‘Medium Cool’: A kaleidoscopic view of a chaotic time in American history

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Medium Cool came out during a time when American filmmakers were looking for new and interesting ways to tell their stories. The French Wave played a big part in shaping the thought processes of these young filmmakers of the time who, inspired by the techniques of Jean-Luc Godard, tried to bring in similar techniques to tell their stories. There were already filmmakers in the early 60s like Sidney Lumet, John Cassavetes and John Frankenheimer employing innovative camera work and editing to give fresh experiences to the audiences. Lumet came out with the boundary pushing The Pawnbroker and Frankenheimer was trying documentary-style filmmaking techniques in Seven Days in May.

These two films came out in 1964. Then there was John Boorman whose 1967 film Point Blank had a heavy French New Wave influence. The film was one-of-a-kind and until then no one thought that a hitman film – or rather a crime film – could be done that way. Fast forward to 1969 and there were three great films that year: Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Medium Cool. Of these Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider and Medium Cool were quite the attention-grabbing oddities with their rapid editing and non-linear storytelling. No one had seen anything like these before. And the Hollywood New Wave hasn’t even begun yet. These films inspired and encouraged up and coming filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. They gave them enough confidence to go ahead and make films the way they wanted to.

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 Midnight Cowboy and Medium Cool are two of my favorites from ’69. I was completely floored by their filmmaking style. Medium Cool is a frantic, politically-charged work doesn’t really have a “story”. This film is probably the first example of a docu-drama. Some of the footage is real, especially the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. What Haskell Wexler was interested in showing were fragmented moments – sequences and events, some of which were improvised. They explore several issues which include racial tensions, Vietnam and the exploitative nature of media.  Wexler captures the mood of a time and place that people from outside the U.S are not familiar with and in doing so, makes timely and prophetic statements about the violence-loving and attention-craving nature of today’s generation whose first impulse after seeing something is to record it, no matter how insignificant it may be.

The film begins and ends with a car crash and both these have no connection to each other. These scenes are there just to show that these things happen randomly, just like everything else. The main focus of the film is on a T.V journalist by the name of John Cassellis. He is the kind of guy who, if there were an accident somewhere nearby, is more interested in getting his footage before calling an ambulance. We see him as a self-centered guy in the beginning and then slowly witness his transformation as he encounters various individuals and radical groups, like the Black Panthers, who are desperate to get their voices heard. Everyone seems on the edge. Cassellis is played by Robert Forster, the criminally underrated actor whose work I became very curious of after seeing his remarkable turn in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown.

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It becomes apparent from some sequences that Wexler was very much in love with some of his shots. He had previously won an Oscar for Best Cinematography for his work in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? He also shot Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier. Medium Cool marked his first directorial debut. He made two documentaries prior to this. He had to endure some extremely difficult situations during the filming of Medium Cool. At one point, two of the lead actresses, Marianne Hill and Verna Bloom, were harassed by the police and were booked on charges of prostitution. Then another time, Wexler was hit by a tear gas canister which left him temporarily incapacitated and loss of eyesight for a day.

Everyone is interested in watching these events but no one is interested in getting involved and helping people. Wexler made the protagonist a cameraman because he wanted him to reflect his own fears – that of being a watcher in the distance without doing anything. Wexler had something interesting to say about the desensitizing effect of media:

“The first time that millions of Americans actually saw a man being killed was when Ruby shot Oswald. They gasped and said, ‘I don’t believe it.’ But then they saw it replayed and replayed and replayed, with the TV announcer saying, ‘Now watch Ruby’s hand, now watch officer so-and-so’s arm as it drops to his side, see Oswald’s look of anguish as he doubles up.’ The public was watching a scene charged with drama, but one filtered through a glass, a glass protecting them from what people in the past had experienced. When reality comes to you that way, it comes minus one ingredient, and that ingredient is human emotion.”

 

 

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