Known mainly for his work in documentaries, Haskell Wexler felt the need to show us that reality can be beautifully confused with the movies. 1969’s Medium Cool is his demonstration of that, a picture that broke those boundaries wide open. It was only 1969; the decade of cinema that was to follow would learn from Medium Cool’s lessons on perspective, narrative, and tone; the film itself, sadly, has became a little lost in time.
For most of the film’s runtime, the camera is its own living, breathing character; deciding where to gaze for us, as if Wexler had let it off its leash and commanded, ‘seek!’ But when it does decide to look in a single direction for long enough, we follow John Cassellis (Robert Forster), a grouchy cameraman who – with cold indifference – captures horrific events around Chicago for the News stations. When the 1968 Democratic National Convention rolls into town, his nonchalant life changes course for the better; he meets Eileen (Verna Bloom), a mother from the Midwest with her unruly son Harold (Harold Blankenship) in tow, and slowly forms a bond with them. But that’s the simple core of the movie: Wexler’s cinéma vérité style, probably rather dizzying to Western audiences at the time, blended footage of reality and performance; it makes for a tirelessly compelling watch, even when some of its tangents shoot far off point. But when this movie takes aim and fires, there’s not much that can top it for both visceral shock and close-cut topicality: the very first scene, for instance, where Cassellis films the aftermath of a car crash without offering to help, is sublime. Playing out like a micro version of Nightcrawler, it disgusts us, but we can’t look away. Another astonishing scene is when Cassellis attempts to leave the apartment of a black man giving him a story, only to be intellectually one-upped by the other residents; looking directly into-camera, they tell the story of the minority in late ‘60s America with a deafening clarity. Medium Cool is routinely at its best when making commentary that never feels like a lecture.
Forster is superbly cast as the unfeeling American Adonis who slowly gets a conscience; Bloom’s worries and cares are our own. Along with the naturalistic performances, Wexler’s absolute mastery of the medium permeates the frame; and yet, his box of cinematic tricks, while a whirlwind of invention and feeling, is curiously less engaging than we want to believe, on either a conceptual or narrative level. Perhaps it’s the film’s own influence that dilutes its effect; maybe we’ve watched too many Robert Altman movies. Regardless, Medium Cool stands as a testament to the on-screen alchemy that can be achieved if a camera is pushed into the real world, while holding a script close by.
Medium Cool is released on Monday August 31 from Eureka!, as part of their Masters of Cinema series.