New Statesman, 27 February 1970
It is happening, if only in America at the moment. I’ve had occasion in the past to talk about the outfit known as ‘Newsreel’ which seems to be on the spot wherever demonstrations occur. This week, by an historical irony or nice timing or both, two films – Medium Cool and Prologue – arrive in London hot on the heels of the infamous Chicago trial verdicts. The ‘cool medium’ is McLuhanese for television. Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool makes the first of its several serious jokes by reversing the phrase. This enterprising movie, a debut for its director who has hitherto been better known as the very good lighting cameraman on such films as The Best Man, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and In the Heat of the Night, started from a script by Wexler which foresaw the kind of things likely to take place on the perimeter of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He was then able to film his principal actors moving through, if not participating in, the real, awful events. Robin Spry, a young Canadian director, had a similar idea or was similarly prescient, and on a much lower budget made his first feature, Prologue, introducing a few professional into the same scenes of riot and police brutality. A colleague of mine swears you can spot Mr Spry’s lead actor wandering through in a big hat in Mr Wexler’s film; I certainly noted a genuine casualty, with a bloody eye, in both; it must have been difficult to have avoided camera collisions.
But then that is rather the point of the Wexler movie. It shows cameras everywhere. Its protagonists are men making quick footage for TV. It starts, before the credits, with a baleful glance at their activities: a crashed car, a girl’s body, them on the scene filming and recording. ‘Better call an ambulance,’ says the photographer as they climb back into their giant studio automobile. These two (Robert Forster) and Gus (the marvellous Peter Bonerz of Funnyman), play very well under what must have often been awkward circumstances. Perhaps Mr Forster shouts a bit, but it’s understandable when one knows he was shoved into a den of irate blacks, for instance, without much directorial preparation. This later sequence, incidentally, contains a speaking hostility, decently articulated, which all po’ white liberals would do well to pay heed to. Wexler essentially hangs a tale around the authentic events: and is clearly worried about the cool maintained by click-click-men. The John-character, something of a swinger, is interrogated by his girlfriend about what ever happened to those damned, doomed turtles in Mondo Cane: did anyone pick them up after and turn them back towards the saving sea? There is a party near the start where another hostile lady asks like-minded questions.
There is room to manueuvre critical artillery against such by now mandatory sequences as a flashingly filmed minute or two in a psychedelic discotheque. One will never visit these premises because one has had a visual and aural surfeit: middle-age had nothing to do with it, but hell must be like this. Contemporary hell, by which I mean the unavoidable, is surely more in keeping with the last, chanted lines of Medium Cool: ‘The whole world is watching.’ When Mr Wexler hews to his chosen and crafty line, cutting in an experience of a National Guard riot training camp in Minnesota, we see what he is after. A sweet but not cloying sub-plot, about a widow (Verna Bloom) and her pigeon-loving son, extends the image of America under stress. The lady, of course, is also useful as a strategem for recording the facts. As she scampers along, in search of her runaway kind, the camera trains on her, taking in on the trip long genuine rows of American military, poised to counter the peaceful people. Mr Wexler was badly teargassed shooting this film: one is not surprised. One admires his fall, courage and expertise.
© John Coleman/New Statesman
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