Stay Cool

Haskell Wexler, Medium Cool, 1969, 35 mm, color, sound, 110 minutes. Ruth and John (Marianna Hill and Robert Forster).

JEAN-LUC GODARD AND CINEMATOGRAPHER RAOUL COUTARD were trailblazers when it came to integrating disjunctive locales, attitudes, and story lines, but writer-director-cinematographer Haskell Wexler’s serpentine Medium Cool (1969) went even further. Observing a TV cameraman-reporter (Robert Forster) as events inexorably move from daily grind to the chaos of the Chicago Democratic Convention, blending naturalistic fiction with on-the-spot cinema verité, the movie shifts between reportage, interrogation of mass-media forms, street-theater satire, and subdued drama (occasionally flaring into melodrama, a livid outburst going up and falling back to earth), all the while balancing sociopolitical eruptions with total immersion in the small, passing details of everyday life.

Wexler ingeniously harmonized clashing elements—personally filming the actual scenes of cops attacking demonstrators and, more fancifully, shooting real footage of National Guardsmen rehearsing for those same clashes with carnivalesque abandon. (Forster, Peter Bonerz, and Verna Bloom were embedded in the scenes, caught up in them but not breaking character.) Playing multiple components off one another inside ardent improvisatory spaces, Wexler made the most courageous American studio film of the 1960s: Next to Medium Cool, high-profile totems of ’69 like Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy are cushy exercises in retrograde imposture, buckskin swindles perpetrated on the tour-bus trade.

That title is suggestive and flatly opaque—evoking a secret union of McLuhan and Miles Davis, or la nouvelle vague and Mailer’s Armies of the Night. (There is a spiky hotel room scene, ostensibly with cameraman D. A. Pennebaker, fresh from shooting Mailer’s own film foray, Beyond the Law; however, Pennebaker opted out and Wexler had him portrayed by Robert McAndrew, and acting coach and studio operative for Paramount.) A remarkable sense of simultaneity pervades Wexler’s film: The buildup to the convention, punctuated by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, is consciously entwined in all sorts of mundane activities and revealing sidelong encounters. He had a script and had mapped out a definite plan of battle, but Wexler’s main thrust was to let changing circumstances and unfolding history dictate the content of Medium Cool. It is a tremendously open and responsive film, absorbing the bombardment of dislocation and trauma on the fly; the oblique sequence depicting RFK’s murder remains devastating in its quietude, abruptness, and desolation.

Initially, Wexler was assigned to make a movie titled The Concrete Wilderness, about a boy who raises animals in the big city. A sliver of that survives here in the Appalachian transplant Harold Blankenship—a kid who encountered his first walk-in shower in the movie, and whose natural guardedness and curiosity are employed with empathy and care. But Wexler couldn’t resist the call of the American wild, and so he threw a surrogate cameraman into the center of the maelstrom that was 1968, and shot it like a series of fast-moving encounter group sessions. Class consciousness, black militancy, sexual politics, Vietnam, the moral obligations of the man behind the camera, a visit to the roller derby: Medium Cool has a little something for everyone. Including a sense of humor that inflects the film in unexpected ways and places, from the throwaway Washington, DC, sight gag about “four and a half women to every man” to the National Guard drills and roller derby sequences whose satiric appropriations of staged violence anticipate the tone of Robert Altman’s M.A.S.H. Peter Bonerz’s background in the San Francisco improv troupe the Committee has been credited with helping the other actors tune into that wavelength, but some of the best, most unselfconscious work was done by non-actors like Blankenship and the Chicago artists (including the free jazz pianist Muhal Richard Abrams) who hassle their white interlocutors with a deft mix of put-on and put-downs that would do Paul Mooney (or Paul Beatty) proud. The use of Frank Zappa’s music also contributes a measure of irony from and about the counterculture, but one of the most serendipitous routines in the movie comes from the National Guard brigadier general that Wexler filmed directly addressing the camera: He just happens to be a dead ringer for Pat Paulsen from the Smothers Brothers TV show. The line between reality and parody was never so thin.

Clip from Haskell Wexler, Medium Cool, 1969.

Two keys to the film: Verna Bloom and her immaculate disappearance into the West Virginia refugee Eileen, a piece of acting so unobtrusive and nuanced (all about body language, social unease, intelligence, and fortitude flashing up through layers of impoverishment, hurt, and fear) it convinced Hollywood producers she was another nonprofessional. Next to her, Godard’s women were all Brigitte Bardot; she was rooted in the physical world and moved through it in determined, uncertain ways that never let her become an abstraction on someone else’s agenda. The other break for Medium Cool was who it didn’t get for the lead: John Cassavetes was Wexler’s first choice, but he would likely have eaten the film alive. Robert Forster was a more stolid, old-fashioned actor, with strong John Garfield tendencies, but the fact he could play a domineering male without having the outsize presence to dominate the scenes themselves works for Wexler’s conception. He’s part of a larger mosaic, and the slow dawning of that awareness on him is believable precisely in the context of a limited, egotistical man who discovers the limitations of his own ego.

The new Blu-ray and DVD edition of the film contains a typically fine transfer (Wexler was justifiably proud of the fact he shot virtually all the film in 35 mm, including some fantastic pre-Steadicam handheld shots), plus helpful commentaries and an hour-long version of Paul Cronin’s epic making-of documentary “Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!” (Still expanding, Cronin’s full opus currently clocks in around six hours.) It does leave you wishing you could see more than just glimpses of the unused footage, especially those from the dropped subplot about Eileen’s work on the Motorola television assembly line and her introduction to the social activism of Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket movement in Chicago. Bloom: “I’ve never been to anything like it in my life. We had to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning to get a seat at the meeting at 8. It goes on until noon, and it’s not just a meeting, it’s a political rally, a jazz concert, a soul-singing event.” You get the feeling there’s a whole other unseen movie inside Medium Cool waiting to be assembled from the outtakes.

The movie’s slap-in-the-face ending has always been a source of contention—and rationalization. From here, it looks like the only part of the movie that succumbs to fashionable alienation, radical chic. Consigning its characters to a ditch on the expressway of history like so much roadkill too neatly rhymes with the car accident that opens the picture, but rather than having a “Brechtian” effect, it serves to undermine the sense of class solidarity Medium Cool tentatively establishes. After scenes of Bloom in her plaintive yellow dress walking through a Chicago that could be doubling for Prague when the Soviet tanks rolled in, I can’t help feeling that a less arbitrary ending could have been found, especially from a filmmaker and a film otherwise so resolutely committed to nonviolence.

Medium Cool is available Tuesday, May 21, on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.