‘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.
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