The Sticking Place

Medium Cool

Whitney Williams
30 July 1969

Medium Cool, first indie production for cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who also wrote, directed and lensed, is a sort of sociological semi-documentary of the involvement of young people today in what’s happening in America. Aimed at attracting this youthful audience, the fact that pic carries an MPAA ‘X’ rating and is liberally sprinkled with offensive four-letter words probably help its b.o. chances.

Actually photographed in Chicago against the clamor and violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, where cast principals were on their own as they made their way through the crowds and police lines, buildup to these later sequences frequently is confusing and motives difficult to fathom. Wexler mixes “reality” with the “theatrical,” his two chief protagonists a realistic tv newsreel cameraman and a young hillbilly mother come to Chicago with her young son.

Episodic, film consists of a series of unrelated incidents correlated under the general theme. Wexler has used actual backgrounds, including, according to production notes, ghetto home of some black militants. Negro actors in this sequence provide probably the most realistic portion of entire production. Scenes revolve around Robert Forster, the lenser, trying to persuade a Negro taxi driver who found $10,000 in his cab and turned coin over to the police, to appear in additional tv footage. After driver refuses, his friends block Forster’s exist while they harangue him.

Wexler has adopted a documentary approach which helps sustain the mood and his cast fits into this pattern. He makes advantageous use of actual incidents, such as the disorder in Grant Park, where major rioting at the time of the convention occurred. He takes his action for further emphasis into a psychedelic discotheque, a roller derby, Chicago’s uptown Appalachian ghetto, Chi’s fast Expressway, a gun clinic, the International Ampitheatre, site of the convention. Additional realism is achieved by blending his cast with the public without latter’s knowledge.

For a more spectacular sequence, Wexler, too, tosses in a bedroom episode in which Forster and Marianna Hill, a girlfriend, romp in the nude. Four-letter wordage doesn’t add to dramatic content.

Forster is strongly cast as the lenser who refuses to become emotionally involved with any of his assignments until caught up in the injustice done to the Negro who returns the lost money and while on tv assignment, falls in love with the young mother. In latter role, Verna Bloom delivers a down-to-earth performance. Harold Blankenship, a 13-year old non-pro whom Wexler discovered in the Appalachian section of Chicago, is convincing as her son, Peter Bonerz does a good job as a tv soundman and Miss Hill is a sexpot.

Wexler’s direction is first-rate and his photography is a potent asset. Mike Bloomfield’s music score catches the proper mood.

© Whitney Wiliams/Variety
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