The Sticking Place

Medium Cool

Richard Whitehall
Los Angeles Free Press, 26 September 1969

Haskell Wexler has always been a pretty good cameraman, one of the best around, and indications are he’s going to be just as good a director. Medium Cool, after several documentaries, is his first feature and, riddled with faults though it is, this attempt to fit fictional narrative within an actuality framework so that people’s lives take color from the events through which they live, comes off the screen with a passionate urgency. To be concerned, though, with what is happening out there in the big world outside Hollywood has never been a guarantee of success. Usually the filmmakers trail a whole set of preconceptions behind them when they step outside the studio. Remember Che!? Remember The Lost Man? Trivializing their subjects into movie cliches.

Medium Cool shows much more awareness of contemporary thought, much more concern with the battle that’s being fought for America’s future, but it doesn’t merely rely on topicality. “God, how I love to shoot film,” one of the characters says at one point in the movie. And the whole film comes across as a statement made by people who passionately love to shoot film, who have a white-hot interest in the medium as well as the statement. After Peckinpah’s original version of The Wild Bunch (a total of eight minutes has now been sliced out of that movie since its opening, with a resultant weakening of structure and simplification of character) it is the most exciting movie I’ve seen out of Hollywood this year.

There are faults. Naturally. Since this is a debut, and Wexler is still working towards a form he often finds elusive. Mainly they have to do with outside influences, chiefly Godardian, which have a habit of showing through when they’re least needed. And there’s an inability to keep all the atmospheric and narrative threads of this American tapestry firmly under control.

Wexler’s Godardian influences come more strongly out of Contempt, one of Godard’s richest yet ultimately less successful works, than out of Masculine Feminine, one of his best. Like Godard, Medium Cool tries to define and sum up the atmospherics of a particular place and time which, in Wexler’s case, is Chicago through that hot summer of 1968. Masculine Feminine was a film about the children of Marx and Coca-Cola, as much as its theme can be summed up in a few words, is about the children of films and television (the very title itself is a joke on Marshall McLuhan‘s hot and cool media).

The main difference between Wexler and Godard is that the latter is deep into dialectic, whereas Wexler is full of liberal concerns for the schisma and fissures in contemporary society. Thus whatever the studio’s big brass in Hollywood and New York may have thought (and all sorts of rumors have been flying about as to the battling behind the scenes with even, I understand, the question at one point of whether the film should be shown at all). Medium Cool is by no means the revolutionary movie they thought it to be. Anti-establishment, si. Revolutionary, no. Non one is going to take to the street as a result of having seen it.

What the film does best, and I think brilliantly, is to suggest those pressures which seem to be building up inside so many Americans, that state of personal siege through which they seem to be living. Not only does it explain the young street fighters of last year’s Democratic Convention, it also explains, in a way, the people who voted for Wallace. The film’s fragmentation is a reflection of that reality which see American society crumbling, part of it wanting vast structural changes and part of it still clinging to a vanished innocence from the remnants of a less complicated past, with always that suggestion of violence boiling around down there just beneath the surface. This confusion is reflected within the characters themselves as well as in the news events surrounding them.

There’s also a certain amount of discontinuity within the framework of this film itself, which reflects this historical confusion, and with an ambiguity I’m not always sure is intentional. The girl from Appalachia, for instance, who walks without emotion through that footage of convention riots, perhaps already a yellow ghost whose death is being signalled to us in advance of its actual happening, appears in the second sequence of the film after a party with the young cameraman whom the narrative doesn’t have her meeting until much later in the movie. Her appearance at the party is too pointed to be the continuity or editing mistake I first thought it to be. A simple enough matter to have cut her out. Yet there is is wearing the dress in which she dies.

Medium Cool threads together many things, is full of dazzling setpieces. And there were times when I couldn’t help but remember the slogan that revolutionary young painter in La Chinoise daubed across an apartment wall, “We must confront vague ideas with clear images.” Which is precisely what Wexler does. The images are always clear and precise. It is the ideas that have a tendency to get away.

The suggestion is made that images have more importance than ideas, and that truth can be obliterated by the form in which that truth is presented. Which, as anyone who’s watched The George Putnam Show or The Tom Reddin Show (neither of which can honestly be described as news programs) will know to be true enough. For not only is the movie concerned with the realities of society, it is equally concerned with just how much of that reality is captured by the camera lens, and beyond that, by how much of even that fraction of reality the media communicates to the rest of the world. The very presence of a television cameraman, as the film points up time and again, affects the reality of whatever is happening. “The whole world is watching.”

What gives the film its distinction is the use of themes within themes. “We deal with what is happening,” the young cameraman around whom the film is built says near the opening of the film, at the party in which the newsmen discuss their role and defend themselves against their crrics. The defence is made that they are impartial observers, recording without participation. “It’s the difference between a person who types something and a typewriter. The typewriter doesn’t really care what’s being typed on it.”

It is, of course, much more complex than that, as the film goes on to show. The cameraman and the audience discover together that he only knows a small part of what is happening, his own tiny fragment of a larger whole. A group of black militants (who come out of the movie as the group with the tightest grip on reality) figure him as a tool of the FBI. And he discovers that they’re right. That all the film he’s shot is automatically turned over to the FBI for their examination. This should have been the catalyst to his character, and the film is immeasurably weakened by the way it flunks the issue.

All these themes are ideas and suggestions are run together into a discursive narrative which links together the cameraman (Robert Forster) and a West Virginia schoolteacher (Verna Bloom) now struggling to raise her fatherless child (Harold Blankenship) in the Uptown Appalachian ghetto of Chicago. Wexler wrote, produced, photographed and directed, and he’s a better cameraman than a writer. This whole relationship between the principal characters has the whiff of contrivance about it. At the opening we’ve watched the newsman cover a traffic accident, getting all the juice out of the story before he even thinks to summon help for the injured. Yet this exterior toughness strips down in sheerest marshmallow.

The interraction of the main characters, while sometimes deep and true, is generally kept to a superficial and pseudo-lyrical level. Mother and son are forever having flashbacks to the innocence they left behind in West Virginia. There is a vague suggestion that, even in Chicago, they are still to be regarded as creatures of innocence keeping themselves pure and uncontaminated above the violence and cynicism and corruption of the city. But this is never explored to say depth. And the ending, borrowed from Contempt and intended as irony, simply doesn’t work on any level at all.

Yet, when all doubts have been expressed, Medium Cool does burst out of the Hollywood straightjacket into something free, casual, and vibrantly alive.

© Richard Whitehall/Los Angeles Free Press
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