Medium Cool Review

Chicago, 1968. The Democratic Convention is in town, and protesters and police face each other off in the street and riots brew. John Katselas (Robert Forster) is a TV news cameraman, whose credo is: do the job and don’t get involved. We first see him and his soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz) filming the aftermath of a road accident. Only once they’ve finished, almost as an afterthought, do they think of calling an ambulance. However, due to his encounter with Eileen (Verna Bloom), an Appalachian single mother raising her son (Harold Blankenship) in a Chicago ghetto, John’s involvement begins…

Marshall McLuhan called television the “cool medium”, hence the title of Haskell Wexler’s groundbreaking film. There weren’t many films like it then, and there still aren’t now, but its influence has been much greater than its minimal commercial success. It never really stood a chance. Paramount at the time were reluctant to release it at all, and only agreed on condition that Wexler made some small changes to make the police seem more sympathetic. In addition, the MPAA gave the film a X rating, restricting the film to the over-seventeens, ostensibly because of several “fucks” on the soundtrack and a bedroom scene between John and his girlfriend Ruth (Marianna Hill) in which both are seen briefly full-frontally nude. (Forster was therefore the first man to reveal all in an American major-studio film, in the same year as Oliver Reed and Alan Bates did likewise across the Atlantic in Women in Love.) But it was plain to everyone that the X was due to the film’s overt political content: it remains one of the most left of centre films ever made for an American major. With the passing of time, lesser topicality and the changing of standards, the MPAA rerated Medium Cool as a R without any edits. (In the UK, the BBFC gave the film an uncut X certificate – at the time for sixteens and over. It would get a 15 without any trouble if submitted today.)

What grabbed the attention at the time were the riot scenes. As real rioting broke out, Wexler put Forster and Bloom, both in character, in the thick of it, filming the action with two 35mm cameras, one of them operated by Wexler himself. These scenes have a considerable impact. At one point, when the police release tear gas into the crowd, you can hear someone shout, “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!” In an early lead role, Forster already shows us what a good actor he is, and he gets strong support from Bloom, Bonerz (a later comedian and director himself, he provides necessary comic relief) and Hill. Keep an eye out for Peter Boyle. Mike Bloomfield’s score is another asset, a mixture of electric guitar blues and country-style acoustic fingerpicking.

At the time Wexler was, as he still is, a highly distinguished cinematographer. He’d won an Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and would go on to win another for Bound for Glory. As a director he has made many documentaries, but Medium Cool (which he wrote, produced and photographed as well as directed) was his dramatic feature debut. He took until 1985 to follow it up with Latino, which sank without trace, and which I have not seen. Influenced by Godard as many filmmakers were then, Wexler blurs the line between fiction and reality with considerable aplomb, leading up to a jolting ending that’s announced on the soundtrack before we see it. The film is possible a little too didactic. It delivers its message straight after the opening credits as a group of journalists tell us how much TV audiences want sensation rather than analysis. (To be fair to Wexler, these are real TV journalists with Forster in character among them, and their comments are unscripted.) At the end of the film, Wexler turns his camera onto us.

Medium Cool has had a considerable influence over the years, not least on the several 80s films about journalists in warzones who make a similar journey from detachment to commitment. Under Fire and Salvador immediately spring to mind. And although the film is very much of its time and place, its subject matter is more timely now than ever.

If you look on the back cover of this DVD, in small print are the words: “Some music has been changed from its theatrical version.” This brings up a common problem with films made between the late 1960s and around 1980: music rights clearances. This is a reason why many films from that time have to be altered for video or DVD, assuming they are released at all. Music that is not composed specifically for the film has to be licensed so that filmmakers may use it in their film. Back in 1969, homevideo didn’t exist, and more often than not, the rights paid for didn’t cover domestic viewing. The clearances for cinema and television showings are accounted for, which means that you can see the film in a theatre or on the small screen whenever it’s shown. But when it comes to put the film out on video or DVD for people to buy or rent, those rights have to be negotiated. In many cases they simply aren’t available or are too expensive or legally complicated to clear for a commercially viable tape or disc release. If the film is released at all, the music has to be changed or removed, assuming it’s possible to do that.

In the case of Medium Cool, this affects one song, Wild Man Fischer’s “Merry-Go-Round”, which plays over the roller-derby scene early on. It’s replaced by a whistling rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown” by Brother Bones. The final credit slide of the theatrical version (which incidentally misspells the singer’s surname as “Fisher”) has been remade to reflect this change. This is a regrettable change, not so much for the merits of the song but for its effect in context. Briefly, Fischer was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and acid casualty who played on street corners. Frank Zappa gave him a recording contract and produced an album, An Evening with Wild Man Fischer, of which “Merry-Go-Round” is the opening track. Fischer couldn’t sing, couldn’t play, his lyrics were childlike at best, and his recording career is little more than a callous joke on Zappa’s part – though to be fair he does have a cult following who praise his unique world view. But 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. (Violence as show, as comedy, as spectacle, and as excitement: Wexler is less than subtle in cutting from this to Forster and Hill having sex.) By contrast, Brother Bones’s replacement track alters the scene’s tone entirely. Fortunately, the other songs on the soundtrack, from the Mothers of Invention, are intact.

The picture on this DVD is anamorphic and opened up slightly from the theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 to 16:9. Considering the amount of handheld work in the film over-precise composition is hardly an issue. More important is that it looks very good. Medium Cool, at least the “fictional” parts, is very much a 60s film in its look, with some colours that are over-bright by today’s standards, with orangey fleshtones. But this is certainly consistent with the way the film has always looked. More importantly, the colours are solid, shadow detail is good, and I didn’t notice any artefacting. By contrast, the “documentary” footage is grainy, and always has been – inevitable considering it was shot fast in natural light.

The sound is the original mono, and none the worse for that. It’s always clear, and as this is quite a dialogue-driven film it’s hard to suggest that a remix would benefit it. There are nineteen chapter stops.

The main extra is a commentary involving Wexler, Hill and editorial consultant Paul Golding. They all have clear memories of making this film thirty-two years before, and what they have to say is absorbing and often fascinating. Did you know that people knew in advance that there would be trouble in Chicago? Wexler, thanks to some unnamed sources, did: the riots featured in versions of the script written months beforehand. Wexler also puts to rest another popular myth: only the scene with the journalists earlier on was shot in 16mm. Everything else, including all the riot footage, was originated on 35mm. This commentary was recorded in Edinburgh in 2001, just after a festival screening of Medium Cool. Also shown at the Festival that year was a documentary, Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!: The Making of Medium Cool, which would have been good to have included as an extra. Likewise, some background material to the Chicago riots would have been worthwhile. But at least we have the commentary, and it’s excellent. The only other extra is the trailer, an overlong (3:21), quote-heavy effort that clearly hasn’t an idea how to sell this film. It’s in 16:9 anamorphic too; there’s some print damage but nothing too distracting. The trailer ends with the original MPAA X-rating card.

Medium Cool has a small but essential place in 60s American cinema. It’s hard to imagine anything like it coming from a major studio nowadays. Although this DVD passes muster as a back-catalogue item, a proper special edition would also include the making-of documentary referred to above, and would also if possible sort out the music rights problem. But in the meantime, this is fine to be getting on with.

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