Director: Haskell Wexler,
Watched on: DVD,
In Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, set during Chicago’s 1968 Democratic convention, vibrates with the intensity of watching history happen before our eye. Wexler, already an established veteran director of photography for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, In The Heat of the Night, and The Thomas Crown Affair, grafted the fictitious story of a news cameraman’s tentative love affair into his real-time street footage of the convention and ensuing protests, creating a one-of-a-kind film that is both politically astute and cinematically playful.
Wexler was a master with the long lens. He was a student of montage. His scenes have a tactile momentum. A foot chase through a parking lot, a boy’s long wander through the city, and the aftermath of a fatal car accident are all staged with an attention to the process of cutting on rhythm, of building coherent sequences. His scenes crackle with a visual intelligence, even when they dawdle on the storytelling.
Medium Cool is a commentary on many things: Vietnam (of course), political upheaval, the emerging self-importance of TV news, the dialectic of McLuhan’s hot and cool media, and the casual racism of white liberals (reflected in a scene where the cameraman and his sound guy find themselves uncomfortably challenged by a room full of black radical intellectuals).
The cameraman, played with the right touch of arrogance by a young, intense Robert Forster, falls in love with a woman (Verna Bloom) from Appalachia, whose pre-teen son has begun to forget his own father, who is missing and presumed dead in the war. The cynical Forster gradually has his consciousness raised when he realizes freedom of the press is one of the first casualties during an election year. He observes from the edges of the revolution, but is critically aware of its potency. Then his naïve self-absorption crumbles in the immediacy of the riots in the streets. These scenes, which Wexler captures with remarkable potency, contributed to what Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times in 1969, called “a kind of cinematic Guernica, a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence.”
Medium Cool was rated X upon its release, not only of its then-incendiary politics but also because it was one of the first non-pornographic movies to feature full frontal male nudity. The scene in which Forster and his girlfriend (Marianna Hill) romp through his studio is both exuberant and sexy. Forster wouldn’t do the scene unless Wexler stripped as well, so the director cleared the set, took off his clothes, and he, Forster, and Hill dashed around in naked, wide-angle glory. The scene is one of the last of its kind, a free-spirited appreciation of hedonism, cleaned of guilt or coyness. Much of Medium Cool has that sensibility, a feeling that anything could happen.