Real Events of ’68 Seen in ‘Medium Cool’
The New York Times, 19 September 1969
John Cassellis (Robert Forster), the hero of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, is a television news cameraman, an instrument that observes, selects, isolates and photographs the reflection of a visible world. With all of the emotional commitment of a highly skilled technician, he moves through the United States in the spring and summer of 1968 mummifying the times as defined by events — such things as automobile accidents, the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, Resurrection City, riot training at a National Guard camp, the disorders that erupted during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
“Jesus,” he says as he watches a TV documentary on the life of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, “I love to shoot film.”
For a long time, John Cassellis is able to separate the shooting of film from the meaning of the events recorded. Medium Cool, which opened yesterday at Loew’s Tower East Theater, suspects there is something of this same separation in each of us, especially in the way we cope with TV. The televised image certifies the reality of events and, at the same time, removes them by equating their meaning to that of the commercials — the cheerful haiku — that frame them.
Medium Cool, the first fiction feature to be directed by Wexler, the Oscar-winning cinematographer (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), is an angry, technically brilliant movie that uses some of the real events of last year the way other movies use real places — as backgrounds that are extensions of the fictional characters.
In addition to directing and photographing Medium Cool, Wexler also wrote it, designing a screenplay to utilize the anticipated demonstrations at the Democratic Convention as the climax of the movie itself. The result is a film of tremendous visual impact, a kind of cinematic Guernica, a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence.
The movie, however, is much less complex than it looks. The story of the gradual emotional and political awakening of John Cassellis is somehow dwarfed by the emotional and political meaning of the events themselves, which we, in the audience, experience first hand, rather than through the movie protagonist. This is a fundamental problem in the kind of movie-making that attempts to homogenize fact and fiction, particularly when the fiction has the oversimplified shape of nineteen-thirties social protest drama and the fact is so obviously of a later, more complicated world.
Wexler has gotten some very good performances from a cast of both professionals and amateurs. Forster, who played the terribly American sounding Coptic Christian Narouz in Justine, looks and moves like a contemporary technician, a man for whom craft has the meaning of art. Verna Bloom, a stage and television actress, is fine as a sweet Appalachian widow with whom Forster, in a rather unlikely bit of plotting, falls in love. The most convincing performance in the film, however, is that of 13-year-old Harold Blankenship, who plays her small son. The child really is an Appalachian refugee and has the stunted look of generations of deprivation in his physique, in his eyes and in a profile that is as hard as a hickory nut.
Wexler has staged some excellent individual scenes — I particularly liked an ecstatic nude romp that should give lust a good name — and vignettes that catch the subsidiary meanings of poverty, such as slum children crawling all over a fancy new automobile as if it were an object from another planet.
The shock of Medium Cool comes not from the fiction, but from the facts provided Wexler by Mayor Daley, the Illinois National Guard and the Chicago police. In his use of these events and others, however, Wexler does seem to be somewhat presumptuous, attempting to surpass the devastating live show that television — Marshall McLuhan‘s “cool medium” — presented as the Chicago riots actually were taking place.
Clever editing and beautiful color can diminish the horror. This occurs, for example, when a nice, tinny, nineteen-thirtyish recording of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s theme, Happy Days Are Here Again, serves as a soundtrack bridge between pious events in the International Amphitheater and the riots outside. That’s like pouring catchup on a corpse. Medium Cool is an awkward and even pretentious movie, but, like the report of the President’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, it has an importance that has nothing to do with literature.