The Sticking Place

The larger the scope of the filmmaking represented in a film, the more significant such contradictions between the medium as a recording process and the medium as a agency in social production become. The tensions between practice and representation in the film itself are especially fertile when they may be made to engage, symbolically or actually, parallel tensions between the mass media’s participation in the operation of social power and its representation of such power. Medium Cool, which considers news photography as both a means of representation and a participant in the political process, is the fullest extension into the public media world of the tensions that [Jim McBride with David Holzman’s Diary] opens on a domestic level while using an amateur mode of production.

The hero of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, a television news cameraman named John Cassellis, is substantially a persona for Wexler himself, both in his general career as a photographer in the commercial media and in his specific capacity as writer, director, and photographer of Medium Cool. As Wexler’s own understanding of politics had changed, so during the film Cassellis discovers how the mass media are integrated into the operations of the state. Initially, he is politically naive. He enjoys shooting exploitative and even explosive social situations without any regard for their implications, and like his soundman who claims to be merely the elongation of a tape recorder, he believes himself to be separate from any responsibility for what he reports. But the events of the film force him to acknowledge that he and the institutions for which he works collude in the authoritarian operations that control political reality.

While following up a story about police persecution of a Black cabdriver, Cassellis is verbally assaulted by Black militants, who see him as an agent is a communications industry that misrepresents or excludes them; and when he objects to his station’s practice of supplying his news footage to the FBI, he is fired from his job. His social and ideological displacement continues in his relationship with a Vietnam War widow; together they descend into the hell of a psychedelic disco, and, searching for her truant son through the parks and streets of Chicago during the disturbances and police riots that accompanied the 1968 Democratic convention, they come face to face with the violence of the state. She is killed and he critically injured when their car crashes, and in a reprise of the first scene of the film, in which Cassellis had photographed a freeway accident, a child takes a snapshot of their burning car.

This narrative of a journey from ideological illusion to reality is recapitulated filmically. As the plot is increasingly penetrated and surrounded by real history, the film is besieged and absorbed by elements of cinéma vérité; and as the actor and actress playing Cassellis and his lover search for the missing boy amid the real political violence, they – and Wexler and his crew – fall out of the intradiegetic security of the story into the exigencies of their historical moment. Thus like the exactly contemporaneous Memories of Underdevelopment, which also places a fictional character in a real revolution, the film is a mix of more or less improvised acting with different modes of documentary. Sequences of virtually straight news reporting alternate with the intradiegetic representation of television news programs; and sequences of documentary, initially staged for the camera but which generate their own urgency (interviews with the Black militants, for example), are interspersed with others in which it is impossible to tell whether the profilmic action is real or staged.

As the fiction loses its power to dictate the progress of the filmic, the public world takes charge of the film and forces it into consciousness of its own role in the operations of the media. For example, a voice shouting “Watch Out, Haskell. It’s real” as a tear gas cannister falls in front of a group of demonstrators testifies to the filmmaker’s physical presence in the events he represents. But more integral political functions of the media are also invoked. In Chicago it became clear that rather than merely reporting the political process, the press actively participated in it. The dissidents depended on the news media not merely to document their protest, but to ensure that their opposition to domestic racism and international imperialism could become part of the national political agenda. Press coverage of the riots deflected that project, displacing it with the local scandal of police brutality.

While this sensationalism assisted the dissidents in uncovering the violence of the corporate state, it also demonstrated the limited-possibilities of turning the establishment press to their own purposes. Shots of television cameramen photographing the protesters who cry “Stay with us, NBC” illustrate the possibility that the media could safeguard the demonstrators against the worst of the police violence and so preserve the democratic right to free speech; and Medium Cool served something of the same function. But the impotence of any individual within NBC or within any other component of the corporate media to act on any but the government’s behalf has already been dramatized by the case of Cassellis himself. He figures the impossibility of an individual’s sustaining political responsibility in the network organization, the impossibility of turning the industrial media to progressive purposes. The car accident that ends the film is an arbitrary but inevitable resolution to the narrative contradictions the film encounters, for it cannot imagine a way in which as a photographer Cassellis could implement the political insight he has gained. And so Cassellis completes the allegorized self-representation of Wexler himself; torn between the compromises Paramount demanded as the condition of distributing Medium Cool and his engagement in radical politics, Wexler rejected the commercial cinema to work on marginal documentaries like Underground that took him back to the Chicago radicals, but in a mode of film production that was consonant with their political program, not in contradiction with it.

From Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (1989)

© David James/Princeton University Press
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders