Medium Cool: “To Preserve Disorder”

Wexler at one of his beloved Eclair CM3s.
Director Haskell Wexler at one of his beloved Eclair CM3s.

Less than three months after releasing a new DVD of Jean Rouch’s and Edgar Morin's landmark 1961 cinèma verité documentary, Chronicle of a Summer, the film-loving folks over at The Criterion Collection have unleashed standard-def and Blu-Ray DVDs of Haskell Wexler’s 1969 maverick feature, Medium Cool, newly remastered at 4K under the filmmaker's supervision.—Medium Cool

Like Monte Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop, also re-mastered by Criterion, Medium Cool has been canonized by the National Film Preservation Board’s National Film Registry. Unlike the more accessible youth movie Easy Rider of the same period, these two maverick films have hovered for decades in a low key but persistent way in the center of consciousness of that era’s cultural and political Zeitgeist. Robert Forster’s Chicago TV news cameraman and James Taylor’s rootless “Driver” are bookends of the existentially disengaged man in a time of smoldering discontent,  a time soon to erupt in the Wexler film into the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention. The election of 1968 yielded Richard Nixon’s Imperial Presidency and with it a polarized youth movement part of which abandoned urban streets for Weather Underground bunkers and another to the  Hippie dropouts of America’s back roads and communes hinted at in the Hellman film.

The making of Medium Cool began as an offer by then Paramount Studio executive Peter Bart to cinematographer Haskell Wexler to write and direct a movie from the novel The Concrete Wilderness, written by Jack Couffer, a wildlife cameraman, who in the late 50s went with Conrad Hall to make a Disney documentary in the Galapagos Islands titled Islands of the Sea. Couffer’s novel is the tale of a New York City boy named Archie and his adoption of a mistreated dog, as well as Archie’s friendship with a photographer. The transformative adaption from book to film was total, the relationship between the boy and the photographer being the  slender remaining thread between the two. Wexler, despite his great success as a Hollywood cinematographer, including a recent Oscar for cinematography (the last given for black-and-white) for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was  intent on re-addressing his roots in documentaries. He had worked with the Maysles on Salesman and had directed The Bus, his record of the August 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington; both of those movies were influenced by the French cinèma verité techniques of Jean Rouch.

Wexler had begun writing the screenplay in late 1967 as a loosely plotted coming of age narrative set against the backdrop of what everyone knew would be the incendiary Democratic Convention in August of 1968. As the year unfolded, a year that has been labeled an annus horribilis, Robert Kennedy announced he would run for President, prompting President Lyndon Johnson to announce he would not run for a second term; Martin Luther King was assassinated in early April, then Robert Kennedy barely two months later in early June. Students for a Democratic Society and other activist groups had been promising for months that they would stage demonstrations at the upcoming Chicago Convention. Wexler, a Chicago native with deep family ties in the city’s power elite, knew he would have more ready access than most filmmakers to events leading up to and surrounding the convention.

In a video clip Wexler discusses the origins of his screenplay and of the film itself:

The title of the movie is the reversal of a term by Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan, used in his 1964 book, Understanding Media. McLuhan characterized media as “hot” or “cool.” Motion pictures are “hot” because they come at you, are immersive; television is “cool” and is described in a Wikipedia entry as:

Cool media, on the other hand, are usually, but not always, those that provide little involvement with substantial stimulus. They require more active participation on the part of the user, including the perception of abstract patterning and simultaneous comprehension of all parts. Therefore, according to McLuhan cool media include television, as well as the seminar and cartoons. McLuhan describes the term "cool media" as emerging from jazz and popular music and, in this context, is used to mean "detached.

Robert Forster’s character, John Cassellis, (his name a mash-up of John Cassavetes and drama teacher Milton Katselas) is a TV news cameraman who, along with his soundman played by Peter Bonerz, is a detached, cool recordist of daily newsworthy events. The “cool medium” of television that he inhabits becomes a searing cauldron of political protest in the “hot medium” of the motion picture that Wexler creates.

Robert Forster holding the 16mm. Eclair NPR.
Robert Forster holding the 16mm. Eclair NPR.

Although Wexler and his dedicated crew tried to frame the movie into a feature film narrative, the real life events of the spring and summer of 1968 outraced their ability to do more than immerse themselves and their actors in an unfolding narrative more intense than any scripted storyline. This was by no means a frustration or an impediment to the movie Wexler wanted to make. He has spoken often and eloquently about the influence of John Cassavetes’ improvised films on his own cinematic interests. An even greater influence may have been that of the French New Wave through the cinèma verité documentaries, but especially in the early films of Jean-Luc Godard.

Godard’s 60s films, before his flirtations with Maoism took the playfulness out of his work, exhibited an increasingly strong attraction to the self-reflexive structure of Brechtian theater, including its fragmented, episodic presentation of plot and character. Chapter headings were a feature of many Godard films and though Medium Cool doesn’t adopt this literary device, Wexler does embrace the broken storyline and especially the shifting point of view of the camera. Today, we could call this technique a kind of meta-narrative. Much of Medium Cool embraces a shoot from the hip style, necessitated both by the film’s cinematic aesthetics and the precipitous onslaught of real life events. But juxtaposed to this sense of documentary urgency there are more than a few hints of Godardian stylizations. Godard’s 1963 film Contempt ends, as does Medium Cool six years later, with a deadly car crash. The opening shot of Contempt is of a camera traveling on rails toward the viewer. It stops with cinematographer Raoul Coutard behind the anamorphic-lensed Mitchell BNC, in profile to us. Coutard pans the camera to the left until the lens and matte box face front, then tilts down as if he were filming us. The final shot of Medium Cool is a zoom back from a smoking car crash on a tree-lined country road to reveal a blimped Éclair CM3 Cameflex, (The main camera Wexler used for his film) high on a scaffold. The operator behind the lens is Wexler, also in profile. He, too, pans the camera left toward the viewer, and we begin a zoom into the outsized Cameflex matte box as the film fades out.

The blimped CM3 (before the final zoom).
The blimped CM3 (before the final zoom).

There are hints of French cinematic formalism throughout Medium Cool. The early morning car crash news coverage that opens the movie is eerily quiet with minimal sound effects, a technique also employed by Godard to create a distancing effect on the audience. Silence enters unexpectedly at several other points in the Wexler film, as do abrupt music cuts that call attention to the presence of the score. But most self-conscious and “meta” of all is the constant presence of Forster’s camera, as well as the figurative shadow of the 35mm Èclair CM3 actually shooting the film, a camera that doesn’t just move, but stalks the action in a deliberative way.

The CM3 with 3 lens turret and 400' mag.
The CM3 with 3 lens turret and 400' mag.

Wexler talks of the movie camera breaking “the fourth wall” and nowhere is this more evident than in the midst of police action against the street demonstrators, when a cop fires a tear gas canister right at Wexler and an off-camera voice yells, “Look out, Haskell, it’s real.”

Criterion made a “Three Reasons” promo that tells us much more about the film than does the official trailer, which is largely content to present it as a rock generation youth film:

That shout of Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real is also the title of a one-hour documentary by Paul Cronin that is included as an “extra” on the Criterion DVD. This film is an abridgement of a six-hour film that Cronin refers to as a kind of study guide to the social and political ethos of Chicago and the United States before and during the 1968 convention. The shorter documentary is divided into a dozen smaller Brechtian/Godardian reflections on the movie and its times, starting with contextualized reviews by critic David Sterritt and historian David Farber. A section titled Appalachia in Uptown introduces Chicago journalist, humanist, and raconteur, Studs Turkel. He is credited in the Medium Cool titles as Our Man in Chicago. Turkel opened many doors for the filmmakers and gave them access to the north side community of “Uptown,” a classic tenement enclave of white Appalachians. A community organizer named Peggy Terry, whose acting role, like many others, was cut out of the finished film, provided contacts with many families that led to the casting of the boy Harold Blankenship. Terry headed a group called JOIN (Jobs or Income Now). She is shown in several interviews, one of them a later interview conducted with the assistance of an oxygen tank. Verna Bloom was able to master her W. Virginia accent with Terry’s help.

One of the most disquieting, even prescient, sections of the documentary features General Richard Dunn of the Illinois National Guard. At Army Camp Ripley in nearby Minnesota, site of Emergency Operations HQ, soldiers “train” alongside other soldiers dressed as “hippie” demonstrators, in techniques of crowd control.  A row of jeeps fronted with a high grille of barbed wire moves toward the pretend demonstrators; the exact same configuration moves toward real protestors months later on the Chicago streets, eliciting a scary frisson of deja vu.

Chicago police headed toward encounter with demonstrators.
Chicago police headed toward encounter with demonstrators.

Scenes of the training are also included in the finished movie, but there are extended outtakes in the documentary—of Forster and Bonerz shooting with the Éclair NPR 16mm camera and Nagra open reel sound recorder. A prototype of this NPR Éclair had been used by Rouch in Chronicle of a Summer. In short order, a full production model became the international go-to camera of the 60s and 70s for documentary filmmakers, its pre-threaded, quick-change 400 ft. magazines making it possible to reload in less than 10 seconds. Combined with the Swiss-made Nagra with crystal sync and the use of a “blooplight,” it gave the filmmakers unprecedented freedom in a pre time-code era. An upcoming blog essay will tell of the "Camera That Changed the World."

A section that is an insider’s view of the moment-by-moment challenge of filming is titled ironically A Nice Day in the Park. It begins with reflections by two of that era’s most infamous activists, Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. It gives way to detailed recollections of filming by soundman Chris Newman, camera assistants Ron Vargas and Andrew Davis, as well as camera operator Michael Margulies, who filmed alongside Wexler. Though not interviewed in the documentary, Ralph Gerling was  a third cameraman.

Verna Bloom addresses the oft-asked question of her yellow dress, the standout color amid the swirling rush of police, soldiers and demonstrators in Grant Park. She says it was “total serendipity… a happy accident.” I couldn’t help but think of cinematographer Conrad Hall’s oft-quoted “happy accident” for those fortuitous but unplanned things that can bring a scene to life. Wexler and Hall were not only close friends but shared a successful commercial production company in the 70s—another of those unlikely, crazy configurations of the time, the two of them being such confirmed mavericks in a buttoned down business. Bloom later in the documentary speaks of the irony of the construct of the entire film—“playing a part in a make believe drama, in a real situation.”

The situation was real indeed. On Cronin’s website, Wexler describes being gassed and how it changed his previous sense of invulnerability.

I was out of action for a day and a half. I have to admit that the line ‘Look out Haskell, it’s real!’ was put in afterwards,” says Wexler. “That’s actually my son speaking the line, recorded months later, because we weren’t taking sound at that stage. It wasn’t possible for the sound recordist Chris Newman to follow me around every minute. But if someone had read my mind the moment I saw that tear gas coming toward the camera they would have heard me speak those lines. I’ve always felt quite invincible behind a camera but that gas was definitely a strong enough jab from the so-called real world to remind me that the glass with the etched 1:1.85 is no barrier to your lungs and your eyes.—“Look out Haskell, It’s Real!”

One of the most surprising “behind the screen” anecdotes of the making of the movie is in the section “The Arrangement with Warren.” Wexler and the crew had phony credentials for access to the convention floor—but they were found out and denied entry. Warren Beatty was there and promised Wexler and crew legitimate credentials. Beatty delivered, but Wexler was recovering from the previous day’s gassing (which he describes in graphic detail) and was unable to attend. Michael Margulies and camera assistant Vargas photographed actor Forster in many areas of the convention hall with his 16 mm Éclair, going about his newsgathering.

Forster in the Convention Hall.
Forster in the Convention Hall.

This sequence is intercut with Verna Bloom looking for her missing son. Beatty’s sole request was that they shoot footage of himself in the hall mixing with delegates, ostensibly to be used for a film Beatty was planning. Though it was made four years later, one wonders if the film in Beatty’s brain at the time was The Parallax View, a film whose brooding, stylized images by Gordon Willis were very different from those of Medium Cool.

The documentary gives revealing insight and context to the chaos that surrounded the movies’ making. Cronin refers to this when he addresses what some have seen as flaws of the film:

Medium Cool‘s plot might seem to be at best somewhat contrived, at worst simplistic and hackneyed, but after a look at how, where and when the film was made—ground-breaking as it was in its blending of documentary and traditional narrative techniques—and Wexler’s brainchild—begins to shine out among most of Hollywood’s other efforts of the late 1960s.

Cronin’s documentary is an indispensible companion to the film itself and it is pure brilliance for Criterion to include it, especially for younger viewers for whom the period is a time capsule. Another interesting but much shorter film included as an extra is Cronin’s follow-up from 2007 titled Sooner or Later. It documents his visit to W. Virginia to interview Harold Blankenship, the young boy Harold, forty years later. Now a weathered middle aged, unemployed man standing in a “hollow” with his own son, he talks about his troubled youth growing up in “Uptown,” his run ins with the law, his move back to W. Virginia, and his uncertain work in the coal mines, timber industry, and as a local mechanic, plumber or electrician. He laments his own lack of education even as his son insists he’s going to drop out of school.

There is, also, a running commentary under Medium Cool, spoken by Cronin. Unlike the impromptu musings of a director and actors that too often constitute these “commentaries,” Cronin’s voice-over for the film gives an even richer and more detailed explanation of the scene to scene shooting, as well as a deeper socio-politico framing for the cataclysmic events of the time.

Another DVD extra is Wexler’s recent 30 minute documentary titled Medium Cool, Revisited. Wexler goes back into downtown Chicago to record demonstrations against the 2012 NATO Summit. Again, protestors take to the streets and are met by Chicago police. Again, like 1968, they are a cross section of citizens, not just the very visible Occupy Movement. And again, like 1968, the now more heavily armored police wade into demonstrators with their batons. An especially graphic moment intercuts bleeding youth of 2012 with bleeding youth of 1968. It is brilliant filmmaking and it is deeply disturbing—plus ça change…

Haskell Wexler and I have been colleagues for many years though I have never worked with him. Our friendship goes back to the 80s when he, his editor Paul Golding, filmmakers Zalman King and Patricia Knop, Carol and I, all became partners in a partnership of a section of remote land above the Kelso Valley in Kern County. We built a cabin "off the grid" in this lovely transitional land between high desert and the southern end of the Sequoia National Forest, a retreat from the bustle of our workaday world. We’ve recently redefined it in light of taking on new partners, so Haskell and I have spent Sundays at Pat’s art-filled home in Santa Monica. Since Zalman’s recent death, Pat has rededicated herself to her own painting and sculpting. (My next blog will feature her work.)

The smoke-filled chambers and backroom tactics of old school politics embodied by Chicago mayor Richard Daley’s long administration received their death knell in the “police riots” of that summer of 1968. The mantra that demonstrators chanted in front of retreating NBC news trucks right before the police attacked them— “the whole world is watching”—is ground zero of the decade long upheaval to come.

The confusion and irrationality of that year of chaos in America is caught in the malapropism of Daley’s own inept news conference afterwards:

The confrontation was not caused by the police. The confrontation was caused by those who charged the police. Gentlemen, let's get this thing straight, once and for all. The policeman is not here to create disorder. The policeman is here to preserve disorder.

Criterion's "extras" are always engrossing additions to the feature film, but on this DVD the extras provide a searing  context to the societal/political disruption of the time.  Wexler’s Medium Cool, shot on 35mm color film is, on this new Criterion DVD, brilliantly restored as the irrefutable witness to the traumatic events of a desperate old guard, barbed wire and tear gas at the ready—struggling to “preserve disorder.”

06_wexler and forster

Next: Patricia Knop: Dreams of Flying



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