Medium Cool: Masters of Cinema Review

A cameraman gains a conscience in Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, on Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema.

I reviewed Paramount’s Region 1 DVD of Medium Cool for this site in 2003, here. This new review is considerably revised and expanded from the earlier version and contains some plot spoilers.

Chicago, 1968. The Democratic Convention is in town. Protesters and police face off each other in the street and riots brew. We first meet television news cameraman John Katselas (Robert Forster) as he and his soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz) film a car wreck, with a woman lying badly injured if not already dead. Only when they have finished shooting do they think they had better call an ambulance. They drop the film off with a motorcycle courier, and the film’s opening credits come up as the rider (shot with a camera mounted behind him) speeds through the city streets as the sun comes up, with Love’s instrumental “Emotions”, which becomes a recurring motif over the next hour and three quarters, plays on the soundtrack. John’s credo is to get the shots, do the job, don’t get involved. However, events change his outlook. Following up a story about a black man returning $10,000 found in a cab, he becomes aware of some of the sociopolitical ferment going on. And he meets and becomes involved with Eileen Horton (Verna Bloom), an Appalachian single mother raising her son Harold (Harold Blankenship, a genuine Appalachian boy who had never acted before and has not done so since) and cracks appear in his professional carapace.

Marshall McLuhan called television the “cool medium”, hence the title of writer/co-producer/director/cinematographer/co-camera operator Haskell Wexler’s groundbreaking film. This was suggested by one of the crew of the film; Wexler had read McLuhan’s book The Medium is the Massage but claimed not to understand it. He was more overtly drawing on the French New Wave. With the exception of the very next scene (Forster and Bonerz in character talking to actual journalists, shot in 16mm) Medium Cool was all shot on lightweight shoulder-mounted 35mm cameras. While the film was scripted with a fair amount of improvisation as well, it contains what looks like (but isn’t always) undiluted documentary: for example, a scene when John and Gus interview a rich Chicagoan woman. It looks like a talking-head, but she is actually an actress (Beverly Younger – her only film but she did some television work a decade and a half earlier). Later in the film, Wexler put Forster and Bloom, in character, in the thick of the real riots that broke out between protesters and police. Especially when seen on a big screen, these scenes are terrifying. Wexler is very aware of Jean-Luc Godard’s comments about how much drama and documentary overlap. Even in a fictional feature, you are filming real people and real locations, and that is a documentary act; a documentary is edited and shaped as much as a fiction film and is never unmediated reality.

Wexler (born 1922 and still with us and active at the time of writing) had had experience of both documentary and fiction. He is one of the great American cinematographers of the second half of the twentieth century, winning the last Oscar specifically for Best Black and White Cinematography for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf> in 1966 and winning another ten years later for his colour work in Bound for Glory. His son made a documentary profile of him, Tell Them Who You Are. However, he had a long track record in documentary and was one of the several younger cameramen in the late 60s bringing documentary methods into dramatic features. Much of his work is informed by his politics, further to the left than is usual in Hollywood. One of his earlier films as co-cinematographer, Joseph Strick’s The Savage Eye prefigures Medium Cool by putting a fictional character played by an actor in real places and interacting with real people. By the later 1960s he was looking for a feature film of his own to direct. This would have been The Concrete Wilderness, a novel by another cinematographer, Jack Couffer (who had also been a cinematographer on The Savage Eye and was Oscar-nominated in 1973 for his work on Jonathan Livingston Seagull). The novel was about a young boy who raises pigeons, and a little of this remains in Medium Cool as young Harold also has this hobby. Paramount bought the rights to the novel and offered it to Wexler as a negative pick-up deal for his first feature. However, Wexler had other ideas as to the film he wanted to make. He tips his hat to Godard more than once: the final shot, where Wexler quite literally turns the camera towards us, is a lift from Le mépris (Contempt) and if you listen carefully earlier, you’ll hear a television announcer (actually the voice of celebrated editor and sound designer Walter Murch) trail the film later that evening…Contempt. If that final shot breaks the fourth wall, then the moment when tear gas is let loose towards the camera and Wexler was genuinely tear-gassed. does so too. However, the voice you hear famously warning the director/DP – “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!” – was not recorded at the scene but was added later.

Another blurring of fiction and reality is in the name of Forster’s characters. Identified as simply “John” in the end credits, he was originally going to be called John Cassavetes after the actor/director who in his own way tried to introduce more truth into his fiction. Cassavetes was originally going to play the character in Medium Cool as well, but was unable to due to other commitments. As a quick note, as mentioned above John’s surname does not appear in writing on screen. Many sources (including the IMDB and the booklet for this Blu-ray) render it as “Cassellis” but as spoken it certainly sounds more like “Katselas” and is spelled that way on this disc’s hard-of-hearing subtitles so that’s the spelling I’m going with here.

In 1968, the USA was in political ferment. The younger generation in particular were protesting America’s involvement in Vietnam. Present Lyndon B. Johnson was being challenged over his pro-war stance. At the Democratic Convention that year, the party had to decide on Johnson’s successor, and would they elect a pro-war candidate or one advocating for peace? Then Martin Luther King was assassinated and so was Robert Kennedy, brother of a slain president and a man often thought of as a potential future candidate, was as well. The police and the National Guard were anticipating trouble in or outside the Convention, and early in the film, John and Gus are seen shooting their training manoeuvres.

Robert Forster, born 1941, is better known nowadays for his lead role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, which lifted him from a decade and a half of obscurity if constant good work. He had made his debut in 1967 in John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye and had been third-billed in 1968’s The Stalking Moon. This was his first leading role. Early on, John is a cold fish. He could be as drained of humanity as one of the astronauts in 2001, released in the same year that Medium Cool was filmed. He has a girlfriend, Ruth (Marianna Hill, someone who also acts in a number of major or at least very interesting 70s films, including the first two Godfather films) but this seems to be mostly based on sex rather than a deeper relationship. They go to a roller derby (and more about this scene later), which is a display of violence as spectacle, violence as entertainment, violence as a turn-on…and Wexler is less than subtle in cutting from this to a scene of John and Ruth having sex. Forster ably conveys the shift in John’s perspective, when he is fired from his job and becomes closer to Eileen. There’s a touching scene – shot only once – when John introduces Harold to a shower. Harold the actor, like Harold the character, had never seen one before.

Peter Bonerz’s character is as much a cold fish at the start as Forster’s is, but Bonerz gives humorous accents to Gus that help lighten what is hardly a comedic film. One scene, where Gus says that when dating there are four and a half women to each man, allows Wexler and his editor Verna Fields (another graduate from The Savage Eye, who would later win an Oscar for cutting Jaws having been previously nominated for American Graffiti) to create a showoffy sequence where they film a succession of four and a half women, the final half being that woman’s legs. Bonerz continues to work both as an actor and a director.

Verna Bloom was not actually Appalachian, being a native of Massachusetts, but she’s affecting in her role, her cinema debut. She claimed the film did not help her career as people assumed she was a non-professional like the boy playing her screen son, a testament to the efficacy of her performance. Peter Boyle, a year before his breakthrough performance in Joe, appears in one scene as a gun clinic manager. China Lee, best known for an earlier role in Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine (1965) gets her name in the end credits by appearing in one shot as a “roller derby patron” sitting a few seats to the left of Forster and Hill. Her presence is a mystery: maybe she just happened to be at the derby Wexler and his crew filmed?

The ending is jolting, and is announced on the soundtrack – among radio reports from the rioting – before we see it on screen. With a crashed car, one occupant dead and the other critical, we come full circle, returning to the beginning of the film as a passing car pauses so that those inside it can take a picture of the wreck before moving in. And then Wexler turns his camera on its us, and we zoom in so that its lens fills the screen, the final credits being white on black as the radio broadcasts continue on the soundtrack until the film ends.

Medium Cool was completed and Paramount did not want to release it, but they were bound by the contract they had originally signed by Wexler. They asked for edits to make the police more sympathetic and the protesters less so (which ended up as trading phrases like “pigs eat shit” for others like “up against the wall, motherfucker”) and asked for releases from everyone filmed in the riot sequences. To make matters worse, the MPAA gave the film a X rating, forbidding the film to anyone under sixteen (later seventeen). The reason for this was given as being for strong language and full-frontal nudity, though it was widely felt that the X had been given for political reasons. This film, by the way, does demonstrate that MASH (1970), often cited as the first American film to contain the word “fuck”, was in fact nothing of the kind. As well as Medium Cool, other pre-MASH F-words can be heard in the English-shot major-studio release I’ll Never Forget What’s’isname and in independent films such as the 1967 adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses directed by Joseph Strick (him again), and the US indies David Holzman’s Diary and Futz, and no doubt in other films of the time I haven’t seen. (MASH was in fact the first American film containing the word to be given a R rating.) The nudity is in a bedroom scene between John and Ruth in which both are seen fleetingly full-frontal. Forster thus became the first American actor to reveal all on screen in a major-studio production, in the same year as Oliver Reed and Alan Bates famously did the same across the Atlantic in Women in Love. In the UK, Medium Cool was passed without cuts for an X certificate, which in 1969 meant it was restricted to sixteens and over. This disc, the first time the film has been commercially available in the UK since then, carries a 15 certificate.

In 1970, after an appeal, the MPAA rerated Medium Cool to the R rating it has today, allowing under-seventeens if accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. However, the damage was done. Medium Cool was not a commercial success, though it was very much a critical one. That didn’t translate into any Oscar nominations, though the Director’s Guild of America did nominate Wexler for its annual award, which went, like the Best Director Oscar, to John Schlesinger for Midnight Cowboy, another film from a major studio with a MPAA X rating later downrated to a R.In 2003, it was entered into the National Film Registry, as one of up to twenty-five “culturally, historically or aesthetically important films” added each year for preservation in the Library of Congress. Meanwhile, Wexler continued in his distinguished career as a cinematographer and documentarist. He has made one further dramatic feature, Latino in 1985, which I have not seen and which pretty much vanished without trace.

I first saw Medium Cool on its second BBC showing on 15 October 1982, a week and a half after my eighteenth birthday, staying up late to watch it. I remember that showing to this day. The BBC did not censor the film visually, though (as I later realised) it edited out the strong language, standard practice for any film they showed then, however distinguished and however late at night it was broadcast. A few years later, it again on Channel 4, this time with a fully-fucked soundtrack. The soundtrack has since been altered in another way, but we’ll go on to music rights issues in a moment.

Medium Cool is a key film of the Sixties, not just “of” that decade in the sense that it was made then, but is about that decade: it captures many important things of that time. Its release in home format in the UK is very welcome indeed.

The Disc

Medium Cool is a dual-format release by Eureka as number 120 of its Masters of Cinema line. It comprises a Region B Blu-ray and a Region 2 NTSC-format DVD. Criterion released its own edition (which I do not have to hand) in 2014. It is also derived from a 4K-resolution master approved by Wexler, and has many, but not all, of the same extras as the present disc. Masters of Cinema have not carried over a second commentary, by Paul Cronin. On the other hand, the present Blu-ray has a featurette, “Haskell and the Cameras”, which is not on the Criterion.

First, the best news. The transfer is in the correct ratio of 1.85:1 and in the case of the DVD is anamorphically enhanced. As mentioned above, the film was shot in 35mm (except for one scene originated on 16mm) with lightweight shoulder-mounted cameras, often in natural light or with minimal lighting, and the results are a testament to Wexler’s abilities as a cinematographer. This Blu-ray was my sixth viewing of the film, following three television showings, the Region 1 NTSC DVD…and one previous viewing in high definition, in other words a 35mm print, at the BFI Southbank in January 2015. That was an ex-distribution print which began with the 1969 BBFC X Certificate, not faded but a little worn in places, particularly in the places where 35mm prints usually get worn, at the beginnings and ends of the six projection reels. This 4K-derived Blu-ray is the best I’ve ever seen the film look, given that I’m not of an age to have seen an original film print at the time of release, with strong colours and blacks, and natural-looking grain…quite a bit of grain in fact, inevitably given the circumstances of the film’s making. Screengrabs follow: first the 2001 DVD and then the present Blu-ray.

The sound mix is LPCM single-channel mono, and mono is the way this film has always been heard. This is clear and well-balanced between dialogue, sound effects and music. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are available. I spotted no errors in them, though they could have identified the songs on the soundtrack. And on that point…

This is not the original theatrical version of Medium Cool, though if you weren’t aware of that fact, there’s nothing in this release which will make you aware of it. A full discussion of music rights issues is beyond the scope of this review, but this is something that mainly affects films made between the late 1960s and somewhere around the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, which use prerecorded pop and rock music on their soundtracks, something which became popular in Hollywood in the wake of Easy Rider. Briefly, the licences to use this copyrighted music were signed and paid for cinema release and television broadcasts…but not homevideo (tape, laserdisc, DVD, Blu-ray, whatever’s next) as that either did not exist at the time or in its early days companies allegedly did not consider it more than a passing fad. Come the early 1980s, when homevideo had become a major source of ancillary revenue for the studios, licences covering home releases were signed as a matter of course. That did though leave a decade and a half where in many cases the rights to particular music had become unavailable or were prohibitively expensive to renegotiate. As a result, films were released on videotape and later DVD with particular music tracks substituted for the originals or not released at all, and there are many examples of each. Medium Cool, on its original VHS release in the USA, was one of the cases which established the precedent that rights originally contracted did not cover home rental or purchase. As a result, the film has ever since been released in a version with a music substitution. The Region 1 DVD has a note on the back that “some music has been changed from [the film’s] theatrical version”. There is no such note anywhere in this Blu-ray edition, not on the back, nor on the booklet included inside. That is remiss of Masters of Cinema, though I am quite aware that the music-rights situation with this film is outside their control.

The music rights substitution is as follows. At 15:55, we cut to the scene with John and Ruth at the roller derby referred to above. At first we have no diegetic sound, but what you should hear is Wild Man Fischer’s track “Merry-Go-Round” (which you can listen to here) for eighty-eight seconds, and then the track abruptly cuts out in favour of diegetic sound. On this disc, what you hear instead of Mr Fischer is a whistling rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” by Brother Bones. Here is not the place to discuss Fischer’s career – for that I refer you to the 2004 documentary about him Derailroaded, which I reviewed on DVD here. However, in context “Merry-Go-Round” works perfectly: its shambolic rhythm and Fischer’s complete inability to stay on pitch only emphasising the show violence of the roller derby. To say that the replacement alters the tone of the scene entirely would be an understatement. “Merry-Go-Round” was the opening track to the Frank Zappa-produced album An Evening with Wild Man Fischer and the rights for that album remain with Zappa’s estate. The fact that this song and others from the album were licensed for use in Derailroaded gave hope that the rights issue could be resolved, but it has sadly not been. Zappa’s estate have never had a problem with some Mothers of Invention songs appearing on the Medium Cool soundtrack, as they have been present every time I’ve seen the film. It is a sad situation that the original version of this major film is becoming increasingly harder to see: the last two BBC showings were of the altered version. If you don’t own one of those original VHS tapes, or have an off-air recording of one of those 1980s TV broadcasts or in these days of digital projection have an increasingly rare chance to see a 35mm print, you are out of luck.

One last thing about the music rights issue. Previously the altered version has had the final end credit redone to reflect the change, like so (screengrab from the Region 1 DVD):

However, the original version had a different final end credit, and lo and behold there it is on this Blu-ray and DVD, despite the music substitution still being in place. Note the misspelling of the singer’s name.

The extras begin with a commentary brought forward from the previous DVD, recorded at the Edinburgh Festival in 2001 following a screening of the film. This involves Haskell Wexler, Marianna Hill and editorial consultant Paul Golding. They all have clear memories of making this film thirty-three years before, and what they have to say is absorbing and often fascinating.

That Edinburgh screening was accompanied by a then-new documentary directed by Paul Cronin, “Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!”: The Making of Medium Cool (53:14) . This has since been shown twice on British television: first on BBC Knowledge (the predecessor to BBC Four) in 2002 and on BBC2 in 2004. Cronin continues to work on this documentary and the original cut has been expanded to six hours. (The original and longer versions, the latter in six parts, can be found here and a PDF transcript of the longer version is here.) The version on this disc is billed as “extended excerpts” (also the wording for this item on Criterion’s disc) which is true as far as the longer version goes, but as for the 2001 cut (which runs 55:28 at the link above), “extended excerpts” is a euphemism for “censored”, despite the prominent disclaimer at the start about the interviewees’ views being their own. What is missing is a small section near the end where Wexler details how Paramount tried not to release the film and about how the X rating was a political X. In the longer version, Irwin Yablans and Peter Bart, both working for Paramount at the time, counter this: Medium Cool was a low-budget film with a first-time director and no stars which the marketing department didn’t know how to handle, and the main advertising dollars were being spent on Paint Your Wagon and True Grit. And no, the X rating did not help.

In my 2001 review I mentioned that Harold Blankenship had not been tracked down. Well, now he has, and he features in a feature-length documentary by Paul Cronin, Sooner or Later, of which we have extracts (15: 57) in which he talks about his life now and then, with some extracts from the film.

“Haskell and the Cameras” (10:13) is another Paul Cronin documentary, made in 2013. Here, Wexler shows us the cameras used in the film: the 16mm shoulder-mounted NPR Eclair camera that we see Robert Forster using on screen, and the also shoulder-mounted 35mm Eclair CM3 cameras that Wexler and fellow camera operator Mike Margulies used to shoot the film with. Wexler also had magazines custom-made to hold 1000 feet of 35mm film (about ten or eleven minutes’ worth), and he shows us them, the only two in existence.

Finally on the disc is the theatrical trailer (3:26), an overlong effort that clearly hasn’t an idea how to sell this film. The trailer ends with the original MPAA X-rating card. 

There’s no essay in Masters of Cinema’s 28-page booklet, but instead there is the summary of a report submitted in the wake of the riots to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. This summary is reprinted in full. Also in the booklet are viewing notes, Blu-ray and DVD credits and several stills, with the original US poster art on the front cover.


Updated: Sep 15, 2015

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