a military checkpoint by telling a commander she was looking for her lost son.

John and Eileen, never part of the protest, or the protest movement (although several scenes showing Eileen’s increasing involvement with local political activists were dropped from the final cut to bring down the film’s running time), are reunited and leave the chaos behind as they take off in his car in search of Harold. From there, Wexler makes two controversial decisions, about the fate of his characters and with the movie’s final shot. Both of these choices are debatable — which, it should be emphasized, is a reaction that New Hollywood filmmakers would consider a complement — and, I would argue, defensible. However unsubtle it may be, the shockingly disinterested photographer at the end of the film serves as a chastising bookend to the behavior of Gus and John at the very start of the film. And Wexler, ending the film by showing himself, turning his camera (metaphorically) towards the audience, isn’t showing off; he’s trying to generate some heat. As voice-over radio coverage of the riots devolves into chants of “the whole world is watching,” Wexler’s camera move implicates his own viewers as passive spectators and as consumers of the media, among those who are “watching.” The whole world is watching, Wexler reminds us. What are you doing?

DVD Specs:

New, restored 4K digital film transfer, approved by director Haskell Wexler, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition.
Two audio commentaries, one featuring Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actor Marianna Hill, and the other featuring historian Paul Cronin.
New interview with Wexler.
Extended excerpts from Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!, a documentary by Cronin about the making ofMedium Cool, featuring interviews with Wexler; Golding; actors Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, and Robert Forster; Chicago historian Studs Terkel; and others.
Excerpts from Sooner or Later, Cronin’s documentary about Harold Blankenship, who plays Harold in the film.
“Medium Cool” Revisited, a new half-hour video by Wexler about the Occupy movement’s protests against the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago.
Trailer and a booklet featuring a new essay by film critic and programmer Thomas Beard.