The Sticking Place

Medium Cool

Gordon Gow
Films and Filming, April 1970

Certain occupations need a special detachment. Emotion must be obliterated if the task in hand is to be carried out efficiently. The feat is scarcely natural, yet justification for it is to be found in the medical profession, for obvious reasons, and there might be other areas where the cultivation of cold blood is valid. The man on the flying trapeze is a good example, which goes to show how hard examples are to ferret out; and personally I enjoy a trapeze act more if I can see a safety net down there below. But what of the communication kids? The news-gatherers, reporters and photographers often cover events that would make the sensitive stomach heave. They work competitively, they lust for a scoop, they reach for sensations. So their public, given a surfeit of sensationalism, is apt to develop acute anxiety (like the woman backing away in terror from a television newsreel in Bergman’s Persona), or else to lapse into a self-defensive apathy. Stomachs toughen in resistance; minds are immunised. Violence and horror are shrugged aside as commonplace, because the sights are so familiar.

The point is made persuasively in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, the story of a television news-cameraman named John, so disciplined to his job that when he changes upon a serious accident his instinct is to get the pictures first and then perhaps telephone for an ambulance.

Early on, the camera roams among some reporters discussing their lot in life, with much self-justification and many a remark that prompts a bitter smile: “Who wants to hear anybody talking peace, unless he’s talking loud?” …”I’ve got a job to do, but the point that I resent very much is the fact that wherever I go – I’m beat up.” In some cases, of course, the job to be done needs doing. In others, no doubt, the attitude is very similar to John’s. But in John’s own life there is eventual redemption, changing his professional response towards the subjects at whom he aims his camera, bringing back the compassion for people which has been drained off for so long. His salvation is love; and, in the context, this is not a facile thing. Much given to casual sleeping around, John wakes up to himself when he encounters and loves a woman in the Appalachian ghetto of Chicago. Their relationship is very real as enacted by Robert Forster and Verna Bloom.

To his actors, whose faces are unfamiliar and therefore more conducive to realism, Wexler has added some actuality and a touch or two of verité interviewing, perfectly dovetailed to eliminate any sense of division between fiction and fact. There is plenty of right-in-there-with-the-hand-held-camera stuff – not only in the actuality shooting but even in a nude bedroom scamper between John and one of his girls. In this way the ground is prepared for a remarkable combination of the story’s fictional conclusion and authentic footage which was obtained during the riots at that notorious Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, when student protest and Black Power militancy were opposed by police action, and violence was rife. Wise enough to use only a small amount of the material he shot, giving it the ironic accompaniment of ‘Happy Days Are Here Again’ from the Convention’s amplifiers. Wexler underlines his messages but avoids being lumped among the species he deplores.

This is his first film as a director. His considerable experience as a cinematographer, on all manner of films (including The Savage Eye, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night and The Thomas Crown Affair), is capped now by an all-out creative achievment. Not only did he direct, he also wrote the screenplay, co-produced, master-minded the camerawork and participated with his crew in the thick of the rioting.

As a stylist, he is self-indulgent now and then – and why not? One beautiful shot of John and a girl, see as two diffused silhouettes against a white background, has no apparent motivation beyond the beautiful look of it. Mostly, however, he uses pictures for a distinct purpose, and he has assembled them brilliantly. There is a terrific chop-cut from preparation at the Convention hall (formerly a circus auditorium) to the dazzle of a discotheque. Even better, a blast of song accentuates the wild excitement at a roller derby, and the same song continues through some high-pressure sex which follows immediately; an emotional pitch, created in public and sustained in the subsequent intimacy.

As sociology, the film is apt and neat, particularly in its view of the Negro element. A marvellously sour humour infuses the episode of a Negro taxi-driver who goes to the police with a wallet containing ten thousand dollars, which he found in the back of his cab. This earns him a strenuous interrogation, which he meets with cynicism: “It was really just a thousand – I added nine thousand of my own to make it ten.”

In the tense and secluded corridors of Black Power, there is resentment of the newsman who approaches in quest of ‘human interest’ – a term greeted with scorn. “You emasculate us,” he is told, “and that ain’t cool.” The temperature of the whole movie is just right. It lives up to its title, not only by rebuking TV as a McLuhan ‘cool medium,’ but also by keeping its own equilibrium and thereby making plain to us the controlled anger in Wexler’s brilliant mind.

© Gordon Gow/Films and Filming
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