William S. Pechter
Commentary, February 1970
Medium Cool is with-it but not quite of it; a film, like if…. made by an older director and soberly concerned with the questions of repression and violence, and one, like Easy Rider, whose sentiments make it difficult to dislike. Haskell Wexler, the film’s writer and director, has been one of Hollywood’s best and most outspoken cinematographers, who, in the past, has been refreshingly candid on the failings of films he has photographed for other directors. Yet, ludicrously unreal as is the black-white confrontation melodrama of In the Heat of the Night, Medium Cool, however more hip in its black-white confrontation, is both less well directed than the slick Hollywood entertainment and less excitingly photographed. It is one thing to applaud a film for its sentiments but quite another to claim that one is applauding artistic achievement – for, to the extent that the art of film-making involves both the directing of actors and the giving of form to one’s materials, it must be said that Medium Cool is both stilted and shapeless.
Despite being outfitted with a smart McLuhanite title and the stylist trappings of film-making calling attention to itself, Medium Cool remains essentially the forced marriage of some very ordinary fictional narrative with a documentary record of the Chicago convention riots. That a genuine excitement inheres in the actual event itself is undeniable, and the film does take an excitement from it. But the relation of Medium Cool to the event is chiefly exploitative: the film takes everything, and brings nothing; the riots functioning in it like the exotic locales used to renovate hackneyed plots in standard Hollywood products. Against this actual backdrop, the film places the merest sketch of narrative and character, if the word character can even be used to contain divergencies so irreconcilable as the protagonist’s shift from callous brutality in the pre-credit sequence to liberal enlightenment in the scene of his speech while watching a television documentary of Martin Luther King. “Watch out, Haskell, it’s real!” a crew member is heard to shout on the sound track at one point as a tear-gas bomb explodes nearby. Given the flimsiness of the fiction which Medium Cool attempts to impose on this reality and the finality with which that cyclonic reality blows it away, the warning might be taken in more than one way.