The Sticking Place

Medium Cool

Joe Morgenstern
Newsweek, 1 September 1969

As the Chicago cops fire tear gas at a crowd in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, someone on the sound track shouts: “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!” And so it is: the gas clouds, the rioting, the madness outside and inside the Democratic convention, the ghetto, the living city. Wexler has tried to arrange a marriage between documentary reality (Chicago in the tumultuous summer of 1968) and theatrical fiction – a love affair between a cool Chicago TV news cameraman (Robert Forster) and a sweet, plain refugee from Appalachia (Verna Bloom). It doesn’t take, in the final analysis. Yet Medium Cool, so intensely American in its images and its ambition, is an exciting piece of work that must be seen by anyone who cares about the development of modern movies.

It’s a photographer’s movie, which follows logically enough from the fact that Wexler is one of the nation’s foremost cinematographers (The Thomas Crown Affair, In the Heat of the Night and an Academy Award for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). He’s fully equal to the technical challenge of showing us a modern photographer at work. His camera creates dazzling set pieces – the array of equipment in a TV studio, a black-jacketed-motorcyclist straight out of Orpheus, a parking-lot chase, a seduction scene with bird and pigeon, a light show in a discothèque. No cameraman alive can resist the lure of the discothèque, yet Wexler does his scene better than almost anyone else has done it. He does better reflections in a car windshield than almost anyone else, better crowd shots, better portraiture, better landscapes, cityscapes, slumscapes and freewayscapes, and all of it in big gutsy-glossy 35-mm. color.

Medium Cool doesn’t stop at a demonstration of photography, though. Its photographer-hero prides himself on being a technician in the same way that modern soldiers do. If his medium is cool (a neat title adapted from the McLuhan canon) the hero is cold, at first, detached from his stories, from the lives into which he breaks and enters almost at will. Wexler obviously wanted to deal with profound issues here – alienated man, TV’s impact on life, personal privacy, the brutalization of such relatively pure spirits as the Appalachian woman, her young son and the kids demonstrating in Grant Park. And he decided to deal with them on his own terms, not only as cinematographer but co-producer, sole writer and debutant director. But how can a man keep one eye in the finder and one head under four hats? How can a photographer, habitually concerned with the surfaces and textures of things, give full attention to the dramatic structure of things too?

Claude Lelouch shot and also directed A Man and a Woman and Live for Life, his story of an alienated TV director, but he had help on both scripts. Antonioni had writers and a cinematographer on Blow-Up, his story of an alienated shutterbug. It’s amazing that Wexler came as close as he did to a fully realized film. As a director of actors, or simply of people, he’s wide open to life’s variety and surprises. Some of the film’s best moments – wonderful, beautiful moments – involve a surprising little boy named Harold Blankenship, who plays the appealing Miss Bloom’s poker-playing, pigeon-flying, foul-mouthed and sweet-spirited son.

As a journalist, Wexler discovers a devastating prelude to the Chicago riots and uses it well. The scene is a National Guard riot training camp. The action is a grim, gay, surreal war game in which one group of guardsmen play guardsmen while another group, crew-cut and beer-bellied, play hippies, or blacks in white-face. While the defensive team sings folks songs badly, the offensive team moves in with guns, bayonets and motorized barricades. And the voice of another guardsman, playing the mayor of some embattled, mythological city, bellows out over a bullhorn: “We’ve given you everything you needed! I let you use the swimming pool every Fourth of July!”

Medium Cool is a movie of such brilliant moments as these, isolated by uneven performances and the banalities and uncertainties of the script. One moment Forster is incomparably strong, the next moment he’s a floundering amateur. His character undergoes a thoroughly unconvincing metamorphosis. The film starts and ends in clumsy parallelism. Continuity unravels. One moment Forster has been fired, the next moment he’s back on the job. Taste and expertise fall by the wayside in a feeble evocation of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, as fake reality comes bursting through the doors of a hotel kitchen.

Great opportunities are dissipated or dropped altogether. We learn that Forster’s TV station has been feeding his newsreel footage of black militants to the FBI, just as the blacks had suspected, but nothing more comes of it. We watch an enthralling scene develop in which Forster and his sound man, very nicely played by Peter Bonerz, are trapped and taunted by black militants in a ghetto apartment. (Barbara Jones is impressive as an angry actress.) But the tone of the writing turns didactic, and the scene ends before we find out how the hero managed to extricate himself.

Most crucially, perhaps most inevitably, the artificialities of the script refuse to join dramatic forces with the realities of Chicago. Forster is actually inside the Democratic National Convention, but his character’s got nothing much to do there but aim his camera. Miss Bloom is actually, amazingly wandering around the fringes of the rioting in search of her lost son, but the lost son is a transparently melodramatic pretext for following a tour guide in a yellow dress on a brief travelogue of violence. The fragile fiction is overwhelmed by the realities of reportage, and in retrospect the warning cry of “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!” takes on an unintentional irony.

Reality is indeed a gas, to be used with extreme care. It’s strong, seductive, almost hallucinogenic. Journalism can lie through its teeth just as easily as melodrama, though the teeth often shine brighter. Yet reality, or quasi-reality, will certainly be used more and more in the future if entertainment movies are to compete with the vitality of our best documentaries. What’s remarkable about Medium Cool is that Wexler was able to use simple curiosity and complex journalistic techniques so well. Though his failures in the fiction department are many, he’s still made a brave, significant attempt to break out an American feature film into the real world.

© Joe Morgenstern/Newsweek
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