The Sticking Place

Medium Cool on Multiple Levels

Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun-Times, 30 November 1969

A fourth viewing of Medium Cool convinces me more than ever that this is a great American document, one of the most important films of this political and social period. It’s also evident, this time around, that Medium Cool succeeds in different ways than most movies; that, indeed, it is weakest on its conventional levels.

Most movies succeed or fail because of the way they tell their stories and develop their characters. Medium Cool does introduce remarkably three-dimensional characters, but it tells their story in an awfully off-hand sort of way.

The film’s detractors have zeroed in on this, asking how the TV cameraman is mysteriously rehired after being fired, or why the Uptown mother went looking for her missing son in Grant Park, or how in the world that final automobile accident happened.

People who view movies only on this level, and ask only these kinds of questions, are cutting themselves off from the unique experience offered by Medium Cool. Loose ends in the plot would be important if the film depended on telling a story. It does not. It attempts to snatch certain moments out of a historical period (beginning roughly with the assassination of Robert Kennedy and extending through the 1968 Democratic Convention). It attempts to get the feel of these moments down on film, and then to create its effect by the way the scenes themselves are joined together.

Part of the trouble on the level of plot was probably caused by the way director Haskell Wexler made his film. He came to Chicago with a roughly outlined script, in which provision was made for the likelihood that SOMETHING would happen during the convention. He couldn’t know exactly what, and once all hell broke loose on Michigan Avenue, he had to find a credible way of plugging his fictional characters into the Yippie-police confrontation.

He did that by having the Uptown youth get lost and sending his mother to look for him at the scenes of the demonstrations. Those who say she should have looked for him somewhere else – on the beach, say – are locked into a hopelessly literal interpretation of Medium Cool. There are times during the movie when you simply have to blind yourself to unlikely events in order to let Wexler get on with making his point.

The whole business of the TV cameraman losing his job (and then inexplicably turning up at work again) has also probably got to be dismissed. Quite likely, events were happening so quickly during Convention Week that there was no time for Wexler to make everything consistent. Consistency is the sort of thing you can demand on a Hollywood sound stage, sealed off from the unpredictable outside world. You can’t always demand it when you’re lugging a 35-mm. camera over benches in Grant Park and sending your actors into uncontrolled riot situations.

But just by making these defenses, I’m engaging Medium Cool‘s detractors on their own ground – and I’d rather move over to mine, if you don’t mind. Medium Cool strikes me as an overground attempt to obtain effects by juxtaposition. In conventional movies, points are made by plots and speeches. If you want to say something about the Indians, for example, you give John Wayne a speech about the Indians and he reads it.

But the new experimental films, and several of the unconventional, recent feature films (Easy Rider, Alice’s Restaurant) don’t always make their points this simply. Instead, they draw the audience into a series of seemingly unrelated events and make their point by the way these events butt up against one another.

Bob Dylan explains this technique in Dont Look Back, when he suggests to the Time reporter that his magazine should juxtapose pictures: “Like Gov. Rockefeller next to a drunk vomiting.” I can’t quite figure out what point these two particular images would make next to each other, but I do see a point of view emerging from Wexler’s deeply evocative images in Medium Cool.

Consider these scenes in Medium Cool that have little or nothing to do, overtly, with the plot:

- The National Guard troops in training at Camp Ripley; half the guardsmen are dressed up ridiculously as “hippies,” and their job is to “demonstrate” against the regulars. The whole training exercise is carried out unseriously, half as a joke.

- The 360-degree shot, supposedly in the Los Angeles hotel kitchen where Kennedy was murdered. Bobby’s voice is heard through the door. In the kitchen, work continues.

- The dramatic confrontation between the TV crew and the black militants.

- The Uptown boy’s strange, quiet fascination with his pigeons.

- The cocktail party near the film’s opening, where media people talk about their involvement with events. Their concern seems largely professional, like that of the film’s central character (later, watching a film of the Kennedy funeral, his only response is: “Jesus, I like to shoot film”).

Several other scenes could be included. But the thread running through most of these is that they’re events happening in this society at the same time as the fictional events in the plot. They establish a climate for the story. The fictional acts of the fictional cameraman do not take place simply because a screenwriter invented them. Wexler makes it clear they take place because they’re the sorts of acts that are in the air.

It’s risky, this business of locking your movie into an actual time. Almost all fiction movies could take place anytime, and nearly anywhere. A series of faceless heroes and heroines fall in love, have their crisis, solve it, move on – and only the costumes let us know whether they live today or a century ago.

But Wexler has dared to make a movie about the spring and summer of 1968. He dared to lock it into that time, and to try to surround his imaginary characters, with real events. He was not able to do it as smoothly as, say, John Schlesinger was able to tell the story of Joe Buck and Ratso in Midnight Cowboy. But that’s because Wexler got at his characters from the outside in. He saw them as members of a society; Joe Buck and Ratso are characters projected against a society.

That’s why Medium Cool is infinitely more about Chicago than Midnight Cowboy is about New York: because Wexler sees human beings who are manipulated and influenced by events, and Schlesinger sees character manipulated by his personal imagination. Both approaches are valid in art. What’s surprising is that Wexler’s is so much more rare.

Perhaps all directors secretly enjoy playing God, controlling events, dipping down into the screenplay to kill this guy and let that girl fall in love. They don’t like their movies to give the impression they’re not running things.

Wexler’s directorial posture in Medium Cool is, however, frankly that of an observer. He is as surprised by the events in it as we are, and he’s at pains to make them seem as random. The opening 30 minutes of Medium Cool, for example, offer very little for the audience to pull together into a recognizable, conventional plot. Instead, Wexler uses his opening scenes to establish a climate within which the movie will take place.

This sort of direction requires more work from the audience, and can offer greater rewards. In the conventional story framework of most movies, the audience can be completely passive, allowing events to unfold as if they made sense. The audience for Medium Cool has to make its own connections. It has to decide for itself what these strange, juxtaposed, maybe unconnected events mean.

And so does Wexler. And here we get to that crash at the end of the film, the one that arbitrarily ends the lives of the two central characters. The first time I saw the movie, I flatly rejected that scene. I was unprepared to accept it on any level. Later, I began rationalizing it. It was, I decided, a mirror of the film’s opening shots. It made its point by placing random events within an artificially symmetrical structure. When we saw how artificial the structure was, we might be jolted out of our habit or seeing everyday events as lineal and sensible.

That seemed to make sense. But maybe I was trying too hard. Perhaps Wexler killed his characters that way as a conscious act of self-denial. Maybe he didn’t like that accident any more than we did. But because it was truly accidental – random, unprepared, without sense – it forced the fictional characters into the same random universe as the real events in the film.

It broke the mold of fiction. It disappointed our expectation of a happy ending – an ending of romance and reunion.

And why indeed, should this film allow a happy ending for its fictional characters? Or even a rational one? The ending, I’m now convinced, is organically part of the film. To understand it is to understand Wexler’s structure and purpose. To understand the way Medium Cool is put together is to understand something about the way real events get transferred onto film. That’s Medium Cool‘s message on the level of story. Now, I think, it can also be seen as Wexler’s message on the level of technique.

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