The Sticking Place

Pulling out all the f-stops

Derek Malcolm
The Guardian, 17 March 1970

It took a long time for the people who backed Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool to realise that it was going to make a great deal of money for them. The film, made at the time of the Chicago riots of 1968, was in trouble from the moment it was submitted for inspection. “I hope I never have to go through anything like it again,” Wexler says with feeling. “Even now, I don’t know whether it was worth it.” Few film-goers who have seen it, however, are likely to deny that it was.

“The first thing that happened,” he says, “was that the industry’s censorship committee objected to the four-letter words and the nude love-making scene. They were a ghastly lot. One of them actually turned to me and said: ‘What the f… hell are you doing letting people use the word f…?”

“Those filthy old men really think dirty. All day long they censor the wrong movies for the wrong reasons. Then they go home secure in the knowledge that they’ve saved the world from the erogenous zones. If there’s one thing that characterises American society at the moment it is hypocrisy.

“Well, I go round them and then the people I sold the film to said: ‘Yes, that’s great. But are you insured?’ So I rang up my insurers just to check and they said: ‘Fine, fine. But you’ll have to take out that bit about Mayor Daley, and we can’t have the hero saying that he got no education in his Chicago schools. And let’s cut the scene where the police use bad words against the demonstrators.’

“Then I went to a board meeting where the company lawyer got up and solemnly said that people would be incited to violence by the film, even by looking at the stills outside the cinema. In that case, he added, the whole production board was liable to be clapped into gaol. I told him he had to be joking. But he wasn’t. He really believed it and so did the board at the time.

“So I told them that Arthur Goldberg (then the United States UN representative and a prominent Establishment lawyer) was a personal friend of mine, and that I’d take up the matter with him. As a matter of fact, I’d never met him but an acquaintance of mine got me an introduction and I went along to see him.

“He was very sweet, looked at the film and said, well, he didn’t go to the movies very much nowadays because he hadn’t the time but, yes, Medium Cool was fine. He was certain nobody could be put into prison for showing it. So I told the board, and got a bit more backing from one or two critics who’d seen the movie and they eventually climbed down though the police are not allowed to say the rude words, only the demonstrators, and there were one or two other minor cuts besides.”

Wexler tells the story without rancour now, though he is still bitter about the American ‘X’ certificate because he thinks that the under-eighteens are the very people who ought to see the film. He recognises, however, that a great change has come over the movie industry since those days and that now the anti-establishment film is ‘in.’

wexler-2“Anything which they think contains the youth kick is welcomed with open arms,” he says, “even if there’s no merit in it whatsoever. ‘Where’s the nude scene?’ they say, ‘and couldn’t we stiffen up the language?’ It’s almost as silly as the way they were going on before. Do you know that they actually pay vast sums to language researchers now, just so as to get the slang right for the teenagers?”

Wexler, of course, is no bright young thing of the film world. For years he has been one of Hollywood’s best photographers. He is 47, tall, rather patrician in appearance and by no means a born radical. And he made Medium Cool principally as an attack on people like himself, photographers for whom film is sacred and people are not. Photography, he says, is a wonderful way of being there, yet not being there, of being involved but apart.

His story is about a press photographer who gradually finds that he has to get involved, and it has parallels in his own case. He tells the joke of the photographer who comes back from Mexico and tells his friend about a starving family with whom he stayed. The mother had a baby every year, the kids all had rickets, there was no food.

“What did you do,” says his friend. “Oh, I shot them at f-16,” he answers. There comes a time, Wexler comments, when you can’t bury yourself in your f-stop any more.

The photographer in the movie is horrified to find that his footage of protest demonstrations is handed over to the FBI and CIA. Overdoing the conspiracy thesis? Not really. Wexler himself was under surveillance by the police, the Army and the Secret Service for the entire seven weeks that he was in Chicago. As he made the movie, they made movies of him. He shot over 20 hours of demonstration footage. It has since been requisitioned by the Department of Justice.

“These guys,” he says, “think they are doing it for peace, to defend their country and protect mankind. They are not evil men, not Nazis. They rationalise what they are doing very sincerely. But we’ve got to fight them, and it will be one helluva battIe for the media. If you don’t believe, that, just listen to Spiro Agnew.”

PDF here.

© Derek Malcolm/The Guardian
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders