The Sticking Place

Notes on Involved Commercial Cinema

Steven North
Take One
, March/April 1969

When MGM is half car-park, half memory, when the banks have swallowed Fox, when Hollywood has someting to do, with branches and berries, perhaps pictures involved with society instead of sugar will be made without the calm and ledgerdemain necessary ot get them off the ground today/ Or perhaps when that day comes it will no longer be necessary to make them.

When Medium Cool started I was officially given the title of associate producer. The title includes everything from conceptualising and casting to truck driving and making coffee. Though my functions were much closer to those of an assistant director, Wexler could not assign this job to anyone not in the Directors Guild of America. The DGA is a closed shop, open only to the sons of prominent directors and to a few token Africans. There are over two hundred applications received and a maxium of ten apprentices accepted each year. Requirements now include a university degree. If one is accepted it is a two-year programme as teaboy before being allowed to function as an assistant. (By not allowing people to work, the DGA violates the Taft-Hartley Act, a law which clearly states that a man must be aollowed to work if he is given a job – however the National Labor Relations Board, which deals with these matters, works hand in hand with the DGA and tne individual has no hope of fair treatment.)

wexler-13In Medium Cool our tightly knit unit of filmmakers did not indulge themselves in heavy union rules where everything is departmentalised – a grip cannot touch an electric wire, an electrician may not pick up a prop – everyone worked together. Ideas were shared and, though 100 per cent of the credit must go to Haskell Wexler, director, writer and cinematographer, he made everyone feel part of the creative energy that made the film. Wexler is the most daring filmmaker to come along in America in the last decade and he signals what hopefully is to come on the American scene. He has delved into an area that has been totally unexplored – that of mixing documentary events and dramatic story. One often overshadows the other, as events in America today tend to be much more dramatic than anything that could possibly be staged. This can be a drawback as well as an asset.

Filming during the demonstrations that preceded the 1968 Democratic Convention, in Resurrection City and at Bobby Kennedy’s funeral, was far more intersting than the telling of a fragile story of an Appalachian woman and her son. The heights reached by the people who left their homes all over America, going to Washington to camp in three feet of mud – those who risked their lives against the pig-police in front of the Conrad Hilton – Jesse Jackson, with his black fist raised high in the air in defiance of all that the white establishment holds dear, tell the entire story of a people that have endured three hundred years of grief.

Wexler presents a comment on the evident impossibility of non-involvement in America, insisting on the lie or the unadmissible luxury of his hero’s “Christ, I love to shoot film.” A woman from the Appalachian ghetto is kept from her lost son by a street war waged over the fact and causes of her own crises: a cameraman insists on his objectivity only to find that he has been unwittingly involved in the conflict with every foot of film he has shot – a filmmaker plies his trade with both eyes open.

Medium Cool shows us that we are in the battle whether we know it or not. From the opening logo the battle lines are drawn: PARAMOUNT PICTURES (a division or did it say subsidiary of Gulf + Western Corp.). Through a scenario where boy would meet girl were it not for those tanks and troops in the way and a final thanks to the National Guard. Perhaps Wexler’s film is the best formula for cinema engagé: write a simple love story, and try to shoot it on location. If the streets let the guy get the girl, maybe there’s not too much to be angry about.

Medium Cool which takes the side of the poor and the ghetto dwellers and which was made by one who cares deeply, starts out with the logo (“A Paramount Production – A Gulf + Western Company”). After the picture, these ghetto dwellers are still caught in the ghetto, while Gulf Western rakes in the cash. The people who run the system, that maintain the ghetto, are those who will eventually profit from the film. The money the picture makes helps keep the people it defends right where they are. A little more famous perhaps, but just as poor.

The artist or the creative producer who is allowed to make his picture, must bite the hand that foods him. He must never say “thank you” to those who support him, because they do nor deserve his thanks. The studio is his enemy because it is very much a part of the system. After your picture is completed, the studic owners have the last say on what is to be shown. In the case of Medium Cool, Paramount/Gulf + Western did not want to release the picture and only after provocation on the part of demonstrating students were added to the picture did they agree to have it released. Rumour has it that from somewhere in the US Government a threat was handed down to Gulf + Western that their books might be examined if they released Medium Cool in its uncut version. Therefore, the picture had to be ehangao. All this would be impossible to prove but for a long time none of us knew if the picture would ever be seen.

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To get the picture made Wexler had to enlist the aid of the Establishment. Paramount would only make a “negative pick-up deal” on Medium Cool. They would reimburse Wexler upon delivery of the negative assuming it was “up to the standard of Paramount products” – what they consider a first class picture. This worked for Wexler. It gave him total freedom while filming; it also gave him the job of raising the cash. To do this he went to a group of Chicago businessmen who had no clue about filmmaking. They were shown a script that resembled a Disney boy-and-pigeon story. Wexler knew he was not making an animal picture, he risked being in debt for over half a million dollars on delivery of the print to Paramount. Half way though shooting word got back to the studio that they were not getting what they expected. A publicity spy was sent to Chicago. On location he was called “The Spy” and finally became so intimidated that he turned tail and returned to Hollywood.

Medium Cool is a perfect example of how a studio can take no risk and end up with all the profits. Wexler, who deferred his writing, directing and cinematography salary, will not see a penny until Paramount has recouped its cost. This is usually 2.4 times the cost of the picture after publicity and overheads are tacked on. Wexler has made his picture. At the moment he is shooting beer commercials to support his family.

Even after you finally get your pictures made, it is almost impossible to have them put on the screen in the version you intended, unless you devote your life to making Mary Poppins or True Grit. Inevitably, one of the top studio men, to justify his enormous salary and time an earth, feels that be must change what you have spent a year of your life putting together. This may sound bitter and twisted, but you get this way when you have to deal with the ignorance of those who run the American film industry.

While we were getting the script of Medium Cool together, Claude Harz, the author of Homer, called Haskell Wexler to try to interest him in his script. Claude had been an actor who decided four years ago to turn writer and has devoted those last four years to his work. He is a deeply committed left-wing filmmaker, verging on an anarchist, and though Wexler was not reading scripts, I read it and felt that it was a film that had to be made.

Homer is a much gentler picture and for me was a natural progression from Medium Cool. The picture deals with rebellion of a different sort and on a much smaller scale, but I think on just as important a one. The rebellion is inside a boy’s mind. It is the story of so many disenchanted young people today, not only in America but – throughout the workd, who find that they have no way of communicating with their parents, their society or their country. It deals with a boy who only understands and can only speak through his music. The old cliché of a generation gap – and I am sure publicity departments will call it a “generation gap picture” – is illustrated by the parents’ lack of understanding of their boy’s music, i.e. his soul. For the boy, music is a means of exchange, his way of relating. For his parents, status, position, money are the things that count. To the boy, being is enough, while to his parents, having means everything.

Harold 1There were problems in financing Homer that equalled those of Medium Cool. Where Wexler has certain advantages in raising private cash – his Academy Award and long impressive record as a cinmatographer behind him – all we had were several TV credits and an unreleased Medium Cool in the can. Homer was rejected by every studio in Hollywood, not because of the material but because no-one would take a chance on two untested producers. Finally, the script was read by Palomar’s (Killing of Sister George and For the Love of Ivy) Executive Producer in New York. He saw a chance to cash in on the young explosion and, for fifty per cent of the profits of the picture, offered to put a deal together, This was highway robbery but there was no choice in the matter. The script was sent to Cinema Center Film where it had previously been turned down twice; a deal was put together in less than a week. Palomar made no creative contribution; their percentage is insured in airtight contracts. Without them the picture would never have been made, and they reminded us of this fact throughout the shooting of the picture.

The Homer unit functioned much like the all-purpose Medium Cool crew. Director John Trent was open to now ideas and found now ways of using actual locationa. No studio costs were tacked on the picture. Homer, budgeted at $1,200,000 in Hollywood, was produced for just over half a million dollars in Canada, and the cost was only that high because Cinema Center Films sent out a Production Manager/spy who changed deals made by co-producer Terry Dane and upped the cost at every opportunity, to justify his expense and existence.

There is a definite parallel between the now American cinema today and the vital periods in recent European cinema. In England, Anderson and Watkins, Godard, Resnais and Truffaut in France, Fellini and Antonioni, Bergman, Bunuel… one can go on and on. New content overshadows new techniques – technique is no longer enough. My generation wants to experience films that have something to do with now – with today’s world. Then controversial films may lose their meaning in years to come – this is yet to be men. Today they hit their mark.

In 1969 two films were released by major studios in America – Easy Rider and Medium Cool – that dealt heavily with controversial issues. Both managed to make their points despite the footage added to assuage the other side. But both would have been better films aesthetically (and one might expect this to be the aim of the film industry) had they received the support of the companies destined to receive their profits. Indeed, while Paramount poured millions into Paint Your Wagon and Darling Lily, the film that was to bring the highest critical success was left to got by on a wing and a prayer.

Then are only a few competent American filmmakers today. Most are cop-outs who have sold themselves for the creature-comforts. Perhaps it is asking too much to devote oneself to honest expression through film but there is some hope when Wexlers and Hoppers are able to exist.

BikerIn Hollywood, where the Establishment has been entrenched for thirty years, the industry, for the first time with the Wexler and Hopper films, can hope for a change. It must be remembered however that Wexler had won the Academy Award for cinematography for Virginia Woolf and Hopper had spent many years knocking at the same gates that so many of us have tried to got through.

It is foolish to suggest that we are the first to wish to include social involvement in commercial cinema. From 1940, the beginning of the McCarthy era, to about 1960, the ” black list” effectively stifled those who shared this desire. America was Red-scared and the film industry wanted everything to seem Yankee-Doodle-Dandy. Concerned artists either died painful deaths or survived under pseudonyms. There is no telling how much positive charqe could have been affected had the film industry, at that time, been courageous enough to manifest a conscience about social injustice in America.

Today the sons of the black-list are fighting their fathers’ battles. Perhaps the list will be resurrected and we will all find ourselves out of work. In Reagan country this is to be expected and cannot affect the work we are now doing. Furthermore, American youth are awake and aware. It wants films that are relevant. We have the monster by the tail and it will be forced by its own rules to support activities that attack it. There is finally a dent in the armour and the outcome of all this is that the Hollywood moguls, the Zanucks, the Robert Evans’s, the Aubreys, are looking for a formula to make “youth pictures”, and trying to hook their greedy tentacles into the youth wave. These people have no concept of what has gone into making Medium Cool and Easy Rider and Homer – and they don’t really care. They talk about ” manufacturing” pictures – they might as well be soap pads.

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To bring reasonable social comment to the screen today you may have to call your assistant director an associate producer, you may have to tell stories about boys and pigeons, cajole the bosses with haircuts and tickle them with boffo names. You will have to keep up the hustle and keep track of the con, watch where you wlnk, know that anyone around you might sell you out to get into bad with the system. You will have to go back to every door twice. One must only hope that now, when an Easy Rider can come in through the front door, Hopper and Wexler will still be able to hear that clamour out back.

© Steven North/Take One
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders