Friday, May 10, 2013

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: Medium Cool (1969)

Medium Cool
Directed by: Haskell Wexler.
Written by: Haskell Wexler.
Starring: Robert Forster (John Cassellis), Verna Bloom (Eileen), Peter Bonerz (Gus), Marianna Hill (Ruth), Harold Blankenship (Harold), Charles Geary (Harold's Father), Sid McCoy (Frank Baker), Christine Bergstrom (Dede), William Sickingen (News Director), Robert McAndrew (Pennybaker), Marrian Walters (Social Worker), Beverly Younger (Rich Lady), Edward Croke (Plain-clothesman), Doug Kimball (Newscaster), Peter Boyle (Gun Clinic Manager).

When it opened in 1969, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool was a groundbreaking blend of fiction and documentary elements that hadn’t quite been put together in the same way before. Watching the film now, over 40 years later, the films impact is dulled slightly from what it must have been in 1969 – other filmmakers have done what Wexler has done since then, and the film doesn’t seem quite as innovative as it surely was at the time. But the film still functions as a fascinating time capsule of the late 1960s – the paranoia, the political upheaval, the violence and the confusion of the times are all on full display. As Wexler moves through the film, the line between fiction and reality is blurred to the point where it no longer matters what is real and what isn’t – it all seems real.
The movie focuses on John Cassellis (Robert Forster), a TV cameraman who we first see taking dispassionate video on a car crash scene before calling the police to report it. The movie spends much of the next hour meandering, and segueing from fiction to reality and back again. Scenes of a upper crust part where the attendees debate the role of the media – are they dispassionate observers, or active participants in the news they report, scenes where Cassellis tries to follow up on a story about a black cab driver who found $10,000 and turned it over the police, morph into the poor, black residents talking directly to the camera about their rage at white society, or scenes in the projects where war widow Eileen (Verna Bloom) becomes romantically involved with Cassellis, or the scene with Peter Boyle as a gun clinic manager are all part fiction and part reality. There are professional actors who start in the foreground, but gradually they give way to the real people who inhabit the neighborhoods that Wexler is portraying. The result is strangely effective, as Wexler still gets his “plot” about Cassellis, his new romance with Eileen and the trouble her son has accepting it,, as well as Cassellis clashing with his bosses over the stories he follows – and the anger he feels when he learns that the TV station is turning over his video to the police and FBI for them to monitor – but also has more than enough time to let the real people tell their stories. The plot almost becomes secondary to the real people Wexler is filming.

The climax of the movie takes place at the 1968 Democratic Convention that of course devolved into riots when the police used strong arm tactics to try and quell the protestors. Amazingly, Wexler filmed during these riots – following Bloom with his camera as she walks through Grant Park looking for her son who has run away. What we see in the background is real – and horrifying – and it’s amazing that Wexler got the footage he did with Bloom, and neither of them were hurt. Apparently, if you listen closely when the police fire the tear gas, you can hear a crew member yell “Look out, Haskell, it’s real”, warning Wexler, who is more famous as a cinematographer than as a director, that real tear gas is being used. Ironically, Wexler was ordered to turn over the footage he shot of the riot to the federal government – who had herded out the news reporters before things got really bad.

The ending of the movie is a little bit jolting, because it comes seemingly out of left field. And yet, when you stop and think about it, is oddly appropriate. Life comes out of left field sometimes, and the ending allows Wexler to bring things full circle – what goes around comes around, I suppose. Medium Cool is a time capsule of a turbulent time in American history – and taken on that level, it is nearly impossible to beat.

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