The Sticking Place

Chicago Cool

Michael Billington
The Times
, 28 February 1970

“The whole century,” says Haskell Wexler, director of Medium Cool, “is one big television show. It begins with the President whose life is organized like a television programme – he has scriptwriters, semanticists, dramatic coaches, hairdressing experts and men to light his nose. I’m not criticizing the President personally, merely pointing out how television eats into everything. It’s no accident that we have so many people from showbiz going into politics. It’s also inevitable, at the other end of the scale, that when you get into a violent situation like the Chicago Democratic Convention, the people protesting are cognisant of holding the stage, of being actors in a TV show.”

The role of the news media in American life is, in fact, one of the crucial question raised by Wexler’s dazzling first film. He is keen to stress that he does not follow the Agnew line on the media: despite his criticisms, he thinks television has done a service to democracy by allowing people to participate in public events. At the same time his film centres on a Chicago-based television cameraman who, until the Convention, puts the need to get a story before any social and political responsibilities. Is there perhaps a paradox here? After all Wexler himself went to Chicago to make a movie, not to protest, and used the police riot to heighten the dramatic impact of that movie.

“I agree,” he says, “that there is a paradox and at the end of the film I tried to resolve it by showing that there had been a camera recording all these events with me in it. What I’m attacking are those people in any position who lose themselves totally in their job. After all ‘I was only doing my job’ was one of the stock defences offered at Nuremberg. It’s an expression that absolves people of any social responsibility and my intention was to show that no one – scientists and doctors no more than cameramen – can afford to retreat behind a mask of professionalism.”

Tall, trimly-bearded and gently-spoken, Wexler gives the impression of being a well-heeling maverick. He comes in fact from an influential Chicago family, thanks to whom he first learnt how to use a camera. “I began shooting movies with my parents when they went abroad on holiday. I wanted to travel with them but I didn’t want to identify with them so I made home movies.” Eventually he broke into Hollywood as a cameraman but not without a major hassle with the unions. Being born in Chicago, he couldn’t get a ticket to work in California – “the unions divide up the country as it was in the horse-and-buggy days” – but his father was prepared to hire a lawyer to fight his case. In the end Wexler got his ticket.

He won fame in Hollywood for his camerawork on such movies as The Best Man, The Savage Eye, In the Heat of the Night and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He also, significantly enough, helped John Cassavetes on Faces but because of union problems didn’t take a credit. Making the break into directing proved difficult mainly because the attitude everywhere was “he’s a good cameraman but…” However an ally at Paramount finally asked him to adapt and direct The Concrete Wilderness, a Disney-type story about a lonely boy in Manhattan. “I read it and asked if I could change the script a bit. I did – and the result was Medium Cool.”

When he comes to describe shootings he once again falls into the role of the rebel who knows how to pull strings. Through using his father’s influence he got permission to shoot a National Guard training session a month and a half before the Democratic Convention began – he even gave them an hour of film he wasn’t going to us. At the same time the police were on his back all the time.

“They knew something fishy was going on because I was mixing with gang leaders, Black Panthers and White Appalachians. Usually when a film company go into a city, they have a tie-up with the police but we did everything off our own bat. As a result I got roughed up a bit during shooting and as we made our movie so the authorities made a movie about us. The Secret Service, however, are never all that secret. When they pose as hippies they think all you have to do is not shave for a couple of days and wear a Hawaiian shirt but I got a shot of one guy with a pair of handcuffs peeping out of his trouser pocket.”

What of the ethics of mixing fact and fiction in one film? On this issue, Wexler is reticent. He admits there is an artistic problem involved with which he is still struggling but stresses that everything in his film, bar the park scene, is written, staged and organized. He does, however, significantly reveal that he cut out shots of Bobby Kennedy’s funeral because they gave the impression he was making fun of the crowds. “A large gathering of people takes on the appearance of a picnic and the way it looked wasn’t the way it was.”

If this is true, could a purist argue that even the police riot (the phrase used incidentally in the Walker Commission Report) is not seen the way it was. There may have been more violence, or conversely there may have been a mite more provocation. Wexler does not dispute this and admits that what he is showing is an interpretation of reality rather than the thing itself. In particular, he kept the violence in the film down to about 14 seconds of material. “I didn’t,” he says, “want people to get their jollies by seeing all the violence and then saying we should have cut it out.”

Wexler emerges as a elegant radical, a Jamesian sophisticate blessed with sueva indignatio, a rebel with a good many causes. He admits that back in his Savage Eye days he didn’t care about humanity – he just wanted to make a  great picture. Endowed now both with technical skill and a concern for humanity,  you feel he’s handsomely equipped to make that great picture.

© Michael Billington/The Times
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