Movie: Medium Cool (1969)

When you’re behind a camera, it can be easy to forget you are there and are part of what is happening.  An incident that stands out in my mind is a time I was running camera on the sidelines of a football game.  All these players are barreling towards me and I’m thinking, “Damn!  This is a great shot”, while forgetting they are on a collision course towards me.  I took two steps back just in time for the runner to be tackled. The entire mass of players slid across the sideline, stopping just short of my feet.

So I can empathize a tiny bit with what Haskell Wexler and his crew went through when making 1969’s Medium Cool.  On the surface, this movie follows a TV cameraman (Robert Forster) as he covers various events, eventually finding himself caught in the turmoil surrounding the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.  This isn’t just a plot point–this picture is justifiably famous for its final act taking place in the midst of the actual riots.

The movie opens on him and his soundman (Peter Bonerz—oh, dude, I am so sorry you were born with that name) getting footage at a car crash.  When they’re done, he says to Bonerz, “Better call an ambulance.”  As I can attest, those are the priorities in a news organization.  Some wouldn’t even bother to summon the medics.

The opening credits are superimposed over stunning footage of a motorcycle messenger delivering the just-shot film.  The perspective is from directly behind the rider, and I found myself wondering exactly how they did this shot.

Which leads me to: if there is one thing I did not expect from this movie, it is how beautiful most of it looks.  Though released by a major studio (Paramount), this has the feel of an underground, independently-produced work.  And it isn’t just shots that were composed in advance, there is a horrible beauty to the hand-held footage obtained in the midst of the chaos.

One thing I did expect, given the era it was produced in, is a killer soundtrack and I wasn’t disappointed.  Instead of the needle drops one comes to expect from such films, Mike Bloomfield’s score is joined by several songs from Zappa’s The Mothers of Invention.  A haunting and melancholy instrumental from Love plays over the opening credits and reoccurs at different points.

As for the plot, it is pretty thin when you set aside the real-world situation it was filmed in.  Forster has a pretty, blonde girlfriend (Marianna Hill) and they seem to have a healthy relationship.  An honest but kind of disturbing scene has her getting aroused watching a violent roller derby match which transitions to a fairly strong sex scene between Forster and Hill.

That, and an another scene, have some full-frontal nudity of both genders, though the naughty bits are still mostly hidden in shadow.  Still, the MPAA originally slapped this with an X rating.  Wexler and some critics believe that X was politically-motivated, and I am inclined to agree.  That said, he would have had a much stronger argument if the sexual content was toned down.

That political content is very disturbing, as we are seeing real footage of policemen clubbing and gassing people.  A moment captured in the film is the director getting hit by a tear gas canister an officer fires directly at him.

At that point something happens which is one of the elements of Medium Cool which is eating at me.  On the soundtrack, we hear, “Look out, Haskell.  It’s real.”  This would have been an astonishing moment—if that had actually been recorded at the time.  Haskell has since revealed they weren’t recording sound at that time, and he added this line in post-production.  Part of me appreciates the impact this line has, but another part was disappointed to learn this was fabricated.  Can something become more honest by essentially telling a lie?

Admittedly, that conflict is one of the major themes in the movie.  Near the start of the picture, Forster and Bonerz are at a cocktail party where much discussion concerns the nature of news gathering and how determining which footage is to be gathered helps shape public perception.  As a former video editor, I can attest to this.  Whether intentional or unconscious, anything one person presents to another has some amount of subjectivity.

The most interesting scene in the movie has Verna Bloom in a bright yellow dress, looking for her runaway son and getting caught up in the unrest surrounding the convention center.  Bloom turns in a powerful performance, all the more stunning because we are watching an actor in a role alongside real police officers and protestors as they turn on each other.  I found it interesting the actress chose the dress without considering how it makes her stand out from the crowds amidst the chaos.  I wonder if Spielberg was inspired by this for the scene with the girl in red in Schindler’s List.

Bear with me for a minute, while I vomit my usual glut of miscellaneous observations.  It was surreal to see Peter Boyle as the manager of a firing range as, if I had not known who he was, I would have thought he was one of the real-world people interviewed.  While in DC, Bonerz informs Forster that “for every man in DC, there’s four-and-a-half women.”  Is he implying he had sex with half of a woman the night before?  Which half?

Lastly, there’s the very last scene of the film: an intentionally preposterous and pretentious twist and reveal that almost felt like it was flipping the bird at the audience.  I believe I clearly understood the message they were sending with this scene, and yet it was so ridiculous that is almost (almost) killed the movie for me.

Medium Cool is possibly the best movie I have seen that could only be a product of the late 60’s counterculture, even with that ending.  It is a fascinating time capsule as well as a thought-provoking excursion into media and how it is shaped to form certain impressions.  The movie manipulates us, and tells us directly it is manipulating us, challenging us to consider why we react the way we do to anything we are shown by the media.

Dir: Haskell Wexler

Starring Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz

Watched on Criterion Collection blu-ray