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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.
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 news media distorted 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 shooting of the picture are pretty 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 grass-roots 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, of course); even my parents were impressed by the images of Mayor Daley's police riot.
The commentary has many incidentals impossible to get while just watching the movie. Jesse Jackson is one of the speakers seen in a brief Washington DC segment. A protester's tent camp is shown, 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 were fundamentally concerned citizens, not just the 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 military against the public) compared to Daley, who gave his cops direct orders to teach the longhaired flag-burners a lesson.
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 sound man (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 being elitist, and immediately contrasts it with the kind of urban slum where kids play naked in the street and vandalize cars. The National Guard is shown practicing 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 seems so fresh, that the few times when obvious messages are being sent (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 whose subversive content (government conspiracies, suburban vigilantism) just came off as a wacky joke back when it was new. Medium Cool's multileveled games 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 skills as a dramatist rarely surface in discussions of Medium Cool. His direction of actors is so good that you think the little hillbilly kid isn't acting at all. Verna Fields comes off as authentic West Virginia and not the professional actress she is. There's some technical full-frontal nudity in a scene between Forster and Marianna Hill that was shocking beyond belief back then, yet seems benign now. 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 dangerous political attitudes, and profanity. 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:
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.