“Beyond the age of innocence…”
By the 1960s, documentary film making began to benefit from the appearance of many kinds of new equipment. New lenses, including zooms and others that improved shooting in natural light; portable tape recorders; faster film stock; and less cumbersome hand-held cameras all expanded the possibilities for film-makers seeking to let us eavesdrop on the real world. The resulting films were still artificial constructs to a large extent of course, for the filmmaker made his or her own choices of what footage to use and particularly how to cut it together for maximum effect. Some even blended fictional scripts with real-event footage. One of the first films to demonstrate the new potential was Primary (1960), which dealt with John Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey vying for the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination. When the French saw it, they referred to it as cinéma verité. During the decade, a wide range of examples of this new form of cinema truth appeared, including The Endless Summer (1966, U.S.), Woodstock (1969, U.S.), Warrendale (1967, Canada), and The War Game (1965, Britain). In France, many of the techniques of cinéma verité were incorporated into commercial feature films by the likes of Godard and Truffaut, leading directors of the nouvelle vague.
Inspired by the work of Godard and the British director Peter Watkins, American filmmaker Haskell Wexler made a film called Medium Cool in 1969 that combined a fictional narrative with events surrounding the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Paramount, in a decision that is probably not going to make the company a lot of money but will win it friends among those who are aware of this unique film, has now released Medium Cool in a very fine-looking DVD edition with an essential audio commentary included.
John Cassellis is a Chicago television news cameraman who, with his sound man Gus, is devoted to getting the story on film with as little personal involvement as possible. The time is 1968 and we see Cassellis present as National Guard troops outside Chicago practice how to deal with expected protestors at that summer’s upcoming Democratic Convention. We follow him to Washington for Robert Kennedy’s funeral. We also see him in a black neighborhood of Chicago, unwanted there as he tries to follow up a story concerning a man who found $10,000 and turned it in to the police.
Cassellis’s social life seems to be one of lack of real commitment until he meets Eileen, a single mother from Appalachia raising her son Harold in a Chicago slum. Gradually, John and Eileen fall in love, but Harold is not won over and runs away. Eileen spends the night looking for Harold fruitlessly and then after getting no assistance from the police, finds herself caught up in the anti-war demonstrations associated with the Democratic Convention as she tries to locate Cassellis to get his help in finding Harold.
Medium Cool is a film that bears repeated viewings. The first time around, you’re rather disoriented — not sure what you’re seeing. That camera work looks very interesting, but you don’t entirely concentrate on it because the story takes a while to get going and you’re constantly wondering where the somewhat disjointed first third of the film is leading. Then the plot starts to click and you begin to feel more comfortable, only to realize that you should have been paying more attention because you’ve probably missed all sorts of clues about the film’s direction and the roles of all the individuals in it. The last 15 minutes when Eileen is wandering about looking for both John and Harold is powerful stuff as she gets caught up with the anti-war demonstrators and the police. The realization that Verna Bloom (who plays Eileen) is really being filmed during the actual events takes a while to sink in, but when it does, wow. The camera work during this last segment is brilliant and only makes you want to go back to the beginning and pay attention to the photography more closely.
The film is a tour-de-force for Haskell Wexler, who co-produced, wrote, directed, and photographed it. Wexler had already won an Academy Award for cinematography for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and would later win another for Bound For Glory (1976). Among his many other credits from the same era are: In The Heat Of The Night (1967), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and Coming Home (1978). His work on Medium Cool is certainly the equal of anything else he did. The film presents a kaleidoscope of photography choices — moving and fixed camera positioning, close-ups and establishing shots, point-of-view and third-person observation, intimacy and impersonal eavesdropping.
Much of Medium Cool‘s reputation rests on the footage of the Chicago demonstrations that it depicts so vividly. For that reason alone, the film is a key document of the late ’60s. It’s interesting to hear (as we do from the audio commentary on the disc) that Wexler’s script, which was completed months before filming started, called for filming during the demonstrations on the basis of some advance information that Wexler obtained. The film also has much to say about the rising tide of violence in society at the time and the crass story-above-all-damn-the-personal-issues-involved approach of the television news medium — the latter a concern that certainly existed 33 years ago, although perhaps not as pervasively as it does now. The opening sequence hits you in the face with this issue when John and Gus take some shots of a wrecked car and its occupants and then drive away even though no aid for the car’s occupants has arrived. The irony of the film’s final sequence and what is likely to happen to John and Eileen consequently is not lost upon us.
One can be so involved in the issues and mechanics of the film that it’s easy to forget the fine cast that carries the plot along. Robert Forster and Verna Bloom as John and Eileen respectfully both play their roles somewhat dispassionately (particularly Bloom), but the film is the more powerful for that. Harold Blankenship, a boy plucked from the Appalachian community in Chicago to play the character of “Harold” in the film is extremely natural. Peter Bonerz (Jerry the dentist in the later “Bob Newhart Show”) is fine as Gus.
Someone at Paramount is owed a debt of gratitude for getting this unique film out on DVD. The DVD presentation is in anamorphic widescreen preserving the theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and looks exceptional for the film’s age. There is some minor evidence of speckling, but otherwise, the image is quite crisp and clear with good shadow detail. The nature of the shooting conditions resulted in some less than pristine sequences reflected in a few soft patches during the course of the film, but it’s certainly not a major concern on the DVD. Edge enhancement is not an issue. High marks to Paramount for its efforts.
The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and does a competent job of conveying the mainly dialogue-driven film. Occasional exchanges of dialogue are a bit muffled or partly obscured by background noises, but this is a characteristic of the source material rather than a deficiency of the DVD. English sub-titles are included. Some of the background music has been changed from the theatrical release version (presumably due to subsequent rights issues).
In a change from Paramount’s normally minimal supplementary content, this disc contains an excellent audio commentary featuring Haskell Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill (she plays Cassellis’s girlfriend before he meets Eileen). Most of the talking is done by the first two, with Hill just chipping in from time to time. In many ways, this is an indispensable part of this particular DVD for it provides endless insights into the film-making process, photographic decisions, the timing of events, which people on screen are real and which are professional actors (it’s not always obvious), and the general difficulties of filming live during actual events while trying to keep the actors in character. What we learn is fascinating and often surprising. The disc also contains a three-and-a-half minute theatrical trailer with the film’s original X rating noted at the end. The only improvement to the DVD I could suggest would have been to include 2001’s hour-long made-for-television British documentary — Look Out Haskell, It’s Real: The Making of Medium Cool.
This can be a hard film to get into, but patience will reveal a film of style and substance that will reward anyone interested in a thought-provoking document rather than the usual Hollywood mindless action. Paramount is commended for a fine DVD release, providing a top-notch transfer and arranging for an audio commentary that’s indispensable to the DVD experience. Highly recommended.