The Sticking Place

Chicago and Other Violences

Guy Flatley
The New York Times, 7 September 1968

AI was gassed in Chicago. They used that new gas. It makes you reel like you can’t breathe, like you’re going to die. It burns incredibly. I couldn’t see for a day after that. except for blurred images. And now I have to wear glasses to read.”

Does that sound like the stuff of which dramatic movies are made? Well, it is – except the man speaking is not a movie star. He’s a director and he really was gassed by the police in Chicago last year while making Medium Cool, a story set against the all-too real horror of the Democratic convention. He also wrote the screenplay about a stubborn, self-centered TV photographer – and he served as cameraman.

The fact that 47-year-old Haskell Wexler gave Medium Cool its brilliant pulsating look comes as no great surprise. He won an Oscar for his photography of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and he has been the man behind the camera on such visually exciting movies as In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair and The Savage Eye.

But it does come as a surprise that on his first time at bat as a director, Wexler should slam home such a powerful picture of America the Violent. In one vivid scene after another – from TV photographers taking pictures of a highway-accident victim before calling an ambulance, to people, getting sexual thrills from watching contestants clobber each other at a roller derby, to cops clubbing students – Wexler presents an unsparing yet deeply poignant portrait of a country casually lapping up brutality, a society in which bestial acts become little more than bland entertainment for a TV-numbed public.

Wexler was in town the other day and he spoke about his movie which opened here recently, and about his country. “My screenplay was completed four months before the Democratic convention. None of the rioting in the movie was staged. It may seem prophetic to have anticipated the violence, but there were actually many indications that there would be a confrontation between the police and the antiwar demonstrators.”

A tall man with thinning white hair, a full beard and probing eyes, Wexler speaks in a voice that is both gentle and persuasive. “I was under surveillance for the entire seven weeks that I was in Chicago. By the police, the Army and the Secret Service. As we made the movie, they made movies of us. I would look up from my camera and see a guy in the back seat of a police car taking pictures of us. So many of the guys in my crew had long hair, the cops thought it was all a hippie plot to invade the amphitheater.”

The plot that deeply concerned Wexler was the fictional one he was attempting to weave into the grim real-life happenings in Chicago last summer. His screenplay focused on a hard-headed TV news cameraman – a pro who knew all there was to know about making lively TV documentaries and all there was to know about making out with swinging blondes. The turning point of the story occurs when he becomes involved tenderly with a plain young woman from Appalachia and her son who have migrated to Chicago’s ghetto. And suddenly the fictional story, like the real story, erupts in violence.

“There are only about 12 or 13 seconds of actual violence in Medium Cool,” Wexler says. “It seems to be a fad today, showing a great amount of violence to illustrate the director’s statement against violence. Of course, I had lots of footage of police sticking billy clubs in kids’ ribs, beating up girls and stuffing them into police wagons, but there is so much of that on TV that after a while it just becomes another show. I didn’t feel that I needed it to make my statement. I wanted to take things outside of Chicago, to make a statement about violence everywhere.”

Wexler believes that Americans have become so accustomed to viewing atrocities on their home screens that human life, and the responsibility that one human being has toward another human being, have all but lost their meaning. “The first time that millions of Americans actually saw a man being killed was when Ruby shot Oswald. They gasped and said, ‘I don’t believe it!’ But then they saw it replayed and replayed and replayed, with the TV announcer saying, ‘Now watch Ruby’s hand, now watch officer so-and-so’s arm as it drops to his side, see Oswald’s look of anguish as he doubles up.’ The public was watching a scene charged with drama but one filtered through a glass, a glass protecting them from what people in the past had experienced. When reality comes to you that way, it comes minus one ingredient, and that ingredient is human emotion.”

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The decision to make his troubled protagonist in Medium Cool a photographer reflects Wexler’s fear that he himself may be too much the detached observer, too little the passionate doer. “When people are into their own thing, there is a socially acceptable rationalization for not getting involved. Photography is a way of being there and not being there. There’s a joke that goes something like this: ‘A photographer comes back from Mexico and tells his friend about a very poor family with whom he had stayed. The mother had a baby and a half every year, the kids all had rickets, there was no food, no sanitation. ‘What did you do?’ the friend asks the photographer. ‘I shot them at f-16,’ he answers.”

“But no matter how much you try to bury yourself in your f-stop, your shutter speed, you are involved. I hope it doesn’t sound pompous, but in Medium Cool I wanted to make a statement about the individual’s responsibility in the complex, urban world we live in. I wanted to ask the questions we were all asking at the time of the Nuremberg trials. The Nazis said, ‘I was just doing my job. It was expected of us.’ If we all close our eyes and just do our job and never look into the consequences, we are in grave danger. Like right now, there are thousands of doctors working in laboratories – brilliant men concerned with narrow problems, the end result of which is bacteriological warfare.

“The biggest problem in our country today is that the bad guys don’t look like bad guys. In movies, the bad guy comes into a room and he always needs a shave. But in real life, the bad guys are the guys who plan, who control the end of the world. Bacteriological warfare, chemical warfare, missiles that protect missiles. These men speak grammatical English, they have Ph.Ds. and they are undoubtedly nice to their wives and kids. If they think at all about what they are doing, there are rationalizations available to them. They’re doing it for peace, they’re doing it to defend their country, they’re doing it to protect mankind. If there is one word that characterizes our society, it is hypocrisy.”

And hypocrisy has many faces. High on the list of frauds, according to Wexler, are the men who busy themselves rating movies. They have labeled Medium Cool ‘X,’ which means that nobody under 18 is permitted to see it. One of the things that caused censorial eyebrows to lift was a long, lovingly photographed scene showing Robert Forster and Marianna Hill romping about Forster’s groovy bachelor apartment. In the raw. “Those filthy old men really think dirty,” says Wexler. “All day long, they censor the wrong movies for the wrong reasons. Then, at night, they go home secure in the knowledge that they have saved the world from the vagina and the penis. It’s my feeling, however, that the danger to our society does not come from the erogenous zones. Nobody has ever been killed or maimed by fornication.”

Nudity was not all the censors had on their minds. Perhaps even more shocking to them was the language – both the four and the five-letter variety – used by the young demonstrators and by Chicago’s finest. “I would having considered cutting the shots of genitals , if it meant that kids could see the movie,” Wexler says, “but I couldn’t cut the rough language. It’s an integral part of the story.”

Wexler, a happily married man with a medium precocious 13-year-old son (and two older children by an earlier marriage) is going to make sure that at least some people under 18 have a chance to see Medium Cool. “I’m going to get a l6-millimeter print and show it in my home – free – but only to those between the ages to 13 and 17.”

So where does a crusading director go from the grim reality of Chicago? To the despair of Harlem? The anguish of Appalachia? Neither. Instead, Wexler will take flight to the fluffiness of Hollywood, where he will direct his own screenplay. “It’s called A Really Great Movie and it’s about a boy and a girl – young filmmakers who win an award to make a Hollywood movie. It will be light and frothy.”

Wexler paused for a moment and then smiled. “But it will also have local significance.”

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© Guy Flatley/The New York Times
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