The Whole World is Watching: Medium Cool (1969)

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“This is America quaking, this movie, seen the way only a gifted artist can possibly draw his photographic attention to these events . . . the roots and fruit of social turmoil, and the media pervading and even anticipating the event. The media’s involvement in the motion picture, its place in the movie, is more important than the relationship that exists between the girl and me. And ultimately, the media remains . . . goodbye to us. Which brings the picture full circle. The media continues.”
- Actor Robert Forster on Medium Cool from a 1969 newspaper interview

Haskell Wexler’s quasi-documentary Medium Cool (1969) airs on TCM this coming Sunday (10 PM EST / 7 PM PST) and I can’t think of a better film to watch before the start of the RNC and DNC conventions this month.

If you’ve been paying attention to the election this year, you’re well aware of the fact that both of our major political parties are in upheaval at the moment while the country is engulfed in racial and economic strife. This, along with an unremitting war on a nebulous enemy, gender disparity, unaffordable health care, inadequate education opportunities, environmental concerns, gun violence, an invasion of privacy by government as well as commercial interests and a growing distrust of our corporate run media (just to list a few of the hot-button issues propelling the debate), has concocted a Molotov cocktail of social unrest. When Haskell shot Medium Cool in the long, hot and discordant summer of 1968, a similar political climate was sweeping the country. It was an alarming and dispiriting time and many of the concerns troubling Americans 50-years ago are still with us today.

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“You can’t just walk in out of your arrogance and expect things to be like they are. Because when you walked in you brought LaSalle Street (location of violent protests in Chicago) with you, City Hall and all the mass communications media. And you are the exploiters, you’re the ones who distort, and ridicule, and emasculate us. And that ain’t cool.”
- Unnamed black activist addressing cameraman (Robert Forester) in Medium Cool

Medium Cool opens with the aftermath of a terrible car accident that has left a critically injured woman expiring on the side of the road. A small news crew made up of a camera operator (Robert Forster) and sound man (Peter Bonerz) arrive on the scene and begin filming. The car’s horn became stuck during the crash so they quickly put an end to its constant screaming allowing them to film the dying woman as she takes her last breath. After they’ve gotten their money shot, the two reporters finally discuss calling an ambulance. It is a shocking moment. One designed to stun viewers and shake them out of complacency. This vivid reminder of how our news media is geared towards generating ratings by limiting and manipulating what we do and do not see, is the binding thread that runs through the entire film.

Haskell, an award winning cinematographer (The Loved One; 1965, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; 1966, In the Heat of the Night; 1967, The Thomas Crown Affair; 1968, etc.) made several documentaries (The Living City; 1953, The Bus; 1965, etc.) before directing his first feature film, Medium Cool. The basis of Medium Cool was a novel by Jack Couffer titled The Concrete Wilderness but Haskell began to reimagine his film as a firsthand account of the political and social upheaval taking shape in Chicago during 1968 seen through the eyes of a cameraman. The picture was loosely constructed, employing untrained actors to work alongside the film’s stars and allowing the cast to improvise their lines while interweaving documentary footage into the film’s narrative. In the process, the production took on a life of its own and much like the news media it was critiquing, the film’s division between fact and fiction became irreversibly blurred.

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“The media’s got a script now. By the numbers. Flags at half-mast. Trips cancelled. All games called off. School’s closed. Memorial meetings. Memorial marches. Moments of silence. A widow cries and then she says brave words. More moments of silence and then the funeral procession. A lot of experts saying how sick our society is. How sick we all are. The script is a national drain-off. People say ya, ya, we’re guilty. We’re bad. There’s a lot of people who are afraid. They’re afraid the Negroes are going to tear up their stores, burn neighborhoods, so they have this nationwide, coast-to-coast, network special called ‘Mourn the Martyr.’ Nobody’s really on the hook, ya see. When the script is finished and Tuesday comes around or Saturday and ‘National Drain-Off Week’ is over, everybody goes pretty much back to normal. Normal this, normal that. You know, normal.”
- John Cassellis (Robert Forester) in Medium Cool

The experimental nature of Medium Cool, which avoids Hollywood-style storytelling methods in favor of cinéma vérité techniques, creates an intimacy and urgency with its subject matter. In turn, it artistically illuminates truth in a way that a straightforward documentary might have minimized. As Robert Forster’s character, a news cameraman named John Cassellis (based on Haskell himself and director John Cassavetes), becomes immersed in the social and political unrest consuming Chicago the audience is similarly pulled into the drama. We come face-to-face with political protesters, military and police forces, the inhabitants of poverty stricken Appalachian neighborhoods and black ghettos as well as frightened housewives asserting their right to bear arms while violence threatens to erupt throughout the city. These figures encourage us to confront our own prejudices, assumptions and beliefs.

We also experience this volatile world through the eyes of Eileen (Verna Bloom), a single mother who is quietly having a political awakening of her own. Eileen bears witness to John’s frustrations as he rails against his superiors after discovering that the FBI is monitoring his work. This leads him to reassess his contributions to the state of the nation as a news reporter working for a government monitored institution masquerading as a free and open press. He may want to expose the truth with his camera but instead he’s contributing to the white noise that muddles intelligent debate and stifles compassionate reform.

What sets Medium Cool apart from many other films of the period such as Easy Rider (1969) and The Strawberry Statement (1970), which are both politically charged and critical of the times, is its focus on the media. As the film ends, Haskell turns his camera on himself, asking viewers to consider the people behind the camera and their intentions. Today that message is more important than ever as corporate owned and operated news organizations continue to shape our perception of political candidates, control debates and influence the important issues our government officials choose to address. They typically frame our social concerns in simplistic terms, shades of black and white with very little gray, while regularly stoking public fears to generate ratings. Unfortunately for us all, someone benefits from our fear, anger, disorder, ignorance and confusion.

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4 Responses The Whole World is Watching: Medium Cool (1969)
Posted By Walt : July 15, 2016 1:03 am

Perhaps someone could report back if the showing on TCM includes the Wild Man Fischer song “Merry-Go-Round” during the roller derby scene that was in the theatrical version. All DVD and Blu-Ray releases replace this song with a version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” as the Fischer song wasn’t able to be licensed for home video release. I think the original song is cleared for TV showings so it will be interesting to see whether that is what is shown or if it will just be the BD master.

Posted By Lyndell : July 15, 2016 2:07 am

Perhaps for “unprofessional actors” a better choice would be “nonprofessional actors.”

Posted By Ben Martin : July 15, 2016 1:24 pm

It put me off when i first saw it but on second viewing it really bowled me over. And that makes sense – it’s such a “new” film, in that it feels like its own animal even though it does dip into movie conventions when it needs to – yet respects us, the viewer, to fill in blanks with our own psyches and experiences in ways we so rarely see in movies then and now. (In fact, in many ways movies have taken giant leaps backwards in that regard.) Easy Rider, another hip new film of that era, ages terribly in my mind. Medium Cool remains so fresh and new, even as it is showing a snapshot of a very specific, turbulent time in our history. I love this movie and love that TCM is showing it. And I love that Kimberly wrote so eloquently about it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : July 15, 2016 5:22 pm

Ben – First, thanks much for the kind words about my piece. Second, I can easily understand how someone might be put off or confused by the film at first. It’s not a conventional movie and if you’re not exposed to experimental films or only watch Hollywood productions you might find it jarring. Glad you were able to appreciate it more on a rewatch.

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