By Norm Nielsen
Scarecrow Video’s Crosscut theme for April is Protest! Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool exemplifies this theme. In documentary and narrative style Medium Cool captured the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention riots and the social and political milieu of the times. For me, watching Medium Cool 48 years after its release evoked vivid memories of the times I was tear gassed and chased by baton swinging cops through city streets after antiwar protests turned into riots. The film also evoked my memory of watching the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots on television as cops assaulted demonstrators chanting “The whole world is watching.”
1968 was a watershed year politically. Lyndon Johnson escalated the Vietnam war although popular opinion had turned against him and the war. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in early April; his death sparked riots in several large American cities. In May student protests in Paris escalated into widespread civil unrest and riots that caused the national government to temporarily cease functioning. In June Bobby Kennedy was assassinated after winning the California primary. In early August the Soviet Union brutally quashed a popular revolt in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In late August the riots in Chicago’s streets and parks occurred during the Democratic National Convention as Mayor Daley tried to quash demonstrations. The year ended with Tricky Dick Nixon as president-elect – a bad ending to a bad year.
Medium Cool brilliantly captured the political and artistic ferment of 1968. Director Haskell Wexler was an Academy Award winning cinematographer (Bound for Glory and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf) under contract to Paramount Pictures to direct his first feature film tentatively titled “Concrete Wilderness” about poor urban youths. Through his radical contacts Wexler learned of plans to demonstrate and disrupt the Democratic National Convention. Wexler rewrote the script of “Concrete Wilderness” to be about the politicization and humanization of a TV news cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) after he learns that the Chicago TV station he works for is secretly giving news film to the FBI so it can identify and track “subversives.” John is fired after raising a stink about this with the station’s management. He then meets and falls for a factory worker Eileen (Vera Bloom) who lives in the Uptown Chicago slum area then known as “Hillbilly Heaven.” John befriends Eileen’s 10-year-old son Harold (Harold Blankenship) who is a nearly illiterate product of the Chicago school system (the tie-in to the original “Concrete Wilderness” script). Harold takes off from home during the Democratic Convention and Eileen goes looking for him with John’s help during the riots. Wexler and his crew filmed the riots documentary style and vividly show what was later determined to be “a police riot.”
Recapping the plot really doesn’t tell what the film is about. On one level Medium Cool is about many social issues of the time: violence as media spectacle, political and social discontent, extreme racism, class divisions, women’s rights, and economic inequality. On another level the film questions the role and responsibilities of television and its newscasts with respect to these social issues. The film is also about the new cinema of the late 1960s. Medium Cool included obvious references to cinéma vérité directors of the time, notably Jean-Luc Godard, D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, and John Cassavetes. Wexler blurred the boundary between documentary and fictional filmmaking by putting actors in real situations such as Vera Bloom wandering around Chicago as the cops assaulted protesters. Wexler also used non-actors in scripted scenes to enhance the documentary feel of the film. Throughout Medium Cool there are glimpses of Wexler and his crew shooting the film – cinéma vérité (translation: “cinema truth”) in which the act of filmmaking is made visible so to reveal the truth in cinema.
The construction of Medium Cool is notable. Plot-driven narrative cinema up to the late 1960s generally did not require a high degree of the viewer’s attention to fill in blanks as the story progressed. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan, popular in the late 1960s, termed narrative movies to be a “hot” medium in contrast to television which he termed a “cool” medium like cool jazz requiring much more conscious participation by the viewer to extract value. Medium Cool’s title implies that the audience is smart enough to fill in the film’s intentional narrative gaps.
Medium Cool was widely acclaimed on its release largely because of its revolutionary combination of fact and fiction rather than the plot. New York Times film critic Vincent Canby noted the film’s historical significance: “The result is a film of tremendous visual impact, a kind of cinematic ‘Guernica,’ a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence.” In 2003, the film was selected for preservation in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Norm Nielsen is a Scarecrow Video volunteer and Scarecrow Project Member.