The Sticking Place

The Pitying Eye

Tom Milne
The Times
, 27 February 1970

Curiously enough, an almost identical shot turns up in two different films this week, of a demonstrator bleeding from an eye wound after a police charge at that infamous Democratic Convention in Chicago in the summer of 1968. In one film, the camera angle and the way the youth is being supported by onlookers suggests a martyred saint; in the other, partly because it is filmed in glorious Technicolor, he becomes simply an incident in a larger fictional drama. The camera, as we have long since discovered, is a born liar. But what about the cameraman?

This, in effect, is the question asked by Haskell Wexler in Medium Cool, his first film as director, which opens up with two sharp jabs at this age of domination by the mass media and their messages. First, a cameraman drives up to the scene of a highway accident, coolly takes all the pictures he needs while his soundman carefully records the victim’s moans, and finally suggesting telephoning for an ambulance. The scene then shifts to a cocktail party at which assorted photographers argue that they are simply recording machines, and wonder why they are so often held responsible for the atrocities they shoot. “Wherever I go, I’m beat up,” one of them wails indignantly.

Wexler then proceeds to orchestrate his theme with brilliant complexity by way of a series of paradoxes opening out from a cool, glittering look at an America which has grown a tough shell of indifference against violence. Suburban housewives learning the gentle art of self-defence at gun clinics, policemen undergoing special training with barbed wire and bayonets to deal with long-haired desperadoes, roller-skate derbys at which the main attraction is pretty girls being beaten up: this is the chilling background against which John (Robert Forster), the newsreel cameraman from the accident at the beginning, flaunts his proud flag of professional indifference.

Gradually, however, he becomes forced into some sort of awareness. He slides out of his old, uncomplicated affair with a jolly nurse and into a tender romance with a young widow (Verna Bloom), delightedly acting as surrogate father to her small son and becoming vulnerable to people for the first time. Meanwhile, following up a ‘human interest’ story in Black Power territory, he at least realizes that he may indeed be an exploiter when he discovers that his off-the-record interviews have been turned over the to F.B.I. for routine investigations. He protests, but is fired; and he gets another job easily enough, with an outfit covering the Chicago Convention, only to find his personal and professional lives coinciding in a tragedy which is simply another news item.

As disturbing as anything in the film is the curious time-slip whereby, as John and the widow drive off in search of her straying son while the Chicago riots rage on, we hear the announcement of their fatal accident on the radio a few seconds before it actually happens. It is as though the news media really had taken over, controlling the destiny of the man who lived by and for them. For the irony of the film is that John never really does become aware, only vulnerable, as Wexler demonstrates in a cruel little scene where he and the widow watch a TV newscast about the assassination of Martin Luther King. Absorbed, apparently deeply moved, he suddenly bursts out, “Jesus! I love to shoot film.”

Played with wonderful rapt naturalism by Robert Forster, Verna Bloom and Harold Blankenship as the boy, the schematism in this story is rarely apparent, and in any case in cunningly guarded against by further boxes within boxes in the structure. Wexler himself, of course, is a distinguished cameraman, now only of films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and In the Heat of the Night, but of newsreel documentaries, and he, too, obviously loves to shoot film. What exactly was his responsibility when he took his cast and crew to Chicago that summer, knowing that something was bound to happen? The terrifying violence that did ensue, superbly shot in colour as though staged for his camera, is one of the dramatic highlights of the film. But as an agonized voice on the soundtrack reminds us as the tear-gas begins to flow (“Watch out, Haskell, it’s real!”), this was not a Hollywood mock-up. So, to come back full circle to where we began, what about that boy with the blood pouring from his eye, who has now become an extra in a ‘human interest’ story?

© Tom Milne/The Times
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