The Sticking Place

The Film of Social Reality

Hollis Alpert
Saturday Review
, 6 September 1969

When Haskell Wexler, the writer-director-photographer of Medium Cool, decided to make a film about a young TV cameraman in Chicago, he planned to shoot the climactic scenes against the background of the Democratic convention of 1968. He later admitted that he anticipated “something happening,” but he got considerably more than he bargained for. It took his cool, steady, skillful cutting hand to keep police “over-reaction” from swamping the less documentary aspects of his striking, even, at times, dazzling film – his first as a director.

While Medium Cool does tell the story of what happens to a man, a woman, and a child during the Chicago summer of 1968, Wexler seems to have had another and larger purpose in mind. Something of a McLuhanite, evidently, he saw a kind of electricity in the social environment. The media – television, radio, newspapers, magazines – were not only reporting what was happening, they were (if I correctly interpret Wexler) actually contributing to the heating-up process through the instantaneous transmission of pictures recorded on film or tape. Wexler’s belief that the media possessed this power explains his anticipation, six months before the event, of something happening. The story he fashioned deals with a cameraman’s involvement in the events of his time, and the degree to which he affects or is affected by them.

While not overtly stated, the theme has a way of running through the film. The very first scene shows the cameraman and his aide, a sound man, encountering a car accident. A woman lies dead or badly injured. Impervious to her groans, they record the scene, only after which do they report the accident. Wexler moves swiftly to the cameraman’s apartment; a party is in progress. John, the cameraman (Robert Forster), remarks to some guests: “We deal with the things that are happening…  with the violence.” The sound man (Peter Bonerz) explains how he does his job: “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.”

Thus, it becomes clearer what Wexler is up to. He wants to depict the ironic contrasts between the cameraman on the job and the cameraman during his personal life, which, and here Wexler falters, has its mundane moments. It turns out that John is quite a nice guy. He may look a little hard on the outside, but he can be reached by a small boy who trains pigeons, and by a mother who has come up from West Virginia after being deserted by her husband. Eventually, John is fired by the TV station he works for when he uses film to cover an unauthorized “human interest” story that takes him into the black ghetto and to a meeting with some militants.

Here, again, Wexler brings in his basic theme, as one black militant looks directly at the camera and remarks: “When this cat throws a brick through Charlie’s window… and shoots… then he lives. He lives on the tube. A hundred million people know he lives.” Another speaks out, too: “When you come in here it makes a person wonder – whether you’re going to do something of interest to other humans, or whether you consider the person human in whom you’re interested…” Wexler doesn’t belabor the point, but it’s there. The camera looks for the subject, and the subject looks for the camera.

Medium Cool not only is more than ordinarily thoughtful, it is one of the most visually exciting films ever made. Wexler, Chicago-born, gained his experience first in documentaries, then moved to the feature film, and became one of Hollywood’s most highly respected photographers. His work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? gained him an Academy Award. In these cinematically knowledgeable times much more recognition is being given to the film craftsman. The photographer’s status is beginning to approach that of the kingpin, the director. In fact, along with Wexler, other fine cameramen, such as Conrad Hall and William Fraker, have moved to direction.

It can he said that Medium Cool is a cameraman’s film, “showing it” more often than “saying it,” thus achieving a maximum effect when something must be said. It also took a cameraman’s boldness to know that he could film actuality in such a way that it would not look like mere documentary, but would fit with the staged sections. So well matched are the shots, so adroitly edited, that it is almost impossible to tell where the reality leaves off and the fiction takes over. Wexler makes his own comment on his method when he retains on his sound track an assistant’s yell during the police reaction to the protesters: “Watch out, Haskell – this is for real!”

What is demonstrated so remarkably in the film is the camera’s ability to use reality as adjunct, as highly convincing background to a film’s fictional or imaginative purpose. A hybrid form, undoubtedly, but surely no more hybrid than Truman Capote’s “non-fiction novel.” For years many people have cried out against Hollywood’s falsification of real life. Wexler can hardly be blamed for using real life — more than that, the social reality — to heighten the reality of his own film. But, by picking an apt subject and the right moment in history, he has also managed a comment, for the film’s final effect is tied up in its title, a play of sorts on McLuhan’s use of those formerly simple words, “hot” and “cool.” He has, in a sense, used his story and his camera as a thermometer, dipped into a muddied time. The title is his reading.

How encouraging a development it is remains to be seen and assessed, but more and more film-makers are leaving the studio behind them to find and tell their stories against actual backgrounds, often using what they discover to flesh out their films. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People was made while traveling across country with a caravan that housed his cast, crew, and equipment. There is an undeniable look of reality to his story of a discontented housewife who leaves her Long Island home and husband in a search for herself on the nation’s roads and turnpikes.

What she finds, however, is not altogether convincing: a befuddled former football hero, a traffic cop who attempts to seduce her, and finally a melodramatic conclusion that, in addition to horrifying her, convinces her and us that she should never have left home. Much the best elements of the film are the locations found by Coppola: a roadside zoo, motels, diners – the look of a real and often frightening America.

A Hollywood actor remarked recently: “Look, man, acting isn’t the thing anymore. It’s getting out there with an Arriflex and finding where it’s at and what it is.” It can be done beautifully, as in Easy Rider, a case where two actors did go out and film their story much as their two motorcyclist “heroes” would have found it. It might have been an even better film, however, had not the film-makers, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, thrown all their own sympathy to what their drug-oriented protagonists rather vacantly espouse in their search for “freedom.”

Hopper and Fonda made sure to find only what they had set out to look for; Wexler allowed public events to assist in shaping an already predetermined story. In the case of Alice’s Restaurant, Arthur Penn used reality to assist him in restaging what was already, at least partially, a real story. All three, in addition to their artistic objectives, share, what in a sense, is a documentary approach. Why not, then, avoid the fictional altogether and merely go in for straight documentary? Mainly because, as a documentary called American Revolution 2 demonstrates, the straight approach simply doesn’t allow for all the resources available to the interpretive director. A group of young Chicago film-makers went out with cameras and tape recorders and got some of the same action so vividly obtained by Haskell Wexler. They added to it by recording a Black Panther spokesman at a meeting of poor people, and by filming other black people as they voiced their discontents in a ghetto poolroom. The only interpretation was in the choice of what was filmed and recorded, with the result that it is flat, familiar, even dull, like old news rehashed.

Presumably it takes an artist to use the real in such a way that it takes on power and meaning. And the wonder of it is that our film companies are now backing this new and fresh exploration of our social and physical environment. What has made it all possible, of course, is a large, new, predominantly young, film-sophisticated audience, presumably ready and waiting to welcome almost anything that does not have the look of the Hollywood pap of the past.

© Hollis Alpert/Saturday Review
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