Medium Cool

( 1 )

Overview

"I love to shoot film" is the sanguine motto of TV lensman John Cassellis Robert Forster in Haskell Wexler's 1969 Medium Cool, a semi-documentary investigation of image-making and politics. With his soundman, Gus Peter Bonerz, John films such events as gruesome car wrecks with frosty detachment, considering himself a mere recorder of circumstances, his only responsibility to get his film in on time. Even his girlfriend, Ruth Marianna Hill, cannot understand or penetrate John's complacency. Encounters with signs ...
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Overview

"I love to shoot film" is the sanguine motto of TV lensman John Cassellis Robert Forster in Haskell Wexler's 1969 Medium Cool, a semi-documentary investigation of image-making and politics. With his soundman, Gus Peter Bonerz, John films such events as gruesome car wrecks with frosty detachment, considering himself a mere recorder of circumstances, his only responsibility to get his film in on time. Even his girlfriend, Ruth Marianna Hill, cannot understand or penetrate John's complacency. Encounters with signs of the late '60s times, however, raise John's consciousness about the implications of his job, as he films a verbal attack by black militants on the media's racism, gets fired after he objects to having that footage turned over to the FBI, and meets Vietnam War widow Eileen Verna Bloom. John witnesses the violence of the state firsthand as he and Eileen search for her son amidst the real-life demonstrations and riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention. Even though he realizes the political power of pointing a camera at anything, John finally cannot extricate himself or his loved ones from a culture obsessed with recording any sensational, gory incident. Scripted from a novel by Jack Couffer, directed, and shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer and political activist Wexler, Medium Cool systematically questions the ideological power of images by combining documentary techniques such as "talking heads" and cinéma vérité with staged scenes between the actors. By the time Wexler and his crew start filming Forster and Bloom among the actual events at the convention, all barriers between fiction and fact are broken down, as Wexler's assistant can be heard warning, "Watch out, Haskell, it's real," when tear gas is thrown. The footage of cops clubbing people in the crowd is real, but Wexler's presence also turns it into part of a fictional story, revealing filmed "reality" to be as artificially constructed as any other fiction, subject to the interpretation of whoever holds the camera and, perhaps, to larger institutions of power. Funding Medium Cool partly out of his own resources, Wexler had free reign during production, but when the execs at Paramount saw the result, they were not pleased. Despite the timely subject matter, Paramount delayed and then curtailed the film's release, tempering its impact on critics and audiences. Regardless of that record, Medium Cool stands as a vital late-'60s film for its incisive narrative and formal dissection of the visual politics of "truth," and its awareness of how coolly seductive televised violence might be as entertainment, especially in a historical moment marked by incendiary images of political assassinations, the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, and counterculture protests.
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Editorial Reviews

All Movie Guide - Mark Deming
Few documents in any medium captured the political unrest of the late '60s with greater clarity than Medium Cool, a remarkably accomplished directorial effort from award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Wexler took to the streets of Chicago with a film crew to record how the city prepared for the 1968 Democratic Convention, and he put himself in the middle of the violent clashes between police and protestors that went on to define that event. Wexler then wove this material into a narrative about John (Robert Forster), a TV news cameraman whose ability to observe impartially the events around him is challenged by the violence of the riots, as well as by his relationship with Eileen (Verna Bloom), a young widow whose husband died in Vietnam. While it's no surprise that Wexler's footage of actual events bears the ring of truth, his staged sequences have a rough, improvised quality that meshes perfectly with the real-life sequences, and the result is a work that blurs the lines between fact and fiction. Wexler's mix of visual polemics, on-the-spot documentary, human drama, Brechtian disorientation, media-savvy analysis of television, and fashionable sex, drugs, and rock & roll made Medium Cool as intelligent and challenging as anything Jean-Luc Godard produced in Europe at the time, and Wexler's film has for the most part better withstood the test of time. It's a shame that Wexler directed so few features after Medium Cool, but, as both a work of art and a document of a central moment in American history, it remains an essential and invaluable film.
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Product Details

  • Release Date: 4/16/1995
  • UPC: 097360690736
  • Original Release: 1969
  • Rating:

  • Source: Paramount
  • Presentation: Wide Screen
  • Format: VHS

Cast & Crew

Performance Credits
Robert Forster John
Verna Bloom Eileen
Peter Bonerz Gus
Marianna Hill Ruth
Harold Blankenship Harold
Charles Geary Buddy, Harold's Father
Sid McCoy Frank Baker
Christine Bergstrom Dede
William Sickinger News Director
Robert McAndrew Pennybaker
Marrian Walters Social Worker
Beverly Younger Rich Lady
Edward Croke Plainclothesman
Doug Kimball Newscaster
Peter Boyle Gun Clinic Manager
Sandra Ann Roberts Blonde in Car
Janet Langhart Maid
Jeff Donaldson Black Militant
Bill Sharp Black Militant
Robert Paige Black Militant
Richard Abrams Black Militant
Walter Bradford Black Militant
Russell Davis Black Militant
Felton Perry Black Militant
Val Grey Black Militant
Livingston Lewis Black Militant
John M. Jackson Black Militant
Linda Handelman Gun Clinic Lady
Maria Friedman Gun Clinic Lady
Kathryn Schubert Gun Clinic Lady
Barbara Brydenthal Gun Clinic Lady
Elizabeth Moisant Gun Clinic Lady
Rose Bormacher Gun-Clinic Ladies
China Lee
Nancy Lee Noble Kennedy Student
Haskell Wexler Cameraman on Scaffold
Barbara Jones Black militant
James H. Jacobs Kennedy student
Mary Smith Kennedy student
George Bouillet Media person
Studs Terkel Our Man in Chicago
Technical Credits
Haskell Wexler Director, Cinematographer, Producer, Screenwriter
Michael Bloomfield Score Composer
Leon Ericksen Art Director
Verna Fields Editor
Wendell Franklin Asst. Director
Tully Friedman Producer
Michael D. Margulies Camera Operator
Chris Newman Sound/Sound Designer
Kay Rose Sound Editor
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Customer Reviews

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2010

    A seminal film of 60's independent cinema.

    There is much to be learned about the craft of film-making from observing this stunning film. "Medium Cool" came into existence as a pet project of renowned cinematographer Haskell Wexler ("Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", "In the Heat of the Night", "Bound For Glory"). Wexler spent $800,000 in personal funds (much later reimbursed by Paramount) to craft this angry blend of reality and theater, set against the backdrop of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Interspersing actual footage from these chaotic events (ironically some of the riot footage was later subpoenaed by the government) Wexler used the character of a TV news cameraman to discuss weighty issues of personal/professional ethics, idealism and responsibility. Whose purposes should news footage serve? What is the place and responsibility of an individual in a society marked by out-of-control chaotic turmoil? The film's title is a not-so-subtle play on Marshall McLuhan's designation of television as "the cool medium." Despite Medium Cool's idiosyncratic, forceful pushing of the traditional film-making envelope, critical comment was laudatory. Vincent Canby of the New York Times called "Medium Cool" "a film of tremendous visual impact, a kind of cinematic 'Guernica', a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion and violence." Unfortunately, despite enthusiastic critical reviews, studio indifference to the film and the "X" rating thanks to some brief full-frontal nudity, the film was one of the first major American films to receive an X rating from the MPAA (though it was subsequently been re-rated R), the result of a creatively ecstatic bedroom scene-one that Vincent Canby dryly noted: "should give lust a good name"-diminished the number of people who saw this complex, challenging, at times perplexing film, dubbed by Wexler as "a wedding between features and cinéma vérité." Disillusioned by the bitter experience, Wexler for the next several years abandoned commercial film-making for experimental forays into radical cinema ("Brazil: A Report on Torture", "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" and others). The film seems obviously influenced by the French New Wave, particularly by the work of Godard. This improvisational movie integrates didactic discussions about the responsibility taken by anyone who wields a camera, casual conversations about the lack of voice given to minorities in the media, and several sobering looks at the youth who were affected by the frenzy into its fourth-wall shattering panorama. It's great to see a filmmaker like Wexler at work, since he is concerned about important social issues and the potential of the medium. Rarely has a mainstream American feature so acutely and plainly tackled many of these artistic concerns. Ultimately, though, "Medium Cool" is a movie milestone in spite of some of its flaws. Certainly there is much to be learned about the craft of film-making from observing both the errors and on the occasions that the film's themes conspire to work together, the results are stunning. The political growing pains portrayed in the film seem to exist behind the camera as well, as American filmmakers in the late 1960s were grappling with the responsibilities brought about by their new ability to make films with adult content. That a major studio distributed this film is amazing. It's doubtful that the film would receive similar treatment three decades later. Whatever its weaknesses, they are easy to forgive since "Medium Cool" represents a pioneering slice of cinematic history. [filmfactsman]

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