MEDIUM COOL A
USA (111 mi) 1969 d: Haskell Wexler
"There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in 'high definition.' High definition is the state of being well filled with data.... Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience."
—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964
—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, 1964
A historic mile marker when viewed as either cinema or history, a time capsule of a different era, seen here as a specific time and place, adding a fictional dramatic story among actual footage of the street violence erupting at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago where protesters gathered to demonstrate against the continuing war in Vietnam, but shown through a distinctively radical style not only for its day but of any era. Wexler, a superlative Oscar winning cinematographer, winning the award twice in five nominations, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and BOUND FOR GLORY (1996), though his uncredited work in Terrence Malick’s DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) while eventual award winner Nestor Almendros was losing his eyesight should not go unnoticed, has crafted a monumental film that challenges the public’s ability to challenge and decipher truth through the oftentimes distorted lens from the mass medium of television, defined by Marshall McLuhan (McLuhan, Marshall) as a “cool medium.” From this day forward, as the film proclaims, “The whole world is watching,” but how accurate is our judgment about what we are seeing? Robert Forster, who made a career in made-for-TV movies before being offered to play a leading role in Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN (1997), plays a hardened local news cameraman (in a role originally offered to John Cassavetes), a guy who gets the money shots for the ten o’clock news but is shown little flexibility from his employer to examine human interest stories, believing the public has a short attention span and all they’re interested in are murders, accidents, or other acts of violence that leave a city reeling under a perception of neverending turmoil, where the only black people (other than athletes) to make the news are violent offenders. After the deaths of President Kennedy (November 1963), candidate Bobby Kennedy (June 1968), and social activist Reverend Martin Luther King Jr (April 1968), urban cities like Chicago erupted in a firestorm of uncontrolled violence, all of which played right into the hands of white television producers who had a field day providing video coverage, all of which fanned the flames of racial hostility, as ever since blacks have been disproportionately viewed on TV as dangerous criminals. The film opens with Forster getting the shot of an accident on a highway, Medium Cool opening sequence (1969) - YouTube (4:12), never even bothering to help the victim, simply phoning it in as is the usual routine—interesting that a similar shot bookends the end of the film, only under a completely different contextualization by that time. Interesting also that Peter Bonerz, the dentist on the long-running Bob Newhart TV show, plays the sound man who accompanies Forster on his news stories. Also, it was unusual to hear so much of the Martin Luther King “I Have a Dream” speech a year after his death, a complete departure from other films from that time, as he was not commemorated with a holiday until 1983, nearly 15 years later, and not officially observed in all 50 states until the year 2000. His speeches have become synonymous with that holiday.
Simultaneous to a look at the news coverage is the actual news story, featuring previously unseen documentary footage of the National Guard undergoing riot preparation before the convention, complete with battle formations, tanks, tear gas, and night sticks in simulated rehearsals designed to maintain control of the situation, in anticipation of what was expected to be plenty of arrests, leading to actual footage of police releasing tear gas, where one of Wexler’s assistants can be heard yelling out “Look out Haskell, it’s real!” Look out Haskell, it's real! - YouTube (30 seconds). In another fictionally dramatized thread, Verna Bloom plays a recently displaced single mother from Appalachia living in the overcrowded slums of Uptown along with her 13-year old son, Harold Blankenship. Both offer standout performances where the degree of realism displayed contributes to the authenticity of a documentary feel. Blankenship, especially, in his personal, evocative portrayal plays a vital role in this film, becoming the overlooked human interest story that news crews routinely ignore. This film does an excellent job in establishing perspective. There are flashbacks to spending time with his father in West Virginia, where he is given the misguided, sexist advice that only a man can rule his home environment, a theme that seems to parallel the response by Mayor Daley in Chicago, who felt only he could protect the citizens of Chicago from outside agitators, overreacting badly to a perceived threat that largely never happened. In hindsight, most of the violence in Chicago was initiated by the misguided actions of a police force that nightly stormed what were relatively quiet and peaceful parks with tanks, tear gas, and night sticks in order to enforce arbitrary curfew violations, even though the city had no provisions for where these protesters could go. After three nights of getting their heads bashed, by the fourth night of the convention the students fought back in bloody retaliation, most of it captured by TV news crews filming live on the streets as the Democrats were nominating Hubert Humphrey for President, a man whose aspirations were derailed on that very night. 1968 DNC: Democratic nightmare in Chicago YouTube (1:15).
Perhaps the best sequence in the film is the occasionally humorous aftermath of a black cab driver who finds $10,000 lying on the floor of his cab and turns it over to authorities, who immediately question the man’s sanity, as do his own friends and family. Forster is part of a news crew that puts his face on the nightly news. Smelling a larger story, perhaps a connection to drugs, Forster pays the young man a visit in his home on the South side of Chicago the next day, where he is immediately put on the defensive by the shark infested waters of black activists who smell blood on their turf, challenging the very essence of what this man does for a living, asking what business he has coming to the black community, a part of the city that is routinely lied about and distorted night after night by guys just like him. In reality, none other than Studs Terkel, listed in the credits as “our man in Chicago,” helped mediate a safe passage by the film crew into that neighborhood for a scathing, oftentimes hilarious exposé on racism. Mike Bloomfield, one of the driving forces of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, provides much of the guitar-heavy soundtrack, where vintage songs by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention appear as well poking fun at the fickle youth playing hippies for a day, such as “Who Needs the Peace Corps?” america is wonderful (from "medium cool" by ... YouTube (2:57), footage likely shot at the Electric Theater/Kinetic Playground at 4812 N. Clark Street in Chicago, opening April 5, 1968, the day after the Martin Luther King assassination. There are some extended wordless sequences and brilliant edits in this film, not the least of which is using Wild Man Fischer’s highly unorthodox song “Merry-Go-Round” Merry Go Round by Wild Man Fischer - YouTube (1:56) during an extended roller derby brawl, segued to a sex scene by a couple (including Forster) sitting in the front row, or a long shot from the inside of the convention where the tone shifts radically by the use of the song “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which continues to play over footage of the riots outside as bloodied heads keep getting bashed in by the police. Wexler places himself in the historic final shot as the audio track of the riots rolls through the end credits. This film has serious political overtones that are just as appropriate today, feverishly asking more questions than it can answer about the unchallenged power television has in our lives, featuring constantly in motion camerawork that is nothing less than spectacular, and remains one of the best films ever shot in the city of Chicago.