A View of the Future
Making Films in New York, June 1970
“The motion picture industry is in trouble and I can’t say I’m sorry about that situation because it hurts me that ancient monsters like most major studios in Hollywood could continue to exist so long ignoring the fact that the world has changed.”
Haskell Wexler cares. He is a concerned filmmaker, concerned about people and society. He is also involved. He was at Chicago in ’68 and at the trial in ’69.
At 47, Haskell Wexler has broken with tradition. He is a cameraman who is now a director of a new style of film. As he puts it, “Films don’t have to be made behind big thick walls with hundred-man crews. Films need only a few people with a good idea.”
“Medium Cool is that kind of film. It weaves a fictitious plot into the authentic background of the Chicago convention to probe what role and power the mass media have in shaping our environment.
I am particularly interested in breaking some of the theatrical film conventions. We’ve accepted those conventions so long. We assume the two-shot, and assume things like the establishing shot. All these are part of the film language. I am trying to make films, theatrical films closer to what we think are real films. I am interested in making films that feel like that type of reality. But I don’t think I am deceived into thinking that a film like Salesman is real or my film The Bus or Titicut Follies are real. They all have controllable factors. They have a cameraman who decides what he is going to zoom in on. They have a sound man who momentarily decides where he is going to point the shotgun microphone, the editor who decides what scenes stay in and what scenes stay out. There are a multitude of manipulations which can make them no more or less real than any other type of motion picture; but they have the appearance of reality. Take war footage in a regular theatrical feature: it looks real when it looks like actual combat footage because our frame of reference of what war looks like, real war, is from the television or newsreels. The photographer is always in a hole and you can’t see much. and if he runs, the camera wiggles a lot and things are obscured. When you see a war film where everything is carefully framed and there are crane or dolly shots, this reads as unreal. In point of fact if you were actually in a combat zone, how war looks and feels could be a third thing but our references for reality are newsreels and cinema verite.
“Films and television are so important it’s almost impossible to conceive. I was at the conspiracy trial in Chicago where the things we photographed in Medium Cool are still going on a year and a half later and what are they doing in the courtroom – they’re showing films! I sat for two hours and watched films of the riots designed to prove one thing from one side and films designed to prove another thing from the other side. So everyone is trying to write history from their own preconceived prejudices and I’m talking about both sides. The tool being used to write history is film.
“I always accepted when I read history texts in school that it was, in fact. history. Then I wondered who wrote that history. Someone a hundred years from now will look back and say this was the fact of Chicago – but what was the fact of Chicago? What was the fact in 1215 when the Magna Carta was signed? Was it the way I read it or was it te way those who decided to write it presented it?
“The reasons Medium Cool only asks questions is because if I had the answers I would have put them in the film. Answers make drama more satisfying and I think Medium Cool may very well annoy many people. I’ve read many critics who say it asks a lot of questions but doesn’t know how to deal with them and that is a legitimate criticism. I personally don’t know how to deal with them. The simple problem is that you can turn on a television and see a catastrophe or the body count and there is a glass between you and it and also there is an end to it. It’s like R and R in Viet Nam. The guy knows that after a year he’s out of it; you know that after Chet Huntley talks for forty-eight seconds they’re going to cut to a Jello commercial. Or you have the alternative of turning it off yourself. In other words you can have the emotional thrill of any one of hundreds of human dramas but these things are participated in from one step removed.
“I am guilty. Because I made the film it does not absolve me of the guilt I am accusing us all of, the guilt of insensitivity, the guilt of not recognizing individual responsibility for social ills. It’s the guilt of Nuremburg, the guilt of the Nazis who said they were just doing their job and after all if they didn’t, someone else would have. Or what they say about bacteriological warfare – that maybe some of this experimentation might be used for some good. Yes, I as a filmmaker as guilty of the same insensitivity; but I know I’m guilty and am throwing that challenge back at the audience in the theatre and the words are, ‘The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching.’”
© R.B. Jones/Making Films in New York
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