The Sticking Place

Medium Cool

John Simon
The New Leader, September 1969

Medium Cool impresses me at a landmark in the new American cinema – more for its intentions than for its achievement, yet in a field so technically hypertrophied and artistically backward as the American film, Medium Cool deserves credit for striking out, at long last, in the right direction. Of course, in art as in life, good intentions are only good for paving stones on the most ominous of speedways, but Haskell Wexler’s film has much more than that to recommend it. For Medium Cool is not just one of your thirties politically orientated dramas, which meant your politics Left and your esthetics left behind. Wexler, who has done very find cinematography for several otherwise inconsiderable films, functioned here as scriptwriter, director, cinematographer, coproducer, and almost brought off this minor miracle – major, when you add that he also had to content with the powers at Paramount Pictures.

The plot concerns the awakening of a hardboiled, monomaniacal TV cameraman to the facts, rather than the photographs, of life. The scene is Chicago, just before and during the 1968 Democratic convention. Wexler, anticipating trouble, wrote a loose story outline that he then adapted to and fused with his documentary footage. The blending does not jell so smoothly as in I Am Curious, and the plot sometimes looks like a slightly smudgy glass case for the display of the cinéma vérité. But the basic idea is sound, and individual scenes work very well, one or two of them brilliantly.

The three major mistakes are the beginning, in which the callousness of the TV cameraman and sound recorder team on the site of a fatal auto accident is exaggerated; the end, where another such accident, this time involving the film’s principals, is dragged in by that hyphen linking cinéma to vérité, so as to round off the film and all too neatly match the national tragedy with a personal one; and, near the end, the heroine’s search for her missing son.

That last scene is crucial and necessary: it provides the unifying thread on which all the documentary shots are strung. Yet there is something uncomfortably arbitrary about a young mother in a canary yellow dress wandering in and out of gray-green melees and mayhem looking for a boy whose disappearance whispers “Device!” into your ear. Still, the photography is, under adverse conditions, so powerful, and the sights so grippingly grisly, that we cannot but show some indulgence even here. The fact that Wexler is an artist more than a polemist is demonstrated by his having shot hours and hours’ worth of riot footage, but included only a chaste minimum, as severely pared down as if Aristotle had been looking over his shoulder at the movieola.

Two further flaws trouble me in Medium Cool. One is the vestigial Pirandellianism that crops up here and there, a remnant of an earlier layer of the film’s development. Thus during a tense confrontation at the 1968 Democratic Convention between demonstrators and the National Guard, an off-screen voice yells, “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!” referring, presumably, to mace or some such nonlaughing gaseous matter. Again, we see Haskell Wexler and his camera shooting the fatal accident with which the film closes. And in an early sequence, there is a cocktail party attended by John, the TV cameraman hero, and his group. Seen wandering forlornly through the room, in the same yellow dress and dazed manner as at the end of the picture, is Eileen, the heroine. But she could be here only as John’s date, and at this point the two haven’t even met. Those, and a proleptic announcement of their crash, which John and Eileen hear over their car radio, are the only instances where the device is used, and they are too much or not enough: drink deep or not at all from the Pirandellian spring!

The film also uses another device: the hommage – a built-in tribute to a film, filmmaker or actor – much beloved by the nouvelle vague crowd. Because Robert Forster, who plays John, looks rather like a young Jack Palance, John is made into an ex-boxer – as Palance is in real life. A film is announced as about to be shown on the TV channel Eileen and John are watching; it is Godard’s Contempt (an abomination, by the way), in which Palance and Brigitte Bardot are killed in a concluding car accident. So we get Forster and Verna Bloom (Eileen) in a similar accident at the end of Medium Cool. In John’s apartment there is a large poster of Belmondo. I doubt that hommages ever contribute much to a film; often they are a distinct nuisance. Here they are mildly irritating because they suggest a certain in-group, cinéaste snobbery that clashes with the broad political and humanitarian values Wexler is after.

But the virtues of the film are many and considerable, and I shall insist on them even though the critic I most respect despises Medium Cool, and the reviewers I most reprehend most adore it. There is, first of all, the photography. At least two shots will linger in my mind like favorite lines of poetry. One occurs when John and his earlier girlfriend, Ruth (the exceedingly sexy Marianna Hill) walk through a hospital door. The camera shoots through a semi-opaque pane, on which the two approaching figures first look like spermatozoa or amoebas, then swiftly recapitulate both ontogeny and phylogeny until, close against the glass, they become recognisable human beings. And it is during the ssene that follows – a date that ends with lovemaking – that John and Ruth become identifiable as a specific man and woman.

Later, there is a shot of John racing along the deserted corridors of his TV station trying to find the boss who just fired him (for protesting against turning over footage of demonstrations to the FBI and CIA). It is a low-angle shot and shows John zooming by in weird, distorting perspective while, in the background, someone is mopping the already spic-and-span floors. You wonder which is drearier: a man fighting for a quasi-worthy, dishonest job; or another having to slave away at an honest but worthless one? I may, of course, be reading more into the shot than it meant to convey, but it surely is, and was meant to be, a haunting image of desolation, active and passive.

There are dazzling episodes in Medium Cool. A visit by John and his sound man, Gus, to a group of Negro militants congregated in a small ghetto apartment is perhaps the only instance in the American commercial film of racial tension caught root and branch. These blacks are intelligent and confused, decent yet terrifying, sequestered in their righteous indignation. The whites are nervously apologetic or defiantly logical, but neither attitude works. No one in this room is to blame, but an agony, sometimes masquerading as humor, is imposed on all, and merely to speak means to tread on someone’s festering feelings.

The nearest thing to this was a scene in Nothing But a Man, when a couple of rednecks threatened a young Negro couple; but this scene is more disturbing because it is of more widespread application, there is no villain, no suggestion of obvious melodrama like rape, no pathos – only pathology, the pathology of an entire society in an untenable yet not readily remediable situation. The utmost we see is glittering sarcasm, unreachable doggedness, a leering or lowering fanaticism – closeness preceding a storm. It is truly frightening.

The obverse of the coin is a no less effective scene in which John and Gus (excellently played by Peter Bonerz) interview a socialite by the pool of her club. This is staged cinéma vérité, but it has all the earmarks and smudgy fingerprints of reality. It displays the pathetic stratagems of self-delusion with which white ostriches evade Black Panthers. The matron (a splendid cameo by Beverly Younger) talks about the house the family has acquired in Canada for the long hot summer: “It’s good for the soul to get away from civilization sometimes, don’t you think so?” And the word “soul” sounds just as unconvincing here as in the opposite camp.

Or take the scene where the National Guard is getting riot training. Some of the men are dressed up as hippies – or their idea of hippies – and they are marching on the improvised city hall of an imaginary city, from which a mock mayor tries to con them: didn’t he let them use his swimming pool every Fourth of July? I dare say credit must go chiefly to the situation, a cinematic object trouvé if there ever was one, but Wexler found it and shot it superbly. The relish with which the Guard enacts its adversaries, the brio with which it hurls insults at itself, the abandon with which is wears its bizarre gear, the comic-strip absurdity the “mayor” arrogates to himself – all this raises absurdist comedy to new heights. What makes men who can fight equally well on either side of the fence pick their particular side? Can one change the man just be changing his uniform? Or does he merely have a secret yearning to be his own antithesis – or why else does he put so much conviction into being what he isn’t.

There are scenes that do not work. An interview with young pro-Kennedy students is too obviously staged; a scene in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, recreating its languid, vaporous life up to and including the moment when dreadful reality, with its first chaotic outriders, irrupts on it, is cleverly done and effectively cut off before it goes too far, yet one wonders if it is good taste. A roller derby scene, showing the full brutality and sordidness of a sport that the uniformed might presume to be more harmless than several others, is highly impressive while it remains documentary; but when its violence is made to serve as an aphrodisiac for Ruth and John, it begins to look didactic. A scene in a gun clinic, where typical little housewives work out bloodlustily at the pistol range (these are parlous times, folks!) is quite good, yet here, again, a faint aroma of writers and actors obtrudes, although straight reportage might have been even more on target.

But these are all documentary and quasi-documentary scenes; what about the plot sequences? They, too, vary greatly in quality. When Verna Bloom, that totally natural and winning actress, is dispensing Eileen’s earthy, sensible, yet not unpoignant femininity, the scenes move forward with assurance. As her pigeon-fancying son, Harold Blankenship, an authentic Appalachian-ghetto ragamuffin, contributes almost as much: he is neither attractive nor winsome, only a bright, scrappy, scheming, believable, and finally likable kid. Three scenes back in Kentucky, involving Harold’s father, who may have simply walked out on his family but about whom we variously hear that he is “at Vietnam” or a casualty of war, are brilliant in their succint, unsentimentalized yet touching evocation of a crude but not undignified way of life. They tell a prodigious amount with the sparsest means.

Even so, these scenes exhibit the fatal flaw of the movie: trying to tell us too much, and more than that, everything. This forces Wexler into miniscenes that are to do the work of giants. Often they cannot, thus the bedroom sequence between Ruth and John has to carry too great a burden of characterization. Even when such scenes succeed, they are often left painfully dangling, without another plot scene to latch on to until several cinéma vérité ones have gone by. And sometimes, to compensate for plot ellipses, overemphasis is hauled in, as when John watches a TV documentary on the just murdered Dr. King and exclaims, “Jesus, I love to shot film!” Clearly, a sort of pun is intended: the TV documentarist’s passion is meant to be bracketed with a more lethal frenzy. But how, then, is Medium Cool exempt from the same charge? This shorthand, though writ large, does not abide our question.

At other times, Wexler’s wit saves the day. A scene with John’s smugly self-pitying boss, who, buzzed by his own superior, can switch to instant groveling, is neat, concise satire, fiendishly well played by William Sickinger. Wexler can do equally well with bubbly Truffaut-like sight gags, as when during a car ride through Washington someone notes that “for every man there are four and half women,” and the camera cuts away to four brief consecutive shots of pretty female strollers, and a fifth, of a girl shot from the hips down.

The acting is generally outstanding even in bits parts; in the lead, Robert Forster, owing probably more to good typecasting than to acting skill, comes across credibly as a stolid but awakening consciousness. Perhaps the best performances come from real people, as when a gumchewing, very young Guardsman and an equally young demonstrator who tries to win him over seem, for a second, to hover on the verge of contact. Here, as in many other scenes, a Hollywood film for the first time faces up to the wretchednesses beneath our prosperity; dares to give us a political America, and one whose politics are not suffused with health. I wish I could like Medium Cool completely. But intermittently, at least, I can love it.

© John Simon/The New Leader
All rights reserved by the original copyright holders