#421) Medium Cool (1969)

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#421) Medium Cool (1969)

OR “I Witness News”

Directed & Written by Haskell Wexler

Class of 2003

The Plot: “Medium Cool” is noted cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s attempt to make sense of the turbulent life of 1960s America. Cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) and soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz) document some of the more intense sights and sounds of 1968 Chicago, from political protests to the violent police force. While seemingly desensitized to the deteriorating world around him, John maintains his humanity when he begins a relationship with West Virginia transplant Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her son Harold (Harold Blankenship). All of this comes to a head when John takes a gig filming the Democratic National Convention, which I’m sure will go great for everybody.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises the film “for melding fictional and non-fictional content in a documentarylike style” and calls Wexler “one of the most influential and celebrated cinematographers in the business”.

But Does It Really?: I…guess? Haskell Wexler is an important figure in cinematography, and his film highlights are already NFR inductees (“In the Heat of the Night” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, to name just two). I can give “Medium Cool” a pass as a chance to see what happens when Wexler has full control over a movie, as well as for the film’s unique take on current events, including an extreme, first-hand perspective of the 1968 Democratic Convention.

Everybody Gets One: Robert Forster is one of those character actors who turned in a lifetime of great work, but rarely got recognition. “Medium Cool” was one of Forster’s earliest films, and one of the few in which he was the lead. Forster’s ensuing career involved the B-role in a few A-pictures (“The Black Hole”), and the A-role in several B-pictures (“Alligator”). It wasn’t until Quentin Tarantino cast him in “Jackie Brown” that Forster received more high-profile projects, and an Oscar nod to boot!

Wow, That’s Dated: The film’s coverage of current events helps cement its 1968 setting. Also dated: people actually answering their door when a stranger knocks.

Title Track: “Medium Cool” derives its name from media theorist Marshall McLuhan, who considered television a “cool” medium, as it required more involvement from the consumer (For comparison, film – a “hot” medium – is purely visual, and therefore only engages one of the senses). But then again, I know nothing of McLuhan’s work. How I got to write a blog about anything is totally amazing.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Medium Cool” received zero Oscar nominations, though it did receive a few nods from the National Society of Film Critics, and Wexler received a DGA nomination. For the record, Haskell Wexler received five Oscar nominations throughout his career, and won for two films: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Bound for Glory”.

Other notes

  • Wexler had originally planned to adapt Jack Couffer’s novel “The Concrete Wilderness” to film, but his initial draft strayed so far from the novel he opted instead to write an original screenplay. “Medium Cool” was Wexler’s first narrative feature as both writer and director.
  • This all being said, of course Wexler wrote a movie about a cameraman who’s a rugged, Robert Forster type.
  • Peter Bonerz is best remembered for playing Dr. Jerry Robinson on “The Bob Newhart Show”, and had a second career as a TV director, most notably helming over 90 episodes of “Murphy Brown”.
  • “Who wants to see anyone talking peace, unless they’re talking loud?” Ain’t that the fucking truth.
  • Haskell Wexler wrote the script in such a way that any sequence in which John and Gus cover a news event could utilize actual news events occurring during filming. Among the events chronicled in this film are demonstrations by Vietnam War protesters, the rise of the Black Panthers, citizens campaigning for Robert Kennedy’s presidential election, and the assassination of Martin Luther King.
  • I realized during this viewing that I’m not too familiar with Robert Forster’s work (though I remember liking him in “Jackie Brown”). He’s a (for lack of a better word) cool central figure, and it’s easy to follow him throughout this film’s episodes.
  • “Medium Cool” holds the distinction of originally receiving an “X” rating from the newly formed MPAA (this was before that rating was permanently associated with porno). The X rating was due to language and several sequences of full frontal nudity. Paramount successfully got the film re-rated to an R, but that’s still a lot of Robert Forster that I can never unsee.
  • If you only know Verna Bloom as the Dean’s wife from “Animal House”, you owe it to yourself to watch her in this movie. It’s a refreshing contrast seeing her as a warm, emotionally complex woman. I suspect her brand of southern comfort became less in-demand once Sissy Spacek became a thing.
  • Harold raises pigeons? Who is he, Franz Liebkind? Or Bert from “Sesame Street”?
  • This movie has a fun “Before-they-were-famous” appearance by Peter Boyle as a local gun clinic manager. He was one year away from his breakout performance in “Joe”, and five years away from “Young Frankenstein”.
  • Also very ‘60s: an extended performance by the Mothers of Invention, who also provided the film’s soundtrack.
  • The film’s third act takes place at Chicago’s tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention. Wexler claimed at the time that the script was written before the convention, and that the ensuing riots could not be anticipated. This, however, contradicts public announcements from various protest groups saying they were planning to disrupt the convention. Regardless, the events provide a stirring climax to “Medium Cool”, with the crowd’s chant “the whole world is watching” proving an eerily appropriate message for the film.

Legacy

  • Haskell Wexler only directed two other narrative feature films: 1985’s “Latino”, and something called “Bus II”. Wexler continued his film career primarily as a cinematographer, but did direct a handful of documentary shorts as well.
  • Though not as well-remembered today as its contemporaries “Easy Rider” or “Midnight Cowboy”, “Medium Cool” often gets mentioned as one of the essential titles of 1969 to usher in New Hollywood and its more realistic film sensibilities.

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