Criterion absolutely nails their high-def presentation of Haskell Wexler's counter-culture classic....
Criterion / 110 Minutes / 1969 / Rated R: Street Date: May 21, 2013
Although I consider myself a moderate student of history, there are certain historical events that happened during my lifetime I'll never fully appreciate. Intellectually, I can absorb what led up to a certain incident, understand what transpired and in some cases, even experience its aftermath. However, when an event is such a product of its time, an explosion of thought and emotion that could only evolve from whatever mood the nation was in at that instant, it's harder for me to empathize.
The 1968 Democratic National Convention is such an event. I exited the 60s as a three-year old, so when historians talk of how the riots that broke out in Chicago during the convention are emblematic of that decade, intellectually I get it, but emotionally, I have to take their word for it. But damn if it didn't sound like one hell of a time. In 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and the escalation of the Vietnam War came to a riotous head as youthful protesters took to the streets of Chicago, where inside Daley Plaza, Hubert Humphrey was named the Democratic presidential nominee, since Lyndon Johnson had decided not to run for reelection. Outside Daley Plaza, Jeeps laced with barbed wire rolled through Grant Park as police cracked heads and tossed tear gas at protesters, 667 of whom were arrested. Among the throngs of police, activists, journalists and bystanders was a cameraman: Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler.
Wexler, who earlier in his career directed the 1965 civil rights documentary The Bus and shot the Oscar-winning Interviews with My Lai Veterans, was using the Chicago convention as the backdrop for his fictional film Medium Cool. But when the riots erupted, Wexler was able to incorporate them into the narrative. His actors never broke character as they wound their way through the overturned park benches and injured protesters. In doing so, Medium Cool became something different and unique; a fictional documentary. A narrative film that absorbed and became permanently entwined with a violent flashpoint in American history. The resulting film is a fascinating and electric journey.
In the film, Robert Forster plays John, a dispassionate, yet professional cameraman working for a local TV station in Chicago. When we first met him, he's standing at the side of the freeway, his camera pointing at a broken, near-lifeless young woman, the victim of a car accident. John gets his precious footage and leaves without even calling an ambulance. Later, with the convention just days away, John and his soundman (Peter Bonerz, who later played the dentist on The Bob Newhart Show) record National Guardsmen conducting crowd control exercises. When John discovers his footage is being forwarded to the FBI, he complains and is eventually fired.
A parallel story follows Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her son Harold (Harold Blankenship), recently moved from Appalachia, now living in a Chicago slum. Eventually, John befriends the woman and becomes a father figure to the boy. All this leads up to the convention, with John inside Daley Plaza covering the event for a documentary crew, while Eileen is outside looking for Harold, who has run away. Her bright yellow dress supposes innocence as she moves untouched through the ever coarsening crowd, searching frantically for her boy.
What elevates Medium Cool far above the norm is the vibrancy of its documentary style. The before-mentioned National Guard exercises were real. The government gave Wexler permission to shoot them, and Forster and Bonerz run around with their equipment as if they're actually a news crew. And once the convention and subsequent rioting begin, Forster and Bloom stay in character. Wexler's camera gives the film a ground level immediacy that is a truly unique achievement.
As you would imagine, Wexler had a lot to say about the state of the nation and the state of the media. An interesting subplot involves a black cabbie who finds $10,000 in his cab and turns it in to the police, who can't believe a black man living in a slum would doing something so altruistic (the scenes were John meets the cabby were shot in a real Chicago tenement area, and since white people were not welcome in those neighborhoods at the time, writer Studs Terkel had to arrange for the film crew to shoot there). Wexler blasts television for its willingness to show the result of black activism, many times imprisonment or death, but not the reasoning behind the movement. To feed the masses a particular version of history, shot and edited with its own agenda, makes television only a hair less guilty then those who judge someone based solely on their skin color. And if maximum impact means minimum truth, that's a tradeoff the media is glad to make, and in fact does make, to this very day. To see a film like Medium Cool drives home this point in the most unique and exciting way possible.