Tag Archives: hippies

Medium Cool

Medium Cool
Medium Cool

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 31 August 2015

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Haskell Wexler

Writer: Haskell Wexler

Cast: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Marianna Hill

USA 1969

111 mins

‘Look out Haskell, it’s real!’ There is a moment towards the end of the relatively overlooked counterculture masterwork Medium Cool, newly released on DVD by Eureka Entertainment, where these urgent words shake filmmaker and viewer alike. The movie cameras themselves are quite literally shaking and flailing in front of a cloud of tear gas, as the film’s fictional narrative – a love story between a television news reporter and a poor, single mother from Appalachia living in Chicago’s ghetto – reaches its denouement against the very real backdrop of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protest, where the National Guard is deploying tactics surreally seen rehearsed earlier in the film.
Influenced by directors of the French New Wave and the cinema vérité movement, which he was a part of, veteran filmmaker Haskell Wexler’s approach in Medium Cool is an unusual and electrifying one: by following and filming social and political ferment in Chicago and Washington D.C. throughout the tumult of 1968, he captured a sprawling patchwork of real events, onto which he hung a conventional scripted tale of romance and political awakening. Wexler, together with his small crew, was adept at gaining access to events that would most likely be highly controlled today. Hence, in the first half of the film, we see National Guard members practising their military drill on colleagues dressed up in whacked-out garb and aping hippie culture, as seen through the establishment’s eyes. Talcum powder ‘tear gas’ is fired while ludicrous lines are spewed out by a fake political figure: ‘We’ve given you everything we thought you wanted… We let you use our swimming pool, every 4th of July’.

The spoken warning at the demonstration – although sounding like a spontaneous cry – was in fact recorded after events and spoken by Wexler’s son as a voice-over; another example of the blurring of fact and fiction that makes Medium Cool such a compelling study on the nature of film. The words serve as a reminder to Wexler and his audience alike that the tear gas on screen is no longer the stuff of theatrical training exercises at Camp Ripley but a real physical threat in the city street; and, in doing so, the words underline the mollifying distance created by film, both in those creating and viewing footage. It is not only at this meta-moment that we are made aware of such things; John Cassellis (Robert Forster), the cameraman-protagonist of Medium Cool, acts as Wexler’s vehicle for a long meditation on the power and ethics of the moving image as a social force.

Indeed, Medium Cool is an overtly political film, which saw its release delayed while another counterculture landmark of 1969 – Easy Rider – faced fewer obstacles. Perhaps, as Wexler has later reflected, Dennis Hopper’s cultural revolution was more easily co-opted than his own vision of concurrent attempts at political revolution. Through footage of real-life events, improvised set-ups and straight-to-camera soliloquies, Wexler weaves a complex tapestry of voices, from African-American political radicals to the dirt-poor Appalachian community of Chicago’s Uptown, representing viewpoints and ideas found outside the freewheelin’ hippies or diffident heroes of New Hollywood.
A collage of competing words, sounds and images, Wexler’s feature is a chaotic, experimental mess of a film; and, because of that, it acts as a perfect artefact from, and record of, its time. The breadth and force of social and political unrest called for a special kind of film, one that reacted to and reflected the changing situation rather than trying to restrain or dictate its subject matter. And, while Medium Cool may be a perfect time capsule of America in 1968, it should also be seen as vital viewing for today, part of an ongoing conversation in which these very same questions surface time and time again.

Eleanor McKeown

Watch the trailer:

Punishment Park

Punishment Park

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 23 January 2011

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Peter Watkins

Writer: Peter Watkins

Cast: Patrick Boland, Kent Foreman, Carmen Argenziano

USA 1971

88 mins

All you non-conformists, step this way.

The Vietnam War is intensifying. Nixon is ordering bombing missions on the Laos-Cambodian border and civic unrest is reaching new heights with violent demonstrations in the inner cities and on the university campuses. A pair of documentary crews, one from West Germany and one from Great Britain, follow two groups of detainees. One (group 637) is being processed through a tribunal, while the other, having already chosen the option of Punishment Park over significantly long prison sentences, is finding out just exactly what Punishment Park is.

Peter Watkins had already made his reputation as a provocateur with his Wednesday Play The War Game in 1965, which was banned by the BBC for 20 years. Punishment Park, released in 1971, is in many ways just as incendiary. The pseudo-documentary style is complemented by the improvisational techniques that Watkins employed. It allows Watkins to portray a topical moment of confrontation (Kent State Massacre was in 1970 and the Chicago 7 trial began in 1968), but it also seems part of the point that America is dangerously improvising with its own polity and identity. Throughout the film there is a radical sense of people making stuff up as they go along. This goes for the activists, who are a melange of counter-culture figures, from an obvious Bobby Seale stand-in, to a poet who looks like Allen Ginsberg and a Joan Baez-style protest singer. But it is also true for the kangaroo court that tries them and the police and National Guard, who are never quite sure of what their role is supposed to be. The media are also included in this free-for-all. The documentary filmmakers are complicit in giving the legal procedure legitimacy as well as producing a striking warning not to fuck with the government. Their protests are feeble — ‘you bloody bastards’ — and largely ignored by the trigger-happy police who, anticipating criticism of Watkins’s own origins, point out their outsider status: ‘why don’t you go back to Europe?’

Tension mounts in the film as it becomes increasingly clear that the Punishment Park experience is not about education or rehabilitation but is a cynical sadistic game, similar to something out of Pasolini’s Salí², or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), an experience the prisoners have little hope of surviving. To add to the tension, the soundtrack is dominated by the incessant sounds of gunfire and passing fighter jets in the background. This is America: constant bitter and angry argument with a clear and present threat of heavyweight and disproportionate military violence.

It would be a stretch to say that Watkins is in any way even-handed - his is a bitter and a furious film of denunciation. The court is composed of recognisable faces from the news, sociologists, a housewives-of-America spokeswoman for the Silent Majority, a big union man and politicians. They are easily hissable straw men and their depiction is the weakest element in the film. And yet the film does allow for some ambiguity. It is the prisoners who draw first blood, when some of them decide that they won’t follow the rules of their own punishment and ambush and kill a policeman. What we end up watching then is perhaps the tragedy of 60s radicalism, which saw street fighting pitching middle-class radicals against often working-class police and soldiers, to the great relief of the ruling class.

Listen to the Electric Sheep I’m Ready For My Close-Up programme on Peter Watkins with BFI archive curator William Fowler on Friday 20 January, 5-5:30pm, Resonance 104.4FM.

John Bleasdale