The Sticking Place

By early 1968, Haskell Wexler had moved substantially away from Jack Couffer‘s novel The Concrete Wilderness, the text he was in theory meant to be adapting. As Couffer himself has noted, Wexler “did pick a few little bits and pieces from my story. There was still a kid and his mother. There was still a news photographer. But the kid wasn’t a biologist. The closest he came to biology and the wildlife of the city was that he raised pigeons on the roof of the apartment building where he lived. And that’s about as close a connection that Medium Cool has to The Concrete Wilderness.” One might add that in both cases the father has died, and that the boy (Archie in the novel) is a “stranger to the city,” [p.8] just as, crucially, the character of Harold is in Medium Cool (and also Harold Blankenship himself, who played the role in the film, having arrived not too long previously from West Virginia with his family). Hailing from Wyoming, Archie thinks back to tracking a hunter through the woods [starting p.10], a sequence that could be compared to Harold’s memories of time spent with his father in his home state. Worth considering, too, is Couffer’s lead character and his love/hate relationship with the camera: “Reluctantly Martin checked over his camera equipment. He felt a remorse that as a photographer he could not simply absorb the scene in its momentary beauty, enjoy it to his personal satisfaction, rather than feel duty bound to capture it and lend it photographic immortality. It is a jaundiced eye, he thought, that of the cameraman; every visual image must be translated in the mind to silver iodide and celluloid.” [p.29] Compare this to John Cassellis’ simply stated “Jesus, I love to shoot film.”

Instead, Wexler delivered something of a sprawling and episodic series of scenes – though at all times rooted in the reality of Chicago 1968 – about the trials and tribulations of television news cameraman John Cassavetes. On every page of his untitled script we note Wexler’s desire to link his fictional story of Cassavetes, soundman Gus, Appalachian migrant Eileen and her son Myles, to real-life characters and events, even if those events have not yet happened, specifically the Democratic National Convention in August of that year and the accompanying planned protests. Wexler’s inclusion of interviews, “designed to show the human face of the city” [p.66], reveals his documentary background as a filmmaker, and is also an acknowledgment of the work of his trusted friend, the Chicago historian Studs Terkel.

Allowing himself plenty of room for maneuver, Wexler’s screenplay frequently explains to the reader that certain sequences are mere “approximations,” and that only once on the streets of the city, interacting with real people, will the film truly coalesce. In an early scene [p.16] set in the office of Chicago Major Richard Daley, for example, where the Boss welcomes “fellow Democrats to our convention city,” Wexler adds: “What Mayor Daley of Chicago says is indicated here only as a probability. Throughout the film there will be direct, on-camera interviews or soliloquies. Mostly with real people, as in the instance of Mayor Daley or other city officials. We shall use actors to stage paraphrased interviews actually taken but which for one reason or another cannot be used as originally filmed. The purpose of the direct-to-camera situations is to set us firmly in time and place.” In other instances Wexler has drawn directly on contemporary sources: the words spoken by the University of Chicago professor [p.17] on “civic pride,” for example, are written by Paul Goodman, while in his second draft of the script, next to dialogue between John and a colleague at the television station about Vietnam, Wexler has written “Dialogue may be changed to more contemporary allusion.”

What is perhaps surprising is how many of the scenes detailed in the script actually made it to the screen. While he has written only scant outlines for some (for example the training of the police preparing for the “hot summer” [p.17], where he explains that “Throughout the above, we will have SEEN, in a SERIES OF SHOTS, the variety of anti-riot devices, and men practicing in training conditions,” which later became the provocative sequence in Medium Cool of the Illinois National Guard training with fake tear gas and make-shift protesters), other scenes are fully scripted (like the one featuring the “Kennedy Kids” [p.68]). The storyline of Frank Baker, who finds $10,000 in the back of his taxi, which gets a surprising amount of play in the script, is much minimized in the completed film. Though inspired by a actual events, presumably Wexler found the real-life political events taking place around him more compelling (the same could be said about the sequence in Comiskey Park [p.26], featuring members of the White Sox). On the other hand, the sequence when John and Gus go to Baker’s home [p.60], which receives only a few lines in script form (along with this explanation: “NOTE: Since most of the words in this scene need to be accurate and contemporary Negro dialogue, no attempt is made here to write those words. The AD LIBS will be obtained on location by recording an improvisation session, then by committing to the script the most appropriate remarks”), became a key scene in Medium Cool, one of the film’s most compelling, not least because Wexler found a group of African-American artists, musicians and actors essentially to play themselves.

Despite the differences between this document and Medium Cool, many of the key themes and moments of the film can be found here. We have the “ubiquitous television” [p.60], Wexler’s visual statement about sex and violence (as the roller derby sequence morphs into John and Ruth’s love-making [pp.44-5]), and flashbacks to Myles and his father amid the strip mines of Kentucky. There are mentions of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Marshall McLuhan [p.48] (in an early scene set at the television station, Wexler writes in his second draft of the script that “All the world’s an electronic stage”) alongside Ruth’s recollection of having seen Mondo Cane [p.46], while we also find talk of the widespread dislike of television reporters [p.74] (“This news we’re having is doing us more harm than good”) and, as John explains [p.86], “big company politics.” There is the death of Myles’ father in Vietnam and, as with Medium Cool, the script climaxes [p.102] with Eileen searching for her son among the “white-helmeted POLICE and NATIONAL GUARDSMEN” and “DEMONSTRATORS of all sizes, colors, and persuasions” at the Democratic National Convention.