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Medium Cool: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // R // May 21, 2013
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted June 5, 2013 | E-mail the Author

Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool (1969) is very much the product of a specific time and place, yet it's still influential and relevant almost 45 years later. This smartly conceived drama/documentary hybrid follows ex-boxer and current TV news cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) across Chicago as he dutifully records traffic accidents, human interest stories and other routine events. He's good at what he does, but John isn't quite sure where his job ends and moral responsibility begins: is he actually aiding these situations by preserving them for others to see, or should he just put down the camera and help?

Medium Cool feels genuine. It's both a mirror image and document of famed director/cinematographer Haskell Wexler's mindset and, of course, the turbulent social landscape of 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War chugged along and the 1968 Presidential election was fast approaching. Many Democrats opposed the war and chose to protest at the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Chicago, creating a tense backdrop of extreme social unrest in one of America's largest cities. Medium Cool captures some of the resulting events as they happen, cleverly inserting fictional characters into very real situations. It's also a thinly-veiled critique of American media, violence as entertainment, bureaucracy and, in certain respects, its own audience.

Already a respected cinematographer, Wexler was approved by Paramount Pictures to direct his first feature film, an adaptation of Jack Couffer's novel The Concrete Wilderness. With his finger on the pulse of current events and his own role as a cameraman, Wexler convinced studio executives to instead film what would eventually become Medium Cool. Robert Forster and Peter Bonerz (John's faithful sound man, Gus) were sent to protests and other events to record what happened...along with a film crew to record them, naturally. Utilizing Eastman Kodak's fast new 5254 film stock, cast and crew could shoot in almost any conditions without the use of cumbersome lighting equipment. Wexler and other camera operators often recorded on the fly and even snuck into the Chicago DNC with help from Warren Beatty. The end result was a smartly-edited and revolutionary film that continues to inform, provoke and entertain.

Originally released on DVD by Paramount back in 2001, Medium Cool arrives on Blu-ray from Criterion, featuring a new director-approved 4K transfer that captures every detail of the original 16mm and 35mm source footage. If that weren't enough, we're also treated to a thoughtful collection of supplements that will entertain and inform those who don't remember certain details of the 1968 sociopolitical landscape. All things considered, it's a near-perfect high definition package that new and old fans will appreciate.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Not surprisingly, this 1080p, 1.85:1 director-approved 4k digital transfer looks absolutely fantastic from start to finish. The overall image is clean and crisp with strong black levels, while a pleasing amount of natural film grain has been preserved from the 16mm and 35mm source elements. No digital imperfections (including excessive noise reduction, edge enhancement and compression artifacts) were spotted along the way, rounding out the visual presentation perfectly. This is simply a flawless presentation of a unique hybrid film that, while not sleek and polished, remains visually stunning almost every step of the way.

DISCLAIMER: These promotional images are strictly decorative and do not represent Blu-Ray's native 1080p resolution.

Almost as impressive is the film's audio, presented here in uncompressed LPCM mono. I'll give credit to Criterion for not attempting a faux 5.1 remix for Medium Cool; though it might have increased the "you are there" element of crowd noise and boosted its excellent soundtrack, Wexler's film still gets its point across on this one-channel track. Dialogue and effects are crisply recorded and sound great, while the only occasional limitations are undoubtedly source material issues. Seeing as how the production team got just one chance to capture some of this footage, it's remarkable that it looks and sounds so good. Optional English subtitles are presented during the main feature but none of the supplements.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

Seen below, the menu interface retains Criterion's typical format; it's clean and organized nicely, but the menu transitions are a little stiff. This release is housed in Criterion's usual "stocky" Blu-ray keepcase, adorned with classy two-sided artwork. The included Booklet features an essay by film critic and Light Industry co-founder Thomas Beard, who discusses Medium Cool's production, legacy and influences.

Bonus Features

Since the last two Criterion Blu-rays I reviewed (3:10 To Yuma and Gate Of Hell) had very few extras, it's nice to see that a lot of effort went into Medium Cool's supplements. Carried over from Paramount's 2001 DVD is an excellent Audio Commentary featuring director Haskell Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding and actress Marianna Hill, which goes into great detail about the film's production and influences. Also recycled from that DVD is the film's Theatrical Trailer, though it looks to be in better shape here.

Leading off the newer extras is an Audio Commentary with historian Paul Cronin, who provides a great deal of context and insight into the events that surrounded the film's 1968 development. For those who weren't around in the late 1960s or never closely followed the political climate of that era, this new commentary should prove helpful. Cronin also directed a four-hour production documentary entitled "Look Out Haskell, It's Real!" in 2001, and just under an hour of excerpts from that film are also included here. Topics discussed include the film's raw, unpolished visual design, shooting footage in the middle of chaos, the eponymous ADR line heard during the film and much more. Cronin's contributions continue with excepts from "Sooner or Later", his 2007 documentary that catches up with actor Harold Blankenship, who briefly discusses his childhood in Chicago, production memories and his current life situation.

Director Haskell Wexler (now aged 91) is also featured in a short Interview, which is mostly retrospective and includes a few additional thoughts on the film's inception, unusual structure and political message. On a related note, we also get "Medium Cool Revisited" (34 minutes), a spiritual successor to the main feature that follows the "Occupy" movement in the director's hometown of Chicago as they protest a 2012 NATO summit. After spending so much time in the late 1960s, it's almost surreal hearing terms like "YouTube" and "President Obama". Overall, this fantastic collection of supplements bridges the 45-year gap by supporting Medium Cool's timeless message. Unfortunately, no optional subtitles are included.

Final Thoughts

Medium Cool is best remembered for its unique structure, social awareness and lasting influence, rather than more comfortable elements like "plot" and "performances". Director Haskell Wexler's unique blend of documentary footage and fictional characters makes it a tough nut to crack for younger audiences; it's not an easy, accessible experience but one that's very important to understand (or at least consider). Criterion's Blu-ray is one of their best this year, serving up an excellent technical presentation and a fine assortment of entertaining, highly informative supplements. An absolute must-own, Medium Cool remains a subversive and irresistible slice of classic American cinema. It's very, very Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.
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