Although he is more widely-known for his cinematography than his directing, the recently-deceased Haskell Wexler actually made 11 full-length features, as well as a few shorts. Most of these were documentaries, though this politically-charged, experimental late-60s piece is unusual in that it effectively blends fact with fiction. The scripted action follows a TV news cameraman played by a young Robert Forster – his first lead role – as he covers various events taking place across the country, such as Bobby Kennedy’s funeral procession and the protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He also begins a relationship with a single mother named Eileen (Verna Bloom), though all this narrative is left to float around in the spaces in-between Wexler’s cinéma vérité-style coverage of the events themselves. A bizarre apex of sorts is reached when Wexler, filming Bloom as she acts on the periphery of protests in Chicago, suddenly comes under fire from tear gas launched by the police. A cry of ‘Look out Haskell, it’s real!’ seemingly emanates from behind the camera, ensuring the line between what is real and what is fabricated in the film is completely blurred, and the scene has since entered into movie folklore (in fact it’s used as the title for the film’s excellent ‘making of’ documentary). In actual fact the footage was originally shot without sound, and Wexler dubbed the line in later, so it isn’t merely a happy accident but a deliberate move by someone committed to testing the viewer’s understanding of what is ‘real’ and what is not.
Forster’s character, John Cassellis, cuts a rather detached figure as he flits from one event to another. He’s quite young, and therefore shouldn’t really be jaded, but there’s a concerning, impassive blankness on his face while he is at work, while he gradually becomes disillusioned with the TV industry. We first see him surveying a car crash, stepping round the body and the debris in order to get the shots the network requires; only when he and his colleague are finished do they think to call an ambulance. This kind of distant, unsympathetic behaviour has been echoed since in other characters working in the media, but particularly fellow cameraman Lou Bloom in Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Like Bloom Cassellis doesn’t share the same ethical concerns or degree of empathy as some of his co-workers, yet that’s not to say he doesn’t care about his job. When he discovers that the network has been feeding his material to the FBI, for example, it sends him into a rage, and he is soon looking elsewhere for employment, though this incident seems to set in motion his disenfranchisement with the media. He is a complicated character: there is an air of the beatnik about him, but rather than simply being written as an out-and-out liberal Cassellis holds contradictory views, as evidenced by the delivery of some rather old-fashioned sexist advice to Eileen’s 11-year-old son.
Medium Cool is certainly more intriguing and valuable as a result of Wexler’s documenting of the counterculture, as well as the political and social upheavel happening in late-60s America. The director amassed hours of footage of riots, rallies, riot police training and much more, and plenty of it appears here, including scenes of an oddly out-of-place roller derby. The film paints as thorough a picture of the US as it underwent significant social change as you could hope to see. Wexler details a country besieged by race and class divides, with attitudes changing at a rapid pace and an uncertain future in store. The film should also be considered as a significant early work in the American New Wave, though its inability to find an audience beyond cineastes means it isn’t as widely-regarded as central to the origin of that movement as two other films from the summer of 1969, Easy Rider and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Yet this is the film that really tells you where America was at as the decade drew to a close, and the way in which Wexler overlapped genuine and artificial material is fascinating. He was helped considerably by the great Verna Fields, who also cut Jaws, The Sugarland Express, American Graffiti and Paper Moon.
Directed by: Haskell Wexler.
Written by: Haskell Wexler.
Starring: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Marianna Hill, Harold Blankinship.
Cinematography: Haskell Wexler.
Editing: Verna Fields.
Music: Mike Bloomfield, Frank Zappa, Love, Various.
Running Time: 110 minutes.