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Medium Cool

Medium Cool
Paramount Home Video
1969 / Color / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 110 min. / Street Date December 11, 2001 / 29.99
Starring Christine Bergstrom, Harold Blankenship, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Peter Boyle, Robert Forster, Charles Geary, Marianna Hill
Cinematography Haskell Wexler
Art Direction Leon Erickson
Film Editor Verna Fields
Original Music Mike Bloomfield
Produced by Tully Friedman, Haskell Wexler, Jerrold Wexler
Written and Directed by Haskell Wexler

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

What possessed Paramount at this date and time to release Medium Cool is a mystery - here's a film that never made a commercial dent, and directly confronts political controversy. Yes, it's a cinematic landmark and is written up in every text about film and politics and media versus reality, but that's not what you expect studios to give a whit about .... obviously someone at Paramount really cared, and bless 'em.

A documentary-like examination of the violent year 1968, filmed from inside the events at the Chicago Democratic convention that became the focus of the anti-war movement, Medium Cool looks and plays better than it did when new. Unlike many an avowed counterculture epic of the day, the arguments, technique, values and ethics of this amazing picture haven't dated. If anything, it communicates better now than it did then.


John Cassellis (Robert Forster) is fired from a television news program for taking an interest in the subject matter of his work, and for protesting that his superiors are forwarding his news film to the FBI. Leaving his nurse girlfriend Ruth (Marianna Hill), he becomes involved with a Mother and son new to the Chicago slums from Appalachia, Eileen (Verna Bloom) and young Harold (Harold Blankenship). John attaches himself to a docu crew covering the convention, just as Eileen takes to the streets to search for the runaway Harold ... right in the middle of the very dangerous antiwar demonstrations.

Savant saw Medium Cool new in 1969 and responded with some intelligence for a 17-year-old, yet it's important to admit up front that I saw it at a military theater, and was initially attracted by its original X rating. A lot of specifics escaped me, but some messages and images went straight into my skull: the idea that the media distorts the news, and could be easily suppressed, and that the police riots I saw on the television the year before were real.

Through its terrific commentary track, this new disc can address the specific mysteries and concerns that Medium Cool has always raised: How much of the show was docu? Were those actors or real people? The most pressing question was always, how did they get the yellow-clad actress Verna Bloom in the middle of all those real events? I'd always assumed they tossed her in there and made up a story to fit the scenes, afterwards.

The commentary, by filmmaker (and revered cameraman) Haskell Wexler, editor Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill, reveals that the movie was not made by magic, only by very intelligent people with brilliant ideas. This was one of the first films I'd ever seen with a 'verité' look, with music that was an important part of the story, with European shooting and cutting techniques unseen in American feature films.

The revelations about the filming are impressive, especially the idea that as early as January 1968, before the assassinations, even, Wexler and co. were writing scenes to take place amid the anticipated riots in Chicago. Like the 'summer of love' the year before in which we heard everyone was going to go to San Francisco, in 1968 the word on the street was that it was 'all going to come down' in Chicago at the convention. The anti-war movement was still a grassroots protest thing and not yet the media circus it later became, with hippies and yippies and Nixon's counterattack and fatuous pop music pretending it was issuing calls to revolution. Chicago indeed became ground zero for this major event. It's when I decided it was time to think for myself, poorly informed as I was. Even my parents were impressed by the images of Mayor Daley's police riot.

The commentary fills in many essential incidentals. Jesse Jackson is one of the speakers seen in a brief Washington DC segment. A protester's tent camp is shown, erected in sight of the Washington Monument, the telling kind of detail that puts the lie to the rubbish version of history shown in trash like Forrest Gump. The anti-war movement was composed of fundamentally concerned citizens, not a minority of political opportunists as always portrayed.

Haskell's camera was only able to enter black neighborhoods in Chicago through the intervention of Studs Terkel, and with the cooperation of the black citizens themselves. And while clearly liberal (defined here as open-minded, concerned with truth and not the status quo), the filmmakers admit their desire to present a point of view they felt was going unexpressed. They present, for instance, the National Guard as relatively benign, except as a harbinger of more use of the military against the public. Mayor Daley gave his cops direct orders to teach the longhaired flag-burners a lesson, and isn't given the same benefit of the doubt.

There is an agenda here. We hear some taunts ("Pigs eat shit" etc.) but don't see flags being burned or any of the other stunts used to attract the media. A famous scripted scene has Ruth goading John about the phony docu film Mondo Cane, where the suffering of an irradiated sea turtle dying on an island was exploited: did the Italian filmmakers rescue the turtle when they were done? Wexler plays sophisticated games with the whole issue of media responsibility, starting with a shocking traffic accident scene on an empty road. John and his soundman (Peter Bonerz, later a comedian) film the victim, and then just leave her there to move on to their next story. Wexler shows a rich woman behaving in an elitist manner, and immediately contrasts it with the kind of urban slum where kids play naked in the street and vandalize cars. The National Guard practices for urban crowd control, pretending to be the protesters they'll face, and portraying them as clownish troublemakers.

Some of the scenes are real and some others obviously scripted, as when a very young Peter Boyle is shown teaching suburban women how to use firearms. The movie is so fresh that its few obvious messages (as when the song 'Happy days are here again' plays against the bloody faces of demonstrators) stick out in strong relief.

It's all very effective, much more so than satiric attempts to confront real issues in feature films. I'm thinking of The President's Analyst, a superior comedy with subversive jabs at government conspiracies and suburban vigilantism that just came off as a wacky joke back when it was new. Medium Cool's multileveled game of what is real and what is media-generated, made me think back then, and still makes me think now. Wexler has some chilling things to say on the commentary, mainly that the cops' only mistake in '68 was to use their thug methods on the press - they beat reporters and roughed up Dan Rather. The media turned against Daley, the cops, Nixon and the war right then and there. Wexler follows that up with the stinger that now our Media are fully in line with the government, and no longer the independent force they once were. His suggestion that our police forces have become military organizations certainly rings true.

Haskell Wexler's skill as a dramatist rarely surfaces in discussions of Medium Cool. His direction of actors is so good that you think the little hillbilly kid isn't acting at all. Professional actress Verna Fields comes off as an authentic West Virginian. There's some technical full-frontal nudity in a scene between Forster and Marianna Hill that was shocking beyond belief back then, yet now seems benign. Ms. Hill reacts with modest restraint on the commentary track, but nobody comments why they felt the movie needed that kind of controversial content. The impression is that the movie earned its X more for its profanity and dangerous political attitudes. When the picture gets intellectual in the camera-looking-at-the-camera ending, it strives for artsy significance, and succeeds better than most. A lot of the show zoomed past this curious 17-year-old, but I did get the message of 'The whole world is watching!' loud and clear.

Paramount's Medium Cool looks as if the negative elements have been sitting in a time warp waiting to be transferred for this DVD. The 16x9 enhancement helps prove that it was shot 35mm; it doesn't look grainy or hastily improvised. The sound is clear, and, yes, those are Frank Zappa songs in the middle of the show, making fun of phony hippies. The menu design is clear and functional. The feature has a new R rating up front, but the old X rating card remains at the end, a nice touch. The cover art features a flag burning in the design, exactly the kind of imagery this film avoids, and doesn't need in these very edgy times for civil liberties. God bless America: anywhere else, they'd have burned the elements for Medium Cool long ago.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Medium Cool rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer, commentary with Haskell Wexler, Paul Golding & Marianna Hill
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: December 7, 2001


1. The credits for Medium Cool burst with cool creative names who became famous before or later: editor Verna Fields (Universal den mother for Steven Spielberg), Jonathan Haze (Roger Corman actor, writer, producer), Studs Terkel, author.

2. Well, I finally saw friend Doug Haise in the scene he claimed was in Medium Cool. A fellow UCLA film student, Haise was in Chicago and in the marches and just happens to show up front & center walking near actress Verna Bloom, in chapter 16, at about 1.35.50 into the film. He's wearing a blue shirt and black eyeglasses, and it couldn't be anyone else. Way to go, Doug! You weren't fibbing after all. Doug Haise has already cropped up a couple of fun times in Savant; use the Search Engine on my Main Page to read about him.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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