“This is America quaking, this movie, seen the way only a gifted artist can possibly draw his photographic attention to these events . . . the roots and fruit of social turmoil, and the media pervading and even anticipating the event. The media’s involvement in the motion picture, its place in the movie, is more important than the relationship that exists between the girl and me. And ultimately, the media remains . . . goodbye to us. Which brings the picture full circle. The media continues.”– Actor Robert Forster on Medium Cool from a 1969 newspaper interview
If you’ve been paying attention to the election this year, you’re well aware of the fact that both of our major political parties are in upheaval at the moment while the country is engulfed in racial and economic strife. This, along with an unremitting war on a nebulous enemy, gender disparity, unaffordable health care, inadequate education opportunities, environmental concerns, gun violence, an invasion of privacy by government as well as commercial interests and a growing distrust of our corporate run media (just to list a few of the hot-button issues propelling the debate), has concocted a Molotov cocktail of social unrest. When Haskell shot Medium Cool in the long, hot and discordant summer of 1968, a similar political climate was sweeping the country. It was an alarming and dispiriting time and many of the concerns troubling Americans 50-years ago are still with us today.
“You can’t just walk in out of your arrogance and expect things to be like they are. Because when you walked in you brought LaSalle Street (location of violent protests in Chicago) with you, City Hall and all the mass communications media. And you are the exploiters, you’re the ones who distort, and ridicule, and emasculate us. And that ain’t cool.”– Unnamed black activist addressing cameraman (Robert Forester) in Medium Cool
Medium Cool opens with the aftermath of a terrible car accident that has left a critically injured woman expiring on the side of the road. A small news crew made up of a camera operator (Robert Forster) and sound man (Peter Bonerz) arrive on the scene and begin filming. The car’s horn became stuck during the crash so they quickly put an end to its constant screaming allowing them to film the dying woman as she takes her last breath. After they’ve gotten their money shot, the two newsmen consider calling for an ambulance. It is a shocking moment and one designed to stun viewers and shake them out of their complacency. This vivid reminder of how our news media is geared towards generating ratings by limiting, exploiting and manipulating what we do and do not see, is the binding thread that runs through the entire film.
Haskell, an award winning cinematographer (The Loved One; 1965, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; 1966, In the Heat of the Night; 1967, The Thomas Crown Affair; 1968) made several documentaries (The Living City; 1953, The Bus; 196) before directing his first feature film, Medium Cool. The basis of Haskell’s film was a novel by Jack Couffer titled The Concrete Wilderness but Haskell began to reimagine his film as a firsthand account of the political and social upheaval taking shape in Chicago during 1968 seen through the eyes of a cameraman. The picture was loosely constructed, employing untrained actors to work alongside the film’s stars and allowing the cast to improvise their lines while interweaving documentary footage into the film’s narrative. In the process, the production took on a life of its own and much like the news media it was critiquing, the film’s division between fact and fiction became irreversibly blurred.
“The media’s got a script now. By the numbers. Flags at half-mast. Trips cancelled. All games called off. School’s closed. Memorial meetings. Memorial marches. Moments of silence. A widow cries and then she says brave words. More moments of silence and then the funeral procession. A lot of experts saying how sick our society is. How sick we all are. The script is a national drain-off. People say ya, ya, we’re guilty. We’re bad. There’s a lot of people who are afraid. They’re afraid the Negroes are going to tear up their stores, burn neighborhoods, so they have this nationwide, coast-to-coast, network special called ‘Mourn the Martyr.’ Nobody’s really on the hook, ya see. When the script is finished and Tuesday comes around or Saturday and ‘National Drain-Off Week’ is over, everybody goes pretty much back to normal. Normal this, normal that. You know, normal.”– John Cassellis (Robert Forester) in Medium Cool
The experimental nature of Medium Cool, which avoids Hollywood-style storytelling methods in favor of cinéma vérité techniques, creates an intimacy and urgency with its subject matter. In turn, it artistically illuminates truth in a way that a straightforward documentary might have minimized. As Robert Forster’s character, a news cameraman named John Cassellis (based on Haskell himself and director John Cassavetes), becomes immersed in the social and political unrest consuming Chicago the audience is similarly pulled into the drama. We come face-to-face with political protesters, military and police forces, the inhabitants of poverty stricken Appalachian neighborhoods and black ghettos as well as frightened housewives asserting their right to bear arms while violence threatens to erupt throughout the city. These figures encourage us to confront our own prejudices, assumptions and beliefs.
We also experience this volatile world through the eyes of Eileen (Verna Bloom), a single mother who is quietly having a political awakening of her own. Eileen bears witness to John’s frustrations as he rails against his superiors after discovering that the FBI is monitoring his work. This leads him to reassess his contributions to the state of the nation as a news reporter working for a government monitored institution masquerading as a free press. He may want to expose the truth with his camera but instead he’s contributing to the white noise that muddles intelligent debate and stifles compassionate reform.
What sets Medium Cool apart from many other films of the period such as Easy Rider (1969) and The Strawberry Statement (1970), which are both politically charged and critical of the times, is its focus on the media. As the film ends, Haskell turns his camera on himself, asking viewers to consider the people behind the camera and their intentions. Today that message is more important than ever as corporate owned and operated news organizations continue to shape our perception of political candidates, control debates and influence the important issues our government officials choose to address. They typically frame our concerns in simplistic terms, shades of black and white with very little gray, while regularly stoking public fears to generate ratings. Unfortunately for us all, someone benefits from our fear, anger, disorder, ignorance and confusion.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written in July 2016 for FilmStruck.com