Medium Cool (1969)IMDB Entry

Directed by Haskell Wexler
Starring Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Harold Blankenship.

Haskell Wexler is one of films' top cinematographers, working on films like In the Heat of the Night, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, among others.  One of his few forays into directing was Medium Cool, a scathing look of American society in the late 60s.

Robert Forster in Medium CoolRobert Forster (who years later was Gumshoe in Once a Hero) plays John Cassellis, a television cameraman working out of Chicago in the days leading up to and including the Democratic National Convention in 1968.  Cassellis is the camera, as the opening sequence shows, where he films a car crash without even thinking of giving help.

Cassellis's attitude changes when he befriends a woman and her young son, who moved to the city from Appalachia.  He becomes more socially conscious and, when the son is lost, he wanders the streets during the rioting around the convention, searching for him.

When I first saw the film, I was amazed at the way Wexler intercut scenes that made it really look like Forster was walking among the Chicago protesters.  It turns out that was no Hollywood effect:  Wexler anticipated trouble at the convention, and shot scenes right in the middle of it.

Wexler is a political director and the movie is both an indictment of the politics of the era and an attack on the media.  The final shot is especially chilling, as we discover just how thoughtless people can be while searching to get the footage, and indicts all of use for watching. 

The title, of course, comes from Marshall McLuhan.  I don't happen to have McLuhan here right now, but Wexler is clearly showing the problems with the coolness of the medium.  For Wexler, the medium is too cool, losing its humanity in the search for sensationalism.

Wexler's politics are clear, and that may be why he didn't direct a lot (though whenever he did, it also was a political film).  But in this one instance, he captured a snapshot of American society, and put his finger on a situation that is just as dangerous today as it was when it was made. 

8/7/06

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