The Sticking Place

Medium Cool

Hendrik Hertzberg
Rolling Stone, 29 November 1969

Medium Cool is Haskell Wexler’s first movie as a writer-director, and it’s a peculiar one, often wonderfully good, sometimes dreadful, always interesting. What seems to have happened is that Wexler got impatient. He tried to Say It All; he ends up saying a great deal more than nothing (right there, a feat that demands admiration and respect), but less than he might have said, had he spoken more slowly and more thoughtfully.

The movie is like one of those sketchbooks that Michelangelo used to doodle in before settling down to some serious ceiling-painting. The ideas are there, but they’re little more than outlines, arranged this way and that without much relation to each other, not yet pulled together into a coherent whole. Wexler’s problem is that he did his sketching on the ceiling. His movie is really three movies, all jumbled together.

The first one is about urbanization and migration from the country to the city: a young widow from the hills of West Virginia comes to Chicago and meets the ultimate city slicker, a television cameraman. The second one is about the Revolution, and such harbingers of impending social collapse as the King and Kennedy assassinations and the 1968 Chicago police riots. And the third is about art vs. life, objectivity vs. involvement, the nature of film – stuff like that.

The first of these three themes never amounts to much. The cameraman’s affair with the Appalachian lady presumably has something to do with his growing dissatisfaction with his own detached way of life, but it is never entirely clear why the two of them have gotten together. Nor are we offered much enlightenment as to what effect, if any, life in the city has had on this woman and her little boy.

Wexler does much better when he gets to his second theme, especially in the gripping scenes of the Battle of Chicago. For those of us who were not in Chicago, the memory of those events has been inseparable from the fact that we saw them on a small, fuzzy, black-and-white screen; Wexler gives them to us in enormous color. In a brilliant article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Thomas Whiteside points out that the overwhelming impression of violence in the television coverage of Chicago came not so much from actual violence as from the cutting back and forth between the convention and the chaos in the streets. Wexler too cuts back and forth. It works less well, partly because the immediacy of live television is inevitably absent, and partly because Wexler shows the convention only as a pompous circus, unrelated  to what was going on outside. But Wexler makes up for this weakness, if that’s what it is, in the vividness of his images, obtained, by the way, at considerable physical risk.

He leaves in the verbal “provocations” which TV blipped, but the effect is the opposite of what one might expect. The cops’ actions do not come across as a red-blooded defense of the mothers’ honors; the police beatings seem more, not less, unjustifiable. Compared to the horror of the machine guns in an American street, of fixed bayonets, of blood spurting from a long-haired head – compared to these things, the feeble chant of “Pigs eat shit” seems mild indeed.

In his variations on the third theme, Wexler is at his best, and it is these that make Medium Cool, whatever its faults, exciting. The notion that the camera is part of this movie – that it is there, whether the actors pretend to ignore it or not – is one that many filmmakers have explored in recent years. Godard, for one, has beaten the idea half to death in a series of increasingly boring, gabby films. In Medium Cool, though, Wexler uses it as a way of broadening his scope, nor narrowing it. A film about a cameraman shooting footage for TV, with a real cameraman always lurking behind, unacknowledged or acknowledged (in one sequence, a tear gas bomb goes off, and a voice yell, “Look out, Haskell, it’s real”) offers many possible vantage points. Wexler pops back and forth among them like a dope smoker zooming through different dimensions of reality.

Medium Cool makes some acute observations of “objectivity” and the reporter’s trade. In a marvelous scene about covering a “human interest” story in the ghetto, Robert Forster, who plays the cameraman, captures the guilty sullenness of a reporter caught between the demands of conscience and truth and those of the system which employs him. I’ve covered similar stories under similar restrictions, and the scene rang true. But it ends on a wildly false note when Forster suddenly starts calling a young black woman “honey.” Does Wexler actually believe that a white reporter, trapped in a apartment full of armed militants in the middle of the ghetto, would get fresh with a proud soul sister?

There are too many such lapses, and one of them alas, ends the movie. It’s not fair to tell how movies end, but this one ends so meaninglessly as to evoke no emotion beyond irritation.

And yet, there is much fine craftmanship here, and there is never a moment when something visually interesting isn’t happening on the screen. Other movies have used real places as backdrops for their fictional characters (Benjamin driving over the Bay Bridge in The Graduate). Wexler carries this a step further by using real events, such as the Chicago mess, for his “exteriors,” and even if it’s not quite successful, it’s fascinating anyway. There is a nice, unobtrusive score by Mike Bloomfield, and Frank Zappa’s songs (from We’re Only In It For The Money) prevent any phony sentimentality from creeping into scenes of hippies and freaks getting it on.

Medium Cool bristles with ideas, equally as good for talking over later as for seeing the first time. Even if you know nothing about politics or “cinema” – even if you think Godard is the guy who invented rockets – you can get something out of this one.

© Hendrik Hertzberg/Rolling Stone
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