Until Criterion released it last year, I’d never heard of Haskell Wexler’s 1969 film Medium Cool. Reading that it was a political film about a news cameraman set against the backdrop of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, I got excited about a juicy media thriller that anticipated the paranoia thrillers of 70s Hollywood. But if it was such a trailblazer, why was it left out of most conversations about the major films of the decade?
Tracking a copy down, I discovered the film was far from what I imagined. Re-reading Criterion’s blurb, I can see the film’s true nature was always evident and I was naively hoping for something more superficially entertaining. Medium Cool is only interested in narrative as a barely discernible current to guide a series of verité vignettes, which culminated in a sequence filmed during the actual police riots in Chicago in response to protests against the Democratic Convention.
So it’s understandable that the film is less well-known than its peers: it’s more a visual document of a tumultuous period than a traditional movie. Overshadowed the same year by Easy Rider, it’s even more experimental and disjointed than Hopper’s film and the revolutionary Hollywood decade it helped precipitate. The throughline is jaded news cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster), his career problems, and his involvement with single mother Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her son Harold following a chance encounter. The scenario is little more than a compass to prevent the film from amounting to an assemblage of interesting but scattered fly-on-the-wall sequences.
But that’s not a failing, because Medium Cool’s world is absolutely absorbing. The fictional narrative paradoxically makes the reality of its documentary elements even more vivid and tangible. The 60s have rarely felt as modern in film as they do here: this is a time capsule that demands we understand how incendiary and unpredictable a period it was. For those of us who didn’t live through it, movies of that era have been our primary exposure. But unvarnished as Hollywood became in the late 60s and early 70s, it can’t compete with a raw exhibit of the volatile America that inspired its creative evolution. To see the grounded but fictional version we’re familiar with bleed so deliberately into the stark reality we never experienced immerses us in the time more effectively than pure documentary or fiction typically could.
The climax sees Eileen inadvertently wander into the protests as they become riots. She’s been looking for her son, so one of the film’s clearly fictional strands is literally walking through our history as it happens. Wexler scheduled his shoot to coincide with the riot he suspected would occur, and we see some of its brutality as police officers attack peaceful protesters and victims nurse their injuries. The scale of the riot and the military presence feels like something out of a blockbuster, an irony Wexler seizes on. As Eileen walks for blocks and blocks past innumerable soldiers and military vehicles, the unsettling fusion of fiction and reality underscores the disconnection between media summaries of civil unrest and the reality of its scope.
It’s difficult to tease much more out of Medium Cool after only one viewing. It’s a cryptic film, with some tonally off-kilter sequences that are difficult to connect to the whole. A flashback where Harold’s father explains how women are men’s property seems out of step with the film’s preoccupations with violence, the media, and voyeurism. But it does highlight the ongoing shifts in gender roles and the rise of feminism, suggesting that rather than having a narrow thesis, Wexler is instead making a film that can serve as a melting pot for all the potent ideas brewing in the late 1960s. Such a vast objective is understandably prioritised over ensuring the elements cohere, with Wexler leaving much of the effort of creating meaning to us.
If the film failed to provide a complete and satisfying experience, we could rightly speculate that Wexler cast his net too wide. But the film’s electric atmosphere makes the period feel so current and alive that every disparate element fills in valuable details, either on first viewing or in all likelihood on subsequent ones. Even the ending and its fourth-wall stretching challenge to the viewer – which takes the film even further into the territory of abstract art – sticks with you, inviting you to go back and trace the characters’ journey more closely. What shots and throwaway lines of dialogue will reveal more about Wexler’s intent? Mostly though, experiencing the 1960s as palpable reality again is an enticing enough reason to watch the film a second time.
The depth of meaning in the film and its production is validated by the size of Paul Cronin’s ongoing documentary project Look Out Haskell, It’s Real! The Making of Medium Cool. First screened in 2001 in a 55-minute version, it has since expanded to around 6 hours and remains a work in progress. Along with freely available streams of both versions, Cronin’s site is packed with articles and resources about the film, indicating how profoundly the film speaks to its time.
Even though it sat outside of the Hollywood establishment, Medium Cool embraces that position and vigorously seeks to capture the state of the rest of America by not confining it with the artificial momentum and structure of popular entertainment. More vibrant and dangerous than other films of the period, it’s a concise, 110-minute seminar on a time that’s difficult to understand without living through it. Wexler gives you the next best thing.