In anticipation of the upcoming 2015 Toronto Hot Docs International Festival of Documentary Cinema, enjoy a repost review of Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, a classic of Direct Cinema blending Documentary and Drama on Criterion Blu-Ray.
Medium Cool (1969) *****
Dir. Haskell Wexler
Starring: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Marianna Hill, Harold Blankenship
Review By Greg Klymkiw
“I hope we can use our art for love and peace.” So said cinematographer Haskell Wexler as he accepted an Oscar last April for his work on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? His seriousness and obvious sincerity startled the Academy Awards audience, long used to the standard thank yous to co-workers and producers. “I realized I might never get another chance at an audience of 60 or 70 million people. It seemed too big an opportunity to miss. What was I supposed to do – thank my gaffer and Jack Warner?”Kevin ThomasLos Angeles Times, 1 June 1967
A car off the highway. Metal twisted. Open door. Woman's body splayed on the asphalt. Blood gushing. A photographer attached to a movie camera hovers above - shooting - like a vulture circling its prey. One gruesome shot after another. Every conceivable angle caught on film. Real film. Real movie camera. Real cameraman - or so we think. We pray he isn't real because when he's sucked as much life out of his quarry as possible, he packs up and leaves the woman to bleed and presumably die. Alone.
The cameraman is John Cassellis. He is played by Robert Forster. Yes, we're watching a movie, but WHAT a movie! When Medium Cool was unleashed upon the movie-going public, nothing like it had ever been seen before and without question, not much (if anything) like it has been seen since.
Written, directed and photographed by Haskell Wexler, the celebrated cinematographer of such films as In The Heat Of The Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as well as two Oscar-winning turns for Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf and Bound For Glory, he crafted what might be the ultimate auteur film made in America. To this very day, Medium Cool is an important and influential work of the Cinema Vérité movement. It's exciting, urgent and vital - impossible to take your eyes off the screen while watching it, almost impossible to blink for fear of missing a frame and most of all, impossible to get out of your head once you've seen it.
On the surface, it might seem very simple - deceptively and cleverly so. Cassellis doesn't seem to care about much of anything unless he sees it through the lens of his camera. He loves shooting to the exclusion of all else. The only thing that matters is what he sees is what he shoots. The image is everything to him. It's not even especially important what story he's telling so long as he's telling it, so long as he's capturing his perspective on the world around him. He shoots, then hands off his negative (yes, kids - negative - ever hear of that?) to a helmeted motorcycle rider who crazily zips through the Chicago streets in the film's great opening title sequence.
The shots are in the can. What's next for him to plaster onto negative? He's like a junkie. He needs another shot. All that counts is the shot. From his eye, through the lens and bouncing back from his target and captured on unexposed stock greedily demanding a chemical bath in order to spool itself through the projection sprockets of a telecine and then, beamed over airwaves, mediated through a cathode ray screen and into the eyes, hearts and, hopefully, minds of its viewers.
His aim is true. What's done with it afterwards might not be.
Certainly Cassellis seems untroubled with his own part in journalistic exploitation and this is hammered home by his purely sexual relationship with a sex-drenched young fuck-buddy (Mariana Hill). He needs to SHOOT - film AND sperm. It's only once his life has been touched by a chance encounter with a pair of Appalachian expats in the slums of Chicago - a single mother (Verna Bloom) and her only child (Henry Blankenship) - that Cassellis opens his eyes to the insidious manner his images are being disseminated.
When he discovers that the corporate pigs running the stations and networks are furnishing his potentially incriminating footage of civil unrest to law enforcement officials (most notably, the FBI), he flies into a rage. The film builds to a harrowing climax involving a riot where his eye, so fixed on the events he's shooting, misses the plight of the people closest to him and eventually (and literally) jettisons both himself and the audience smack into a shocking conclusion.
The eyes of Cassellis remain shark-like, though the emotion fuelling his actions shifts from obsession to a form of vengeance. Nothing, however, can match the eyes of the mother and her son - especially her son - they're the battered and bruised receptacles of America's indifference and their part in Wexler's film reaches heartbreaking proportions.
The corruption and collusion of mainstream media and its relationship to both corporate interests and government are today a given fact, but in the late 60s, when Medium Cool was made, such a thing seemed unthinkable. When Wexler fashioned this film it was a shocker, but somehow in the context of today's world - our own strife amidst uncaring governments, in turn the puppets of a new world order of corporations - this picture is more important than ever. Its importance to both history and the art of cinema is virtually a given, but its importance to exposing and keeping all of us aware of contemporary political gangsterism has seldom been matched.
Films that focus upon media have never been uncommon, but only Federico Fellini in his 1960 film La Dolce Vita pre-dates Medium Cool with any significance. Via the character of Paparazzo (a name Fellini derived from Italian dialect to describe the buzzing of mosquitoes), the Maestro's masterwork is often credited with generating the etymology of paparazzi to describe the European phenomenon of photo journalists who use their lenses to capture celebrities in poses of compromise.
Certainly, Wexler's horrific opening pre-dates the death of Princess Diana and the photographers who chased and surrounded the twisted metal - shooting with abandon as life painfully drained from her. Years after Wexler's picture, writer Paddy Chayefsky and director Sidney Lumet delivered Network, the savage satire of news becoming "entertainment" and being rooted in corporate greed rather than any altruistic desire to deliver news in a traditional journalistic sense. Finally, though, Medium Cool is the yardstick to measure all cinema dealing with media and I'd argue that nothing even comes close to matching it.
America was on the precipice of massive upheaval and there was an overwhelming sense that major shit was going to hit the fan in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention - which, of course, it did. Wexler designed his film to shoot on location during this time and what he captures is probably the most powerful cinematic game of "chicken" between documentary and drama ever made.
He populates his film with a mix of great actors, non-actors and the real thing in the midst of actual events Cassellis and, by extension, Wexler's film, both capture so indelibly.
Robert Forster is the revelation here. Handsome, rugged, nicely buff - he's handed the difficult task of being often mute, bereft of real passion or caring - until, of course, it's too late - and even then, he switches into obsessive auto-pilot. Forster's performance here is one of the great performances in contemporary American cinema. Cassellis is a superbly etched character - seemingly passive, but active where it counts. His early years as a boxer (which he continues to train as) are the sort of physical skills cameramen absolutely require to get the brilliant handheld footage they need.
His motion picture debut was a couple of years earlier in John Huston's magnificently insane adaptation of Carson McCuller's novel Reflections in a Golden Eye. This was a brave way for any actor to expose himself in his first film. Playing the apple of Marlon Brando's closeted military officer's homosexual eye, Forster taunts Brando by riding a horse nude in eyeshot of the smitten military man, and in turn, obsessed over Brando's sexually frustrated wife played by Elizabeth Taylor, he repeatedly enters her bedroom nude and jerks off into her dirty panties as she dozes deeply within the Land of Nod.
Most actors today would greet such a role as a bad career move, but if they were lucky enough to have a director as visionary as Wexler, they'd go from one great role to another, as Forster did by going from Huston to Wexler. Forster, by the way, never hit the heights of stardom he should have and instead had a hugely successful film and TV career as a "working" actor until Quentin Tarantino displayed the same vision Huston and Wexler were imbued with and cast him in the world weary male romantic lead bail bondsman opposite Pam Grier in the wonderful Jackie Brown.
If anything, though, Wexler might well have handed Forster the role of a lifetime here - especially within the context of a medium like cinema that has the power to inform, entertain and effect real change. The shooter Cassellis is always alert to the possibility of those images and Forster always commands our attention to this fact with his expressive eyes. His powerful body helps him hoist that camera and aim it where his eye wants to go.
Wexler captures so many genuinely real events during his drama and it is Forster who is always at the centre of them. Whether we see riots, national guardsmen in mock training during protest march scenarios, the lives and milieu of Chicago's most racially segregated areas of Chicago - it's Casselis who is our onscreen tour guide as we see what Wexler sees via Forster - and it is ALL TOO REAL; the looks of hatred and mistrust upon the faces of those living in the neighbourhoods, the poverty stricken naked kids splashing through fire hydrant water in the blistering heat, encounters with revolutionaries in tenement slums, Wexler uses this great actor to allow us into a world of reality.
It's a mediated reality, to be sure, and this is always Wexler's aim.
But where the film, its intentions and ultimately, its impact become all too clear is the breathtaking, salient moment when Wexler trains his lens upon Cassellis and Forster so evocatively utters one of film history's great lines:
"Jesus," he says with a hint of passion that escapes from his seemingly cold, detached demeanour, "I love shooting film."
And so he does. He loves shooting film with a purity that is eventually soiled by both corporate and government evil. What then is left for a man when he discovers that his lifeblood is being perverted, subverted and sucked out of him - not for the good of man, but for the good of profits and maintaining the Status Quo? What finally is left, is that which Wexler shockingly provides us in his movie.
It's not a pretty picture.
What's truly terrifying to me and utterly disgusting (because it continues today with even more frequency and intensity) is that Wexler was strongly urged to re-cut his film as the corporate giants at Paramount were being pressured from so many levels of influence to mute and ultimately emasculate the film's power. Wexler refused. He had the power to do so. Instead, a brilliant filmmaker who had just won a fucking Oscar had his work initially manhandled and censored by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). For one brief scene of nudity and a handful of cuss words, the film was slapped with an X-rating which was effectively a kiss of death as it relegated Wexler's film to the same status of hard core pornography.
Nobody in their right mind would believe the rating was due to the aforementioned language and nudity.
Medium Cool was being censored for being too political and worse, not the capital "R" RIGHT political.
"Jesus, I love shooting film."
This is the sin more grave that those laid down in the Ten Commandments since loving to shoot film often means we must expose the evils of God and Country.
And God only knows, we can't have that now, can we?
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray and DVD of Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool is perhaps one of the best packages the company has ever put together. Wexler's haunting images are gorgeously transferred for our edification and the entirety of this disc is bursting at the seams with a wealth of material.
There are two audio commentaries, one with historian Paul Cronin and the other with Wexler, editing consultant Paul Golding and actress Marianna Hill, as well as a new Wexler interview.
The real gems are extended excerpts from Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!, Cronin's documentary that has interviews with Wexler, Golding, Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Chicago historian and the film's intrepid consultant Studs Terkel and a myriad of others, as well as excerpts from Sooner or Later, Cronin’s documentary about Harold Blankenship, who plays Verna Bloom's son in the picture. Both of these documentaries form an important and near-epic look at a film AND a time and place when America was on the precipice of the eventual decline it's experiencing now. They both look great on this disc and present enough salient details for most viewers, though, in fairness, versions can be accessed in full unexpurgated form outside of the disc. They don't look "pretty" and suffer a bit from the editorial decisions made by Criterion, but part of me wishes they'd been presented in their whole on this disc in addition to the excerpts.
The other absolute gem is Wexler's new documentary Medium Cool Revisited which focuses on the Occupy movement’s protests during Chicago's 2012 NATO summit.
As per usual, the disc includes a trailer and a fine booklet with a new essay by film critic and programmer Thomas Beard. This is a keeper. If you care about cinema, you'll want to own this. I've only had this disc for two weeks and I've already spent hours and hours pouring over it.
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