The Sticking Place

Medium Cool

Jay Cocks
Time, 22 August 1969

In cinema, truth depends no juxtaposition. A single moment is true or false, strong or weak, according to what has preceded it and what is to follow. Medium Cool proves the point. It places a fictional plot within an authentic framework by focusing on the moral agonies of a television cameraman during last summer’s Chicago Convention. So strongly does it challenge the usual commercial film techniques and themes that Hollywood, ever wary both of stylistic innovation and contemporary politics, may never recover. Socially and cinematically, Medium Cool is dynamite.

Writer-director Haskell Wexler, an Oscar winner who has built a reputation for himself as one of Hollywood’s best cinematographers (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Loved One) scraped together $600,000 for this low-budget portrait of a country in conflict with itself. He chose Chicago, with its thousands of pent-up blacks and displaced Appalachian whites, as a symbolic seat of the conflict and began shooting last summer in a loose, almost documentary fashion – just as the convention confrontation was reaching a peak of frenzy. The uncomplicated plot turns on the developing love affair between a TV cameraman (Robert Forster) and an Appalachian widow (Verna Bloom), but gains meaning and resonance from the documentary footage surrounding it. The results of this apparently free-form exercise may puzzle some moviegoers and its political sympathies will outrage many more. But the basis of Medium Cool is more than solid enough to support as impassioned and impressive a film as any released so far this year.

Whenever a situation threatens to involve the TV cameraman, be it an auto accident, an angry group of black militants, or the lingering hopelessness of ghetto life, he retreats behind the shopworn shield of journalistic objectivity, insisting that his only concern is to get the story. The progress of his love affair with the widow parallels the gradual weakening of his own prejudices and defenses, until both are finally trapped in the ultimate cataclysm of the convention’s madness.

Throughout Medium Cool, Wexler makes his presence known behind the camera. In what must stand as one of the most gripping sequences in modern film making, the Illinois National Guard fire tear gas at a group of terrified youngsters while one of Wexler’s assistants is heard to scream off-camera: “Watch out, Haskell, it’s real!” Still, Wexler’s dramatic attempts to reconcile personal and public crises lead him occasionally to overload his film. The romance never quite has the passion and urgency that it should, and the novice director’s infatuation with Jean-Luc Godard deceives him into a gratuitous existential denouement (straight out of Contempt) in which the lovers hear about their involvement in a fatal car crash before it actually occurs. Wexler’s sympathies are admittedly with the brutalized young, and he sets out to show the police as almost total villains. In that, he had plenty of help from the cops themselves. But it might have made for less propaganda and better art if he had not presented the conflicts at totally one-side, if he had shown in more detail, for instance, how some of the demonstrators deliberately goaded and provoked the police.

Wexler is at his best portraying the cameraman as both observer and instigator. His Brechtian fascination with the mechanics of illusion culminates in a shot of himself behind his camera, turning and focusing on the audience. He is also better than any first-time director has any right to be with actors. Out of a cast of unknowns and little-knowns, he has extracted the kind of forcefully realistic performances that Kazan might envy. Robert Forster is all crude nervous energy and Verna Bloom, looking like the kind of bucolic beauty city boys dream about, is simultaneously more deeply talented and unaffectedly sexy than any new actress in recent memory. A young nonprofessional named Harold Blankenship makes an extraordinary debut as the widow’s 13-year old son, and Peter Bonerz, playing a timid soundman, turns in the sort of performance that can win a man a supporting Oscar.

Because of all its strengths and despite several pronounced weaknesses, Medium Cool marks the extraordinary debut of a 47-year old director and signals perhaps a new boldness in American cinema.

At one time of another, Haskell Wexler’s passion for independence has taken him around every point of the professional compass – and occasionally a couple of thousand feet off the ground. His mother still shudders when she recalls sitting on the lawn of her suburban Chicago home and watching her 17-year-old son come flying over in a single-engine Ercoupe, Bolex camera pressed tightly to his eye as he dangled by his legs out the cabin door.

Wexler, who likes to do things the hard way, has spent the better part of his 15-year career tilting with unions, censors and moneymen. “I shot my first feature film, Stakeout on Dope Street, under a fake name because I didn’t have a union card. When the union guys came around I would hide under the scenery.” He finally brazened his way into the cameraman’s local by accusing them of discrimination because of an imaginary black grandfather. “I stick my nose in everywhere,” he admits with a kind of offhand bravado. “Take In the Heat of the Night, which had a mediocre script, a fake sociological script. Well, I reworked that a little. I made Poitier’s character less of a one-dimensional Mr. Negro. Mike Nichols wanted me to shoot The Graduate, but I refused. I thought the whole thing was irrelevant.”

His first chance for complete creative control came last year, when Paramount asked him to work on a novel about a lonely kid of New York called The Concrete Wilderness. “They already had a considerable investment in it and nowhere to go,” he recalls. “I told them nothing interested me about the original, but they told me to go ahead and write whatever I wanted. So I sat down to do a little something about what’s happening in this country today. I wanted to sort of make everything turn on the Chicago convention, because I had the feeling it was going to be very bad.” It was bad enough, in fact, to get Wexler teargassed during shooting and his leading lady busted during the riot, but that was only the beginning of Medium Cool‘s problems.

Although it has been completed for five months, Medium Cool has been held from release by a variety of intra- and extramural crises. Trade rumor has it that Mayor Daley’s office is displeased with the film. It is known that one member of the board of Gulf and Western, the conglomerate that owns Paramount, threatened to resign if the film were ever released. Jack Valenti and his Motion Picture Association shock troops registered considerable displeasure over some of the obscenities in the dialogue. “I wrote them and said I’d be glad to fix it up,” Wexler reports. “Only I said every time someone said a ‘dirty’ word I would substitute the word kill. That way we’d have things like ‘Kill you!’ and ‘Put me down, you killer!’ I haven’t heard any complaints from them since.”

Wexler insists that he will continue to work against the usual commercial grain, using a small crew to give him greatest flexibility of movement and lower budgets. “On most Hollywood movies,” he complains, “there are guys on a set to shove chairs under you. But that’s how I’ll keep my independence – I’ll never sit down.” Keeping him on his feet (which are rather improbably shod in red and white Swiss-made track shoes) will be a new project about a couple of young college film makers who get an idea to make “the ultimate film about dying, really dying.” The title is A Really Great Movie – and it might be just that.

© Jay Cocks/Time
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