The Sticking Place

Medium Cool

Rex Reed, October 1969

Like last week’s New York Times, the age of specialization has come and gone. Everyone is doing his own thing. Nobody is expected to live up to any particular image any more. Actresses, between pictures, are writing newspaper articles on everything from Senator Eugene McCarthy to the Los Angeles roller derby. Critics, between reviews, are writing screenplays and producing pornographic off-Broadway musicals. Housewives, between mulligan stews, are ending up on the best-seller lists, and editors of literary periodicals, between red pencils, are playing the triangle with the New York Philharmonic. Well, why not? I think it’s all very healthy and invigorating to see so many diverse and complicated people trying their hands at so many different things. And I am even happier now that I’ve seen a magnificent new movie called Medium Cool, directed by a cinematographer who got tired of shooting other people’s pictures. It’s a staggering and illuminating film that has hit me like a jolt of electro-shock therapy in a season of psychological placebos.

Haskell Wexler already knew how to make movie look. He has photographed lots of them. He even won an Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It wasn’t enough. So he took his cameras to Chicago during the turbulent 1968 Democratic National Convention and wrote, directed, and produced his own film. He photographed Chicago inside its jails and its slums and its bedrooms. Then he took his cameras and shot the people there – and if you still think this country’s not in trouble, I dare you to sit through the scene in Medium Cool actually filmed on a firing range for terrified female gun owners, or the one in which a white man gets trapped inside the apartment of a group of black militants, without squirming. Wexler got his fingers down hard on the pulse of this age and the results are recorded in Medium Cool for posterity.

Then he moved out into the streets and shot the blue shirts moving in on college students in Grant Park like a force of helmeted Nazi storm troopers. He shot the chants of kids with blood streaming out of their ears and eyes, yelling “Sieg heil!” at the cops while Mayor Daley moved into the convention hall to the tune of “Happy Days Are Here Again.” He shot army tanks moving in on Red Cross nurses while women and children screamed “NBC, come back, stay with us!” and “The whole world is watching!” And out of it all came a great deal more than a document of hate. Medium Cool is no documentary, although in much of the investigative footage used in Washington, Wexler and his cast appear quite prominently. It is no March of Time, though Wexler did disguise his cameras with phony TV station call letters in order to get a sense of newsreel immediacy. It is the stuff of now, of what this country is up to and down on, exposed within the framework of motion picture technique – plot, dialogue, action, character development, atmosphere, mood, and tempo – like some extraordinary historical accident. And because it all works, it is one of the most powerful and moving human documents ever captured on film. In spite of its ridiculous ‘X’ rating (yes, Granny, there’s frontal nudity), I think the young people of the world should be required to see Medium Cool in schools, churches, and courtrooms. This is no phony, pretentious piece of throat-slashing slobber like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, which goes around announcing good anti-violent intentions while exploiting and glorifying violence to the happy jingle of box-office coins. The blood that splashes on Wexler’s camera lens is not glycerine. At one point, you can actually hear a voice screaming, “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!” It’s that miraculous circumstance seldom seen in American movies – the truth on film.

Against the backdrop of a human drama being lived on the Chicago streets, there is a simple, contemporary story about the relationship between a television news cameraman and a young hillbilly woman from Appalachia, the widow of a coal miner killed in Vietnam, who is trying to eke out a living as a substitute teacher in Chicago’s school system. I was quite moved by the way Wexler contrasted the girl’s background (the pastoral simplicity of the Bible-thumping, religious-chanting mountain folk of West Virginia) with the hot, festering inferno of Chicago’s urban violence to give a portrait of a human being lost within the shifting social rhythms of her own time. And the way he has written the role of the photographer raised several questions in my mind as to how much blame the press should share for glorifying the chaos and violence on today’s front pages. “We cover news, we do not manufacture violence!” pleads the press in the film, yet when the photographer unravels a simple human-interest story of a Negro cabdriver who found ten thousand dollars in his cab, he is not allowed to tell it because it isn’t controversial enough. “I got a convention coming up, plus I got a war and a nervous city!” yells his boss. And everywhere he turns, the cry goes up: “Let’s get the guys with the cameras!” With forty-pound, twelve hundred dollar-lens cameras on their backs, the cameramen covering the news are like vulnerable children with power they don’t know how to use – hated by the cops and hated by the people, with no place to hide from either.

Robert Forster, Verna Bloom and especially a child named Harold Blankenship are such brilliant, natural actors you’d swear they were totally unaware of the camera – a not altogether impossible notion, since Mr. Wexler’s camera is the secret weapon by which he exposes us all. He has come closer than any other American filmmaker in my memory to recording a supreme exposé of the psychotic, antisocial horror overtaking this nation and the people in it. In the final scene of Medium Cool, an automobile crashes into a tree and bursts into flame. Another car filled with apathetic joy-riders passes it by, its occupants recording the tragedy with handheld cameras. Perched on a camera lift nearby, Haskell Wexler himself is filming the tourists filming the flaming car with its dying corpses. Suddenly, as the audience shudders and cringes at the sight, Mr. Wexler turns his newsreel camera to center-screen and photographs the audience watching the movie in their comfortable armchairs. The entire film experience closes into the glossy blackness of the camera lens and there is no escape. We become part of the news, because whether it is a pleasant thought or not, we are the news. The effect of that realization is temporarily shattering; the consequences of what it means will last forever. At the end, Medium Cool is just beginning.

From Big Screen Little Screen (1971)