The Sticking Place

Cool Film with a Hot Message

Michael Ross
Los Angeles Herald Examiner, 24 August 1969

Americans have been desensitized by violence. We see it everywhere – on the freeways, in Vietnam, in the streets of Chicago.

We see it on television, the cool medium (McLuhan‘s terminology) that has placed an uncomfortable distance between the reality of violence and the substitute images people cover the anguish of the world with.

Excessively violent films on the order of Bonnie and Clyde, The Wild Bunch and now Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool shake us out of our complacency and easy, surface answers to increasingly difficult questions.

Medium Cool tackles a few of these questions: alienation (as the norm, rather than the exception), the drift into apathy, the war, our children, the police, topics TV has presented with stony blankness for years. Wexler’s impressive – though by no means even – study puts some perspective on these subjects.

The film follows a TV cameraman who reports an accident on the expressway to his station manager before he calls an ambulance. It’s the same to him – whether he films the unfettered idealism of Kennedy campaign workers, the dreary cynicism of National Guardsmen playing Yippies, or a death by violence.

Medium Cool is neither a documentary about the Democratic Convention, nor a fictional simulation of reality. The film shows the world we generally see on the tube is not the real world. Television brings experience to us; we no longer experience the world first-hand. People have become voyeurs, who have lost lost the perception of knowing the difference between reality and appearance.

Medium Cool gives back that perception. And so when an assistant yells, as tear gas flies limpidly through the Chicago air, “Watch out, Haskell; it’s real!” the warning becomes doubly horrific. And so, to, the Yippies’ taunting chat, “The whole world is watching.” Yes, the whole world is watching; pity, no one sees.

The movie is beautifully filmed. No surprise. Wexler is one of Hollywood’s most proficient cinematographers.

The performers range from little Harold Blankenship (he’s a 13-year old functional illiterate), who turns in an extraordinary natural role as a West Virginian boy the reporter befriends; Peter Bonerz (from Second City), subtly perceptive as the stony soundman; Verna Bloom, acute and poignant as a young, lonely mother; and Robert Forster, generally good, meaning he is appropriately gloom and seldom very passionate, as the photographer who learns to care.

The faults are major, but not quite fatal. There’s a clumsy, tasteless recreation of the Kennedy assassination. The ending is much too contrived and ironic. Godard gets away with such things; Wexler doesn’t. Wexler obviously needs a strong script; this one (his own) isn’t.

But none of these shortcomings seem to quite vitiate the startling power of much of the film.

Medium Cool shows that the realities of the tube, like good and bad witches, exist only in the heads of people who believe in them.

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