The Sticking Place

Films for Us Voyeurs of Violence

Richard Schickel
Life, 15 August 1969

Medium Cool – the title has two obvious meanings. It refers us, by the simple reversal of McLuhan’s fashionable term, to television, for which the film’s protagonist (Robert Forster) works as a cameraman. And it alludes to Forster’s own emotional climate, which he is seen struggling to escape for the length of the movie.

More important, however, is what the title suggests about the entire nation’s predominant attitude toward violence, an attitude that has grown ever more common – without our being completely aware of its growth – since we became enmeshed in the media web. Haskell Wexler, the great cameraman who also wrote and directed Medium Cool as his first feature, is suggesting in it that we have become voyeurs of violence, at once disturbed and titillated by it as we vicariously participate in it via television. He is saying, I think, that whether we pretend to deplore or ignore this material we get a cool kick out of it at the deepest levels of our being. And that, as a result, we are hooked on the stuff, requiring ever stronger doses to feed our habit, just like the other junkies.

Item: Forster and a girl friend getting so turned on sexually by the semi-fraudulent violence of a roller derby that they leave early to rush home.

Item: a cinéma vérité sequence in which we are invited to observe a group of middle-class ladies taking shooting lessons. Their interest and excitement is comically but frighteningly out of proportion to their need for this form of adult education.

Largest item of all: the fact that Forster is seem at the outset as rather like a surgeon, unable to pursue his profession if he lets himself become involved in his subjects’ lives or think about the social effects of his work. He is fired when he follows a black militant’s story further than his station’s management thinks necessary. He’s caught the thrill of their activities – who needs understanding?

It turns out that he does. And once he is free to lift his eye from his view-finder he begins really to see. At which point, of course, he begins really to feel, not only about his subjects – he involves himself with a young mother and her son who have exchanged the poverty of Appalachia for the poverty of a Chicago slum – but about himself and what he has been doing. And he is appalled by the contribution to anarchy that “professionalism” (i.e. emotional neutrality) can make.

In this state of heightened awareness he signs on as a cameraman covering the recent Chicago Democratic convention. Into its violent orbit his Appalachian “family” is accidentally drawn and out of it a final tragedy, appropriately accidental, evolves.

The power of the media to magnify events and to involve the unprepared and the innocent in history is powerfully demonstrated in their sequences, though I am not sure Mr. Wexler has entirely solved the aesthetic and technical problems that arise when fictional characters are juxtaposed with great events. He gives us a more intimate view of the Chicago riots than TV ever did (“Look out Haskell, it’s real,” a voice on the soundtrack cries as a canister of tear gas explodes near the film maker) but he never quite succeeds in melding his people believably with his superb documentary footage. Nor does he make his interpretation of their motives or the larger meanings of their acts entirely clear or dramatically sharp. One must read a good deal into Medium Cool.

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But that, of course, is no bad thing. It is a refreshing to have an American film, released by a major studio, that is not “well made” in the conventional sense, that does not insist on reducing everything to a single, simple point and that bears the mark of a single creative hand. Any reservations about Medium Cool fade to insignificance beside the importance of Mr. Wexler’s achievement. His is, I believe, the first entirely serious, commercially sponsored, basically fictional film born of the time of troubles through which this nation has been passing. Alone of American movie-makers Mr. Wexler has asked one of the difficult, pressing, right questions that hover constantly in the back of all our minds. He does not pretend to solve the problem posed by television’s mindless ability to convert real violence into a peculiarly grubby form of surreality simply by its presence of the scene. But by posing it in fictional rather than purely documentary terms he has intensified our awareness of the problem’s human dimensions. In short, he has been about the proper business of the concerned artist, which is not drafting manifestoes, but trying to understand what’s happening to us all.

© Richard Schickel/Life
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