The Sticking Place

Medium Cool

Todd Gitlin

The roaring excess and sheer, surreal out-of-control quality of America’s late 1960s were beyond Hollywood’s ken. Most movies hadn’t a clue as to the contours of that time, its depths, or even its shallows. By the time Hollywood wheeled around to face the race crisis, the Vietnam War, rock and roll, the upheaval between the sexes, and the all-around decomposition of authority, the decade was long gone. At the time, only farce and allegory succeeded, so that the best film record of the insurgent sentiments of the decade is far from realistic: Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964), Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and Barry Shear’s trashy Wild in the Streets (1968).

But sometimes failure is as interesting-and as telling-as success. If every historical moment gets the movies it deserves, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) deserves a place in American movie history despite its flat pacing, soggy structure, indifferent acting, and haphazard direction. It is a serious effort, however clunky, to come to grips with a central feature of the political and cultural landscape: the mysterious significance of television. The movie makes a chain of interconnected points:

The world on television is not the world, but it plays one on TV.

History is convulsive but impenetrable.

Pretending cool distance, television news makes an already baffling world harder to understand.

The whole world may be watching, but it isn’t seeing.

The demonstrators and the authorities are both all too visible armies clashing by daylight.

Politicians, for their part, are oblivious to the deep forces at work in America.

Ordinary people feel adrift while the media is riveted by spectacle.

With its weird centrality not only to the sagas of Elvis Presley and the Beatles, but also to events such as the John F. Kennedy/Richard M. Nixon debate, the Kennedy assassination and funeral, and the Chicago protest demonstrations during the Democratic Convention, television had by 1968 far outdistanced intellectual, cultural, and even cinematic understanding. Into this vacuum strode Marshall McLuhan with his catchy notions about television being “cool” (with this odd usage he meant to say “involving”) and the “medium,” whatever exactly that was, being the “message.” McLuhan knew that with the coming of television, something important was happening, but like Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Jones,” he didn’t know what it was. Still, he had the valid intuition that somehow history was being made by this means of communication.

Set in Chicago before and during the 1968 Democratic Convention, Medium Cool used the riotous demonstrations as background for an unconvincing story of a tuned-out TV cameraman named John Cassellis who tries to stand clear of life-and-death reality, keeping it at bay with a lens. Cassellis (played stolidly by Robert Forster) discovers that his cool distance breaks down too late, for having found love in the ashes, he is, in the end, blinded into self-destruction. The essential point was right: News media wasn’t set up to see or to penetrate, but rather to cover-a much reduced proposition. But this coverage had consequences; even incomprehension made history.

With all of its diagrammatic morals, the film was stiff as a board of education, but it still caught the way in which both conventional and unconventional politics were becoming spectacles staged for cameras. Around the time of the film, the news media was attacked by the Right for fanning-and the Left for dampening-the flames of rebellion. News executives were fond of declaring that the news media only “mirrored” reality, as if they were operating a sort of camera obscura, and reality was just lying around waiting to be projected onto the screen. Using another metaphor popular in the news business, William Small, a CBS news executive, published a book titled To Kill A Messenger.

In Medium Cool, newspeople refuse to recognize the manifold ways they are implicated in the stories they cover and in the shape of the society they serve. The cameraman at the center of Wexler’s action discovers that he is part of the story after all. His contempt for standard news grows as he realizes that “the media’s got a script now” for its all too frequent assassination-and-grief sagas: “Memorial meetings. Moments of silence… The funeral procession. Then a lot of experts saying it’s a sick society. National drain-off week.” In the film’s best scene, African American radicals rage at Cassellis for making an ideological point after he does a story on an African American cabdriver returning $10,000 left on his backseat-making him look, to the militants, like a chump doing Whitey’s work, not a hero. They have a point; it was left to an African American man to spit out the hard truth about how important TV has become in people’s everyday lives (in a direct address to the camera): “The tube is life, man!”

wexler-20Cassellis then discovers that the TV station has been letting the police and the FBI view his footage. Against his will, he’s been volunteered; he’s been forced to take sides. Losing his hard-bitten innocence, he now hopes to climb down from his no longer safe perch to the practical problems of the real world. He meets and falls in love with Eileen, a Vietnam War widow from West Virginia, who lives in the poor Uptown neighborhood of Chicago with her son. Reconnecting with the world around him, Cassellis discovers, to his surprise, that there is no hiding place. Because of the bizarre glare of too much natural light (which equals reality) on a windshield, the innocents are destroyed. End of story.

For all its pretension, Medium Cool was at its best as documentary. It glimpsed the weird theatricality of 1968′s social convulsion: suburban women at target practice (featuring Peter Boyle, as the proprietor of the shooting range, in the film’s best single performance); angry African Americans demanding, “Are you a Negro or a black man?”; the National Guard practicing protest demonstration war games; and jeeps parked in front of the Art Institute. TV news images of demonstrators facing off against law enforcement in Chicago instantly became-and remain-static clichés, but Wexler’s fluid camera caught the sheer chaos of the street scenes (as well as the standout yellow dress worn by the film’s heroine Eileen, as she chases through the crowds looking for her son).

As Napoleon spoke of the “fog of war,” Wexler gave us the tear gas of demonstrations, the confusion and panic-the shards of experience and vision through which we all see a total event. Even the hodgepodge of Wexler’s effects suggests the fragmentation of the historic events in Chicago. To the demonstrators the cause was pure and clear, but to most of the TV audience, the cops were the good guys. Wexler’s uncomprehending heroine stands for a panicky American public when she says, “I don’t know what to think. Seems like nobody’s life is worth anything anymore.”

It was astute of Wexler to give us a taste of politics from the vantage point of people who were trying to steer clear of politics as politics was refusing to steer clear of them. At the movie’s start, the disengaged cameraman is so disengaged, he makes sure he gets his footage of a fatal accident on the expressway before calling an ambulance. As he watches a clip of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last speech, all Cassellis can say is, “Jesus, I love to shoot film.” In Washington, D.C., for the funeral of Robert F. Kennedy, he can only marvel at camera setups. Here Wexler was borrowing from postwar Euro-existentialist out-of-it-ness, the estrangement of which Mick Jagger sang, “I just can’t get no connection.”

But refusing to leave metaphors well enough alone, at least in his title, Wexler grafted alienated coolness onto a very different variety of coolness. Medium Cool borrowed – and suffered – from one of Marshall McLuhan‘s weakest ideas, the notion that television was “cool,” more absorbing than print, and therefore an accelerator and interconnector of history. But at its sharpest, Wexler’s own point was truer – that the news collapsed the churning complexity of 1968 into melodrama. Hostile black militants confronted the cameraman for the banality and shallowness of his imagination: “You came down here for 15 minutes of what took 30 years to develop.” Indeed, the news was always compressing the churning complexity of 1968 into simple propositions. But McLuhan would have said that this was the promise of television; its excitement and its gift. Medium Cool was not the first film to wonder aloud about the implications of television for politics. Notably, Elia Kazan‘s neglected A Face in the Crowd (1957) was a fable along the lines of Sinclair Lewis‘s It Can’t Happen Here, a dystopian warning about demagoguery featuring a bravura performance by Andy Griffith as a country bumpkin who rises to political power on the strength of listener-friendly television patter. In Kazan’s fable, TV was at least comprehensible, an instrument of political power pure and simple. Later, Paddy Chayefsky‘s Network (1976) would hilariously send up television pomposity, corporate power, and pseudo-revolutionary theatrics all at once.

But Medium Cool was the first movie specifically about television news, and it both benefited and suffered from the freshness and peculiarity of the subject. America was about to get its first best-seller on television and politics – Joe McGinniss‘s The Selling of the President, 1968 (1969) – which offered a misleading emphasis on the impact of Nixon’s television commercials, but a convincing chronicle on the corruption of the process. In 1969 the spectacular force of television had not yet been harnessed by Ronald Reagan and his handlers. America was just beginning to fathom that its collective life was going to be lived in the living room, by the hazy blue glow of the image.

© Todd Gitlin
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