The Sticking Place

Getting Warm

Penelope Gilliatt
The New Yorker
, 13 September 1969

Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool is a dewy love story about a news cameraman who has lost his eye for complexity. The fiction is threaded into 1968 footage of a sophisticate’s America seen at its politically ugliest. The film fits in well with current taste in its mixture of illusion and disillusion. It also suits the times in its succinct, underlined technical skills. Wexler shot the film on top of writing and directing it, and he has always been a good cameraman, although the picture has rather a lot of reflections in car hoods, and cryptic portions of people’s legs while their heads are talking. Above everything, his movie is – preserve us – “relevant.” It shows us black militants, and riots, and the workings of the media, and coshed heads, and middle-class housewives at gun practice, and footage from Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. The film certainly has its heart in the right place, and it wears its social conscience on its sleeve. Its mood is terse and angry. Its character often seems adventurist.

Apart from the political points, which are more invoked than thought about, the movie’s theme is that the TV news camera does not record much reality and that we are all inclined to accept this ersatz form of truth instead of the one that costs more attention. Now, this is a very fashionable thought to voice, and the people most apt to voice it are the reporters and cameramen who feel most to blame. The part of the film that is about the ills of reporting seems all too readily expiatory. Medium Cool beats its breast over the numbing short cuts of news journalism, but does it in the very midst of taking them. It contains in its clever, misanthropic temperament the same moral fallacy as Antonioni’s Blow Up, which attacked the shallowness of a fashion photographer and of London swingers in a film that itself saw them only shallowly.

By using footage of the events that tore into everyone in America last year, Wexler pushes the buttons of powerful responses. To exaggerate, his film verges on the easy dramatics of a recent underground movie that simply ran a continuous loop of ten seconds from the John F. Kennedy motorcade newsreel for half an hour. When a movie is made like this, people will be affected not by the movie but by the memory it kicks up. The same thing has often been done in fictional films by the use of footage about the Bomb. Immense and unearned resources of feeling are being drawn upon. As a filmmaking device – to leave aside the emotional short sell – the method is an interesting equivalent of synecdoche in literature, which puts the part for the whole (“He died for the flag” instead of “He died for his country”). Hollywood films at their dumbest have done this immemorially – generally about sex – and so has popular journalism. There have been hundreds of movies where Murphy beds and accidents of booze or sleeping pills have stood in for the impulse to make love, and hundreds of magazine articles that have carried theories of how to get married in the displaced form of theories about seductive recipes and table settings. To summon up the semblance of a whole, Wexler’s film uses – manipulates, perhaps – a part of what we know.

The TV news cameraman is played by Robert Forster, who looks a little like Tony Curtis, though he is an infinitely less good actor than the Curtis of, say, Sweet Smell of Success. The cameraman is in Chicago pursuing stories, sometimes towing along an agreeably portrayed sound man (Peter Bonerz). After one of those opening shots that seem to have Vaseline in the lens, we see footage that turns out to be linked full circle with a violent event at the end of the picture. Hands pass rolls of TV film recording the violence to couriers for the networks. We go to a cocktail party where people chat about modern reporting. “We don’t deal with the static things. We deal with the things that are happening.” “I think the cameraman makes the choice.” The amiable sound man says, “Actually, I’m kind of the elongation of a tape recorder.” We see fast shots of a demonstration with tear gas and of the Illinois National Guard in training, of newsrooms ticking up numbers of wounded, and a sign saying ‘News,’ and a Robert Kennedy poster. The physical assembly of the film begins to define its tone, which is distinct, talented, and aggressive. We go to rapid scenes of the cameraman on the job, and to a symbolic illustration of his own career’s habit of casual plunder (first his hubcaps were stolen, he complains, and now his radio antenna), and to a well-done set piece of a roller derby – though this scene suddenly seems dolled up in grotesquerie by the way a dwarf is photographed. A love story begins between the cameraman and an Appalachian woman in the Chicago ghetto. She has a thirteen-year-old son, a marvellous-looking, guarded child with a long upper lip, who obediently says grace with her for a bowl of cereal and then reads aloud to himself from a textbook about the mating habits of pigeons. The male, he learns, seeks companionship other than its mate’s in the case of long absence. There is a sad shot of his mother’s face. His dad is “at Vietnam,” he says later. Medium Cool is nothing if not on the nose, and truly loaded with issues – Vietnam and Appalachia and the child (who later gets lost in the Convention riots), and McLuhan notions about the “cool” medium of television, and Mayor Daley’s henchmen, and the nature of reality, and the vanishing sense of personal responsibility. “You’re a rotten, egotistical, selfish, punchy camera man,” a girl friend says to the hero before asking him what the crew of Mondo Cane did after photographing some turtles who were shown heading fatally inland after laying their eggs, to make the point that atomic radiation had wrecked their instincts. “Look, somebody took those movies, right? Did they reach down and turn those turtles around?” And then she throws him a canned drink: “No calories!”

If the film makes a lot of points at a glib pace, this is not to say that there aren’t pungent things all the way through its hard-natured, bitty course. It has a funny snatch from the talk of a craven bully of a TV executive. (“Plus, I got a war. Plus, I got a nervous city. Plus, I got cameramen who are afraid to go into the ghetto without police protection.” Then a telephone call from a superior, end of bombast, and “Yes, sir. Good morning, sir.”) A semifarcical scene in an apartment full of black militants, which must have been hard to do, very nearly comes off as serious and right. The scheme of the film is carefully planned and held to, even though Wexler set himself the task of shooting off the cuff after priming actors with lines and sending them out incognito into the middle of the Chicago uproar. The film has a scaffolding of repeated moments when his characters react to unseen real-life scenes on TV that are burned into the country’s mind. “I’ve been to the mountaintop,” says the famous voice on TV. The cameraman watches, and says to his girl, “Jesus, I love to shoot film.” “So now it’s on to Chicago,” says another famous voice on TV while we see people in a hotel kitchen cleaning up after a dinner, in a dubious reenacted scene of the moments before Robert Kennedy’s murder. The thirteen-year-old, cheated of the Hillbillies by a special program on the three assassinations, yawns at the invisible announcer’s voice and switches off the TV with his remote-control gadget as if he were turning a revolver on the man. We see the housewives at pistol practice in Chicago, and hear an instructor pull the argument about the individual American’s right to a gun. We are given a free boxing lesson on the side, in a sequence with a punching bag: “Really, the point is to bang the other guy’s brains out and then you win.” We hear the Democratic Party’s ‘Happy Days Are Here Again,’ cut into shots of the blood in the nearby park, with the protesters’ chant of ‘The whole world is watching,’ sarcastically used in this movie concerned to demonstrate that the world isn’t really watching at all when it’s looking at TV. And during the riots we hear a cry of “Look out, Haskell! It’s real!” (Well, yes, we see that point. The line is Pirandellian beyond Pirandello, and not many people would have left their name in there.) And as well as all this, as though Chicago needed topping up, we have the love story, and the lost child, and a car crash at the end that leaves the cameraman critically injured and the mother killed, though there were no deaths during the greater terror of the real Convention. By weirdly implying that the historical Chicago wasn’t violent enough for the purposes of Wexler’s argument, the accident patronizes and glosses over what truly happened. It makes a very odd climax. After all these vehement issues, the topmost shock is an auto accident, so that Medium Cool ends as a slashing indictment of car driving.

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© Penelope Gilliatt/The New Yorker
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