The New Republic, 20 September 1969
Haskell Wexler, one of our best cinematographers (In the Heat of the Night and numerous others), has now directed his first feature. He has also written the script and, of course, has done the photography. It’s about a TV-news cameraman who comes to understand the radiation effects of the purring bomb in his hands. The title, Medium Cool, is evidently a play on McLuhan’s phrase “the cool medium.” The subject could not be more timely; the visual elements in the film are, naturally, fine; some sequences are exceptionally good; but, ironically, the film itself is trapped in its hero’s own pitfall.
The cameraman, played by Robert Forster, works for a station in Chicago, which is apt because the 1968 Democratic Convention can decorate the climax and also because Forster’s role is the ’68 equivalent of a Front Page character, Hildy Johnson with an Arriflex, tough but stoically idealistic. His idealism is in his ruthless professionalism. Then he meets the young widow of a West Virginia miner (killed in Vietnam), who has come to Chicago with her young son. Through his experiences with them, Forster is meant to learn that idealism extends past the ego. And he is also meant to learn that the medium which provides the pleasure in his life is also a medium in which his and other lives are held; and by which, to some degree, they are all fashioned.
The physical feeling the picture gives us is of being pressed close against it. Some of the dialogue has the whip of flexible steel; some of the sequences are small diamonds. There is a scene in which Forster and his girl of the moment, Marianna Hill, whirl around his room naked while she curses him, laughing, a scene that has more sex before they get into bed than most copulation scenes have. There is a minute in the kitchen of that Los Angeles hotel as the cooks work, listening to Bobby Kennedy over a p.a. from the ballroom next door, which ends just as his entourage bursts in through the swinging doors – a touch that suggests early Orson Welles. As Forster walks across the floor of the still-empty Chicago convention hall, they test the recording of The Star Spangled Banner, rich and thrilling; they stop and start it again – push-button patriotism. Wexler uses the editing device that Richard Lester used so brilliantly in Petulia – cutting suddenly to parallel yet disparate action or to unexplained flashbacks, eventually weaving the pieces together. Wexler doesn’t have Lester’s power to convey secret universes that finally meld, still some moments are lovely. And the picture ends with a sardonic reminder – for those who remember it – of the way the Paramount newsreel used to end.
And there are some good performances. Forster, who looks like a young, more fine-grained Jack Palance, has force-in-restraint. Harold Blankenship, who reportedly is an actual Appalachian boy, plays the miner’s son with a wealth of proud boyish secrets. Verna Bloom, his mother, has reticent beauty, both in looks and effect.
But, right from the start, Medium Cool is infected with the falseness that seems endemic among the new crop of American film truth-tellers. The very first sequence: Forster and his soundman shoot a car accident and record the groans of the injured woman on a lonely road. When they get back to their company car, Forster recollects himself and says (the first line of the film): “Better call an ambulance.” Phony. It’s hard enough to believe that the most hardened newsman would not have called an ambulance before doing his job; but it’s impossible to believe that he would have forgotten to call one after he finished – particularly the man this one is later shown to be. The scene is an artificially imposed “meaningful” device, and is followed by others. When the boy, who keeps pigeons on his roof, reads from a book about the fidelity of male and female pigeons, the camera closes heavily on the face of his lonely mother. When Forster and his girl go to a roller derby, the excited crowd yells, “Go! Go! Go!” and the scene dissolves cheaply to Forster and the girl in bed while the sound- track keeps yelling “Go!” There is the usual hallmark of the worried realist – facile ugliness: a dwarf attendant at the derby, a badly crippled orderly at a hospital. Wexler wants to include a scene with black militants, so he has Forster invade a black militant meeting, on the trail of an irrelevant human-interest story, with a professional crassness that would have got him fired long before we meet him. Forster just happens to have been an amateur boxing champion, which helps him to win over his girl’s young son. (In Winning Paul Newman had his auto-racing to impress Joanne Woodward’s son. How does a non-athlete manage in situations like this?) And the last sequence of the picture is a mirror image of the first, so pat and mechanical that it degrades whatever authenticity the picture has been able to establish. Further, that ending is predicted with a bulletin on Forster’s car radio, just as the ending of Easy Rider was predicted with a film flash. In the latter case, it could possibly be called the character’s prescience, but what is Wexler’s radio flash? A voice from the spirit world? No, nothing that credible. It is just Wexler refusing to miss a chance for an arty effect.
Forster’s internal drama, which I out lined above, is in fact all in my out- line, not in the film. It’s assumed that he has gone through what Swedenborg would have called a “vastation,” and it’s not even assumed by Wexler – we have to assume it for him, if the picture is going to hold together at all and make any kind of progress, if the ending is to have even sophomoric bitterness. After Forster is fired by the station (he’s told that he broke company rules but the implication is that Big Brother is watching him), all that happens is that he sees a good deal of the widow and the boy, is hired to film the convention, helps the widow to look for her boy who has disappeared, and runs into the ending. There is some small indication of enlarged humanity in him through his experience with the Appalachians, but it is certainly not crystallized in relation to the theme: the wanton use of the powers of film, especially on television. That theme, as such, is simply dropped.
Wexler’s inclusion of the convention riots is undigested. What have the riots to do with his theme – as shown here? What have they to do with the widow story? The whole episode looks fortuitous, as if the film was being made in Chicago when the riots occurred and as if Wexler just decided to capitalize on them. Capitalization of that sort is a perfectly valid film-making process when the occurrence is really absorbed, but since that doesn’t happen here, the riot footage smacks of opportunism. There may well have been a connection between the television age and those youthful protests – as McLuhan has maintained – but it is utterly unestablished here.
At bottom the fault of the picture is that Wexler himself is caught in the same traps as his hero: in the sensual pleasure of shooting film, the ease of creating effects, indulgence in them for their own sake, a kind of reliance on film itself to bail him out of trouble. Of course it’s obvious that he’s a man of social concerns; the subject demonstrates that. But there were a lot of Thirties playwrights who thought that their concern with social truth excused their artistic dishonesty or staleness. Now there is considerable evidence that new American film-makers of serious intent and social concern are similarly schizoid: they act as if their intentions and concerns licensed them for the very frauds and cliches and unfulflllments that they would deride in Hollywood hacks.
In Wexler’s case it is really painful because he has exceptional talents. He is well worth watching to see whether his future work is free of patent contrivance and glib sensation (in honest causes, of course) or, what is worse, phony candor: whether he will take the trouble to become a thorough artist or will ride along as a flashy, superior Lumet-Frankenheimer clevernik.