Before the Revolution
Hudson Review, Autumn 1969
Haskell Wexler’s first feature film Medium Cool has a good deal of the passion that if…. lacks, with perhaps some corresponding loss of intelligence. Wexler, probably the finest cameraman in America (he photographed, among others America, America, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair – films all inferior to his contributions to them), has written and directed the first major studio film that honestly confronts the convulsions that have been shaking American society in the last few years. Finally here is a movie that deals, intelligently not sensationally, with the material of today’s headlines and the tenor of youthful radical protest.
Set in Chicago during the summer of 1968, Medium Cool tries to do too much – not exactly an uncommon failure of first films – but comes close to succeeding. Wexler began his career in documentaries, and there is some striking documentary footage in Medium Cool, and an interesting, sometimes brilliant attempt to blend this footage with fictional material. In some scenes that have clearly been contrived – for instance, a confrontation between the hero, a TV photographer, and a group of black militants – Wexler uses non-professionals and improvisation to add verisimilitude. But at the film’s most interesting moments, Wexler does almost the opposite – he brings dramatic imagination to cinéma-vérité scenes. For example: The hero and his girlfriend attend a sadistic Roller Derby, where women and dwarfs draw blood for the pleasure of the spectators; this scene has clearly not been staged, but Wexler gives it a deliberate, eerie sense of unreality by his strange, sweeping camera movements and an incongruous, obscene nonsense ballad that he chooses for the soundtrack in place of natural sound effects. The scene is surrealistic, not realistic, and it is a successful example of Wexler’s attempt to transform footage that we can recognize as raw and true into something more expressive and evocative. Wexler brings to his documentation of contemporary American violence and injustice a sense of very personal, very passionate outrage, flashes of visionary poetry.
Just the way that Wexler chooses to structure his film intensifies our awareness of an ordering intelligence behind the accumulation of documentary material. Near the beginning there is a scene recording a “rehearsal” of the Illinois National Guard for a street demonstration. Members of the Guard have dressed up as hippie agitators, and their colleagues go through the motions of beating them as they would real demonstrators. The sight of these crew-cut, beer-bellied men in hippie costume and carrying anti-war signs is bizarre, dislocating, funny and rather frightening. Again the image seems somehow larger, stranger, and therefore more illuminating than reality; it is an effectively outrageous image of the deviousness and absurdity and brutality of the American police. The film ends with some remarkable footage from the police riots at the Democratic convention, and because this links up with the practice session Wexler recorded at the beginning, his attempt to “use” Chicago for a comment about the death of freedom in America seems to have direction and continuity. In this documentary footage at the end, much of which we recognize from television, Wexler achieves an amazing effect– he has his lead actress walking through the unstaged melee. We have already come to care about her character in the fictional scenes of the film; she is from a poor rural area of West Virginia, relocated in Chicago after the death of her husband in Vietnam, and the photographer’s growing involvement with her has begun to shake him out of his indifference to social problems. At this point she is looking for her son, who has been lost, and she gets caught up in the young people’s demonstrations and in the police brutality. There are some astonishing long tracking shots of the frightened woman walking along with the demonstrators past police battalions and giant tanks and jeeps that make the streets of America look like settings from Kafka. Wexler plays rewarding tricks with perspective. Because we look at Chicago with this woman, a total stranger, a foreigner, we are forced to share her bewilderment and incredulity. At the same time, in spite of her confusion, the woman is almost instinctively drawn to the young demonstrators – whose cause she can hardly understand – as fellow outsiders, people who are alienated from mainstream America just as she has always been alienated on a more basic, less intellectual level. She feels an instant kinship with them that we too are allowed to feel. This dramatic identification with Wexler’s character humanizes newsreel footage, involves us much more deeply in the Chicago demonstrations than our TV sets ever could.
Medium Cool is not always so forceful. The TV photographer is a convenient device for including a great variety of documentary footage, but a little too convenient; the film sometimes seems to want to take us on a Cooks Tour around contemporary America – the King and Kennedy assassinations, Resurrection City, the black revolution, the anti-war movement, Appalachia, Chicago are all dealt with, and the treatment is sometimes superficial. A more serious flaw is that the TV photographer remains a device, never a three-dimensional character. We know how we are supposed to interpret him – a man of our times who lives vicariously through the media, who is deadened to violence and apathetic to social problems, but who begins to thaw when he develops a personal relationship with one of the people he has always photographed from a distance. But unfortunately there is no difference between that one-sentence summary and the man in the film. He has no quirks, no eccentricities, no complexities; he never seems alive. (Robert Forster, who plays him, does not look quite alive either.) And without a flesh-and-blood protagonist, the film has no human center, no focus. The very last scene, the death of the photographer and the West Virginia woman in an automobile accident as they leave the demonstration, is gratuitous and basically false. Wexler wants to use the accident as a metaphor for the breakdown of order in America – the final proof of the apocalypse – but it’s really just an auto accident; it has no inevitability and no relationship to the more terrifying images of Chicago streets running blood. This ending shows that Wexler, perhaps not quite recovered from the influence of Mike Nichols and Norman Jewison, is still susceptible to the flashy effect. There are others in Medium Cool – a cut from a bleached woman lounging by a luxurious swimming pool to a row of Chicago tenements, a psychedelic discotheque scene that, although technically the most dazzling one yet filmed, is too much like all the others to be meaningful, the heavy ironic use of “Happy Days Are Here Again” on the soundtrack, over the final bloodletting in Chicago.
But in spite of all these weaknesses – and there are more – Medium Cool is the most exciting American film debut in a very long time. The film bursts with talent – Wexler’s great visual flair, his feeling for improvisation and locale, the incredibly sensitive performance he has won from the child, the delicacy of the flashbacks of the heroine’s West Virginia life (which are not sentimentalized – the West Virginia poor clearly have some of the same qualities of stupidity as the Chicago police, an ironic observation that the film might have explored further), above all the experiments with welding fiction to documentary; now the talent just needs to be disciplined. And in the meantime, Medium Cool can be appreciated for the grace with which it transforms journalism into art.
© Stephen Farber/Hudson Review
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