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The 1969 counter-culture drama Medium Cool is the latest movie to be re-released by Eureka Entertainment as a part of their Masters of Cinema Collection. It is a movie known for its documentary style of filmmaking, use of real footage and being a part of the New Hollywood movement.
John Cassellis (Robert Forster) is a cameraman and journalist for a TV station in Chicago. He reports on stories around the city and America, including the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the upcoming Democratic Convention. During the midst of this, John forms a relationship with Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her son Harold (Harold Blankenship).
Medium Cool was Haskell Wexler’s debut feature; he was previously known as a cinematographer and a documentary filmmaker. He brings that approach to his debut; the movie opens with John and his sound recordist, Gus (Peter Bonerz), attending a car crash on the freeway outside Chicago with the camera moving with the actors as they get their footage, with the sounds being muted, making the movie feel more like a documentary as we watch the men do their job. It continues from there with an excellent opening credits sequence following a motorcycle courier as he drives through Chicago to the Michigan Avenue Bridge and The Wrigley Building: it was a fantastic feat of cinematography.
Throughout the movie there are touches that give Medium Cool the look and feel of a documentary. An early sequence was showing Robert with other journalists in a conference debating the ethics of their profession: it was shot and edited like a fly-on-the-documentary, with the camera just watching these people as they debate. It must have been an influence on a similar sequence in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic. John’s profession meant he had to record stories like a Black Panthers protest, looking like actual news footage. Wexler uses many long takes, using the camera in stationary positions, pivoting and moving with the action. Even the conversations have a natural feel to them as characters stumble and stutter, making these moments feel more realistic. Medium Cool is a great example of how to use documentary style in a feature film, use hand held cameras and long takes, not the Paul Greengrass approach of shaky cam and constant cutting which claims to add more realism.
Wexler’s style truly adds to the authenticity of the city, whether it was viewing kids in products playing together to seeing famous sites of like The Wrigley Building, Millennium Park and State Street. One of the best sequences in the movie is the build-up of the riot, with the protest being a good spirited affair with all the various countercultures having their say, before clashes with the police and national guard. All this is seen through Eileen’s eyes as she ends up being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This juxtaposes the scenes within the Convention of political choreography within the hall with activists not being aware of events outside. At the beginning of the movie Wexler watches the National Guard train for protests and troops are jovial, making jokes and fun of the protesters: the opposite to what transpires with shoots like the troops wearing gasmasks mirroring each other. All of this footage was actually filmed during the real events, making these scenes some of the most authentic riot and political rally moments in a fictional film.
Due to the movie’s setting in the world of media and the political protest Wexler attempts to address issues concerning these areas. There are many discussions about journalistic ethics and the change in media thanks to television, resulting in reporters looking for visceral images of war, violence, riots and protests, looking for stories that would get ratings. Many of the journalists berate their media, particularly television for wanting the action but not being interested in the causes or contexts of an event. Looking at the movie with modern eyes, these issues still exist now and are actually even worse now thanks to tabloidization of the media and the 24 hour news cycle’s need for instant information and images. Many of the characters get a chance to soapbox about these issues like African Americans saying that the media may give them attention for a short period and move on to other stories, not thinking about the long term issues that their community has. Added to the mix is a storyline involving the journalistic and editorial ethics with co-operation with law enforcement. It’s a movie that serves a bedrock for Network, Nightcrawler and Gone Girl that look at similar issues affecting the media.
Counter-cultures are also given a voice during the movie, whether it was Black Panthers or a young man believing that assassination of JFK was a conspiracy. Even John makes a speech about how the media is designed to be a manipulation and keep people contented, act as a mode of control if people get out of hand, as well as foreshadowing events to come.
Wexler employs a loose narrative structure. The story of Medium Cool is basically John going around Chicago as he reports on various stories. It is a collection of events with a general dramatic throughline in the background, the upcoming convention. Medium Cool is perfectly coherent as we follow John, Eileen and Harold, adding to quasi-documentary style because a documentary filmmaker does not quite know the route that their project will go as they are filming. But the light story will be a turn off for some audience members looking for a traditional storytelling approach.
Medium Cool is an excellent example of the New Hollywood movement in its early days, an ambitious movie because of its use of a documentary style for a fictional movie. It was a model for things to come on how to use the quasi-documentary style and how to give movies an added sense of realism.
Special Features: The Blu-ray comes with a detailed hour long documentary Look Out Haskell, It’s Real, looking at Medium Cool‘s production, Haskell’s influences and the political climate of 1968. Also with the Blu-ray are two short documents, a sad one about Harold Blankenship and his life after the movie and Haskell being interviewed showing off the cameras he used for the movie. Haskell, Hill and editorial consultant Paul Golding and a 28-page-booklet about the movie and includes a summary of the government-commissioned report about the 1968 riot.