The Sticking Place

Medium Cool

Andrew Sarris
Village Voice, 28 August 1969

Medium Cool parades its innocence, clumsiness, and simple-mindedness as civic virtue while it confronts the Chicago charivari of 1968 with footage; some documentary, some simulated; stuck together with the band-aid of broken-headed liberalism. Haskell Wexler’s first movie proves among other things that good cinematography does not necessarily make good cinema. His preoccupation with pigeons on one occasion is pleasantly diverting, but hardly conducive to coherence. Nor are some wide-angle gymnastics with two lovers more than a cameraman’s interlude in a movie that is almost all interludes. My feeling is that Wexler exploits Chicago more than he explores or even exhumes it, and he has fallen back on all kinds of Godardian gimmicks to conceal the blatant contrivances of his plot and the unconvincing schmatization of his characters. Robert Forster’s television photographer is an especially false characterization in that he partakes of both documentary characterization which describes the way people are at any given moment the camera happens to swoop down on them and dramatic characterization which depicts people at the turning points of their lives.

Wexler tries to have it both ways by starting the photographer off as a kind of hard-boiled cynical Blow-Up character who is implicated in the violent orientation of the media. Then suddenly in mid-conversation, the erstwhile cynic is radicalized by the realization that the networks have been turning over crowd footage to the FBI and the police. Wexler thus provides us with the drama of conversion without the drudgery of characterization, a form of cheating that is more ludicrous than lamentable. Meanwhile, love blossoms between the redeemed photographer and a young mother (Verna Bloom) out of white Appalachia. The natural playing of the mother and her stoical little boy (Harold Blankenship) provide the best scenes in the movie, but again these scenes are grotesquely inconsistent with the wildly melodramatic contrivance of the boy’s running away during the most riotous day of the convention so that Wexler’s camera can follow the distraught mother past the demonstrators and the police, footage of which, simulated or not, is curiously ambiguous when compared with the one-sided impression provided by television at the time. To end the film on a proper note of apocalyptic fatality, Wexler fictionalizes an automobile accident that claims the lives of his two protagonists in a straight lift from Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt.

But that’s the big problem with Chicago. With all the brutality and head-breaking, no one was actually killed as a result of the convention that nominated Hubert Humphrey whereas seven blacks in Miami were slain during the convention that nominated Richard Nixon. But there were no photographer present, no upper-middle-class white demonstrators, no cultural emissaries from Esquire and the Playboy Club. The slaughter in Miami was a happenstance rather than happening, and it only goes to prove that social protest is ill-advised without the proper press-agentry I have already seen several films on Chicago in 1968, but I don’t ever expect to see any on the murders in Miami. Fortunately, I have never been in the habit of letting film-makers take charge of my political education, and a faux naïf like Wexler least of all.

© Andrew Sarris/Village Voice
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