Medium Cool [DVD]
Screenplay : Haskell Wexler
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1969
Stars : Robert Forster (John Cassellis), Verna Bloom (Eileen Horton), Peter Bonerz (Gus), Marianna Hill (Ruth), Harold Blankenship (Harold Horton), Sid McCoy (Frank Baker), Christine Bergstrom (Dede), Robert McAndrew (Pennybaker)
"There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in 'high definition.' High definition is the state of being well filled with data.... Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience."
—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, pp. 22-23
The title of Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool is a play on the work of media prophet Marshall McLuhan, whose writings about the importance of how "the medium is the message" took the academic world by storm in the mid-1960s, causing scholars to rethink how the media affect us.
In his third book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan tried to capture the entirety of humankind's history and every major development in communication and media, which to McLuhan represented everything from spoken language to the electric light bulb. Reaching as far back as the dawn of humankind, McLuhan used 359 pages to interconnect almost every important step humankind had taken, from inventing the wheel to showing the first movies. In McLuhan's world, development didn't come quietly, but in the forms of explosions that rocked the world and carried humans toward more change.
Thus, it is not surprising that a dedicated liberal, anti-establishment filmmaker like Wexler would feel drawn to McLuhan's worldview, even as he sought to undermine some of McLuhan's conclusions. After all, since McLuhan declared movies to be a "hot medium," one that is so filled with information that it requires little participation on the audience's part, Wexler's intent in Medium Cool seems to have been to prove this wrong—that movies could provoke thought and participation from the audience. They could, in effect, transcend the physical properties of their medium. To Wexler, the message was the message.
Wexler starts out Medium Cool in a series of seemingly disjointed fragments. In the opening scene, we see two television newsmen, a camera operator and a soundman, blithely filming the still-twitching body of a woman who has been in a serious car wreck before calling an ambulance. We watch as various news reporters stand around a television station, discussing violence in the media and the dangers of their profession. We see a young Appalachian boy, dirty and tousled, releasing a pigeon in his slum neighborhood. Wexler doesn't give us connections between and among these scenes, but rather makes us work to piece them together, and it isn't until more than half an hour into the film that we realize how these characters' lives will begin to intersect and create a narrative we can follow.
Set against the backdrop of Chicago in 1968, one of the most violent years in modern U.S. history (between 1967 and 1968, the peak year of the Civil Rights movement, there were 384 riots in 298 different cities, including the most infamous in Detroit and Newark), Medium Cool tells the story of a rise to political consciousness. The detached cameraman we saw in the opening scene, John Cassellis (Robert Forster), slowly learns through the events unfolding around him that he does have a part to play in the larger picture—that he is not just there to document, but to interact and participate. Part of this evolves through his relationship with Eileen Horton (Verna Bloom), a poor Appalachian woman struggling to make ends meet in the slums of Chicago with her young son, Harold (Harold Blankenship).
However, the conventional narrative in Medium Cool is almost entirely subsumed in the atmosphere of the times. Wexler had always intended to film his story against the '68 Democratic national convention being held in Chicago, and his cameras ended up getting caught in the maelstrom of violence that erupted between protestors and police in the streets outside. Thus, Medium Cool became more than a fictional movie set against a current backdrop; instead, it became a rare hybrid that fused the fictional and the real, as Forester and Bloom, maintaining their characters, rushed through chaos of the actual street conflict. The violence becomes part of the story, yet it exists outside of it, as well. Those are real protestors bleeding on the ground; the pile of park benches through which Eileen must crawl was not stacked by a production designer; the unrelenting chorus of screaming and yelling was not recorded in a postproduction studio.
Even without this confluence of the fictional and the real, Medium Cool would still be a revolutionary example of how the medium of film can convey deeper political urgings. The exact political message of Medium Cool isn't clear, and this lack of clarity is more a reflection of the turbulent times than a lack of thought on the filmmakers' part. If anything, it is about the need to be involved, to participate, to make history, not merely record it.
Wexler, primarily known as a cinematographer who won two Oscars (one in 1966 for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and one in 1976 for Bound for Glory), was already an accomplished documentary filmmaker when wrote, directed, and photographed Medium Cool. He ably employs the aesthetics of cinema verite give the film a gritty, realistic texture that makes it difficult to separate the real from the fabricated, and his use of political themes recalls the influence of French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean Luc Godard, whom Wexler consciously evokes. The result a powerful, utterly unique film, one of the few that truly captured the turbulent late-'60s zeitgeist in all its fury.
|Medium Cool DVD|
|Audio||Dolby 1.0 monaural|
|Supplements|| Audio commentary by writer/director Haskell Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill|
Original theatrical trailer
|Distributor||Paramount Home Video|
|Release Date||December 11, 2001|
|Although it was shot over 30 years ago, the new anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer on this DVD makes Medium Cool look new again. Previously hard to find on home video, this is without a doubt the best it has looked in years. The print used for the transfer was exceptionally clean, with barely a mark or blemish to be found. The colors are strong and well-saturated, with almost no hints of fading or age. The overall image has a slightly grainy look, but it gives the image a remarkably filmlike texture.|
|The soundtrack is presented in monaural and sound as good as can be expected.|
| The screen-specific audio commentary by writer/director Haskell Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill is a real gem and should be listened to by anyone even remotely interested in filmmaking and late-'60s politics. Recorded during the summer of 2001 just after a retrospective screening of Medium Cool at the Edinburgh Film Festival, it is one of the most genuinely interesting commentaries I have heard in some time. Golding acts as the commentary's self-proclaimed "emcee," although Wexler needs little prodding. They talk at length about the details and challenges of filming the movie, where some of the actors came from (many were pulled right off the streets), and how Wexler had some inside tips that led him to believe there would be an uprising at the Democratic convention, thus undermining that long-held belief that it was simply a matter of fate or luck or some combination of both. The commentary is consistently fascinating and truly adds to the experience of watching this unique film. |
Also included on the disc is the film's original theatrical trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick