starring Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Marianna Hill
written and directed by Haskell Wexler
by Walter Chaw No one has ever been cooler in a movie than Robert Forster is in Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool. The title comes from Marshall McLuhan's assignation in his Understanding Media of television as a "cool" medium, i.e., one that requires a more active participation to benefit from meaning--in opposition to something like film, which he identifies as a "hot" medium. It could just as soon refer to Forster's John Cassellis, however, the avatar for a new generation of existential detachment. The multifoliate rose of this contraption reveals its first complication in being a film about Cassellis, a television cameraman active at the very end of a decade of immense internal tumult in the United States, where television gradually emerged as primary witness--if not also prosecution, defense, jury, and judge--of the death of the counterculture. It's telling, too, that one of the best studies of American '60s cinema is by Ethan Mordden and titled Medium Cool--acknowledgment, along with Wexler's film, that the movies can provide "hot" context for their "cool" counterpart.
By the time the Zapruder film aired on broadcast television in 1975, it followed years of speculation about its content and what was to that point "hidden" from public view. By not showing it on TV, in other words, an entire conspiracy cult grew--television had become, since 1963, the year of Kennedy's assassination (when it gained 93% immersion in American households), the means through which both sides attempted to sculpt the truth, and the incubator simultaneously of insurrection and, ironically, skepticism. If not the Zapruder film, the inciting televisual event could arguably be the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, captured in all its glory for the fixed, rapt fascination of a nation gradually undergoing a perceptual metamorphosis. The systematic assassination of all of youth's leaders--Medgar Evers in 1963, Malcolm X in 1965, George Lincoln Rockwell of the American Nazi Party in 1967, then the one-two covered by Medium Cool (Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968 and Bobby Kennedy in June of that same year)--became the fabric of suppertime viewing and post-supper, porch-swing speculation, delivered through the agency of Walter Cronkite arm-in-arm with contemporary entertainments like the dark "The Outer Limits" and the O. Henry-like "The Twilight Zone" (where first we learned of American casualties in Vietnam--way back on September 27, 1963). Indeed, while one show warned that your cathode-ray mother had been hijacked, Rod Serling and Cronkite occupied complementary space on CBS for those early years of the medium (cool): twin, eloquent chroniclers of the ideological apocalypse.
The lovechild of Godard and Antonioni, Medium Cool is hopelessly hip and equally meaty. It shares a birthday with the likes of Midnight Cowboy, The Wild Bunch, and Easy Rider, and like those films, it's at least in part a restructuring/critique of western genre conventions, revivifying a dying form through evisceration and satire. The easiest corollary to draw to it, the American western is also effective shorthand for where the Empire once saw itself vs. how the Empire then saw itself. Still, Medium Cool may share a deeper kinship with Antonioni's Blowup, Powell's Peeping Tom, or Kubrick's 2001 as science-fiction moored by J.G. Ballard's definition of the genre as explorations of identity, space, and time, dedicated to examining the fusion between man and machine. If Medium Cool were to have a sequel it would be--it was--directed by David Cronenberg and called Videodrome. Early on, soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz), the sidekick to Forster's John Cassellis, describes himself as an extension of his boom microphone. John himself admits to his lover that he hardly knows anything beyond what he saw in someone else's images, or through the remove of his own camera. At the end, a car crash claims Eileen (Verna Bloom), the female protagonist of the piece, a dislocated woman lost with her young son Harold (Harold Blankenship) in Chicago's urban diaspora, but we receive this news through disconnected images and a broadcast we fail to locate within its medium. It's Ballard's Crash in the association of John and Eileen's burgeoning relationship with vehicular mayhem--more, it's Cronenberg's adaptation of Ballard's book in its coldness, its insectile detachment, and its implication of eternity in its utter refusal to offer resolution. The film doesn't exactly end, because it's not so much a narrative as it is a mile-marker and a warning.
Indeed, the film has the barest outline of a plot. John and Gus photograph a car accident and its victims before calling the police. They attempt to interview a black cabbie (Sid McCoy, just awesome) who has drawn interest and suspicion for returning the ten grand he found in the back of his ride, and they visit the Democratic National Convention, where everyone is tear-gassed. Along the way, John takes something from little Harold by accident and misadventure, only to meet his mother and develop an interest in her but too late, too late. It's headlong, a confusion at times (Eileen appears in an early sequence like a phantom from a previous edit), at once completely reliant on a 1969 knowledge of current events--like the otherwise non sequitur set in an industrial hotel kitchen that's minutes away from being the site of RFK's assassination--and creating a sci-fi scenario not unlike Invasion of the Body Snatchers that suggests television is changing people, some forever not for better. An outraged cocktail-party guest excoriates a real-life TV cameraman for feeding the public appetite for soundbites and venality; later, John's lover Ruth (Marianna Hill) fumbles right there on the edge of sexual hysteria in the buff while recounting moments from Mondo Cane's segments on nature mutated in the wake of America's nuclear testing in the Bikini Atolls. Cassandras in a world where television has made passive observers of the rest of us, they are, accordingly, helpless to change the futures they see. "Medium cool" in this way is not merely a category, but also a warning. I like, too, the declaration in a room decorated by a portrait of MLK, hands open in supplication, that what John and Gus aim to do is encapsulate 300 years of black experience into fifteen minutes of platitudes. Imagine what the equation looks like in the Internet age of instant experts, rabid punditry, and passive/savage Arendt-ian consumers.
The thrill that Medium Cool provides now, some forty-four years on, is that it's clearly too late for us already: there's likely not a person alive not fundamentally altered--who hasn't had their opinions shaped, attitudes constructed, destinies narrated--by television's "massage," and the film, intended as historical record, has found itself immortal instead as prophecy. Via scholar Paul Cronin, Bloom recounts within the Criterion Collection Blu-ray's special features that her career took a hit after Medium Cool because casting directors had a difficult time separating her performance from reality; this movie about representational junction successfully confused the line--irrevocably, really--between representation and reality. In truth, that's a difference without a distinction. The picture's key moment, when someone calls out "look out, Haskell, it's real" during the Chicago riots (a moment engineered, as it happens, but no less real for the engineering), in this way takes on the full weight of profundity. It's analogous to Kevin McCarthy's fourth-wall-breaking warning of "they're already here" in the Don Siegel Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in other words, these pronouncements combining to describe television's victory over reality. In the end, there isn't any difference. When the momentary survivors of a zombie apocalypse are looking for answers, such as they were, in 1968's Night of the Living Dead, they turn, of course, to television. We didn't know then that the battle between man and his machines had begun, and who knows when it was over? It didn't end with a bang, or even a whimper.
Sourced from a new, Wexler-approved 4k digital restoration, Medium Cool has, safe to say, never looked better than it does on Criterion's Blu-ray edition. The painstakingly-dustbusted 1.85:1, 1080p transfer brings the end of Flower Power roaring back to life, the revitalized palette--so rich in yellows (see: the famous dress that helped Bloom stand out from the crowd in the finale) and reds--giving lie to the notion that the era's film stock had no vibrancy, or that age would have rendered any it did have irretrievable. The chaos of Wexler's handheld ethic is carried off without a hint of judder; the sequence where John chases Harold through a parking lot remains a miracle of the pre-Steadicam era, and this presentation honours that with an image free of anything that might betray it as a 21st-century reinterpretation, as there's no obvious revisionism in the grainy image. Of course, any reiteration or transformation of Medium Cool should be met with ironic scholarship (ditto the endless upgrades to Blade Runner), but that's for someone smarter than me to parse. Less impressive is the 1.0 LPCM soundtrack: although there's nothing in the way of artifacts (hissing, scratching, jumping, echo), it's mixed so low that I had to turn my receiver to "max" just to create a pleasing sound field. Those hoping to get those Frank Zappa & The Mothers of Invention songs painted on the back of their brainpans will need far more powerful amps than I had at my disposal... What a shame.
But the disc's supplements are mostly revelatory, starting with a brilliant overview by Thomas Beard in the insert booklet and continuing on through a pair of commentaries, excerpts from Paul Cronin's 2001 and 2007 documentaries Look Out Haskell, It's Real! (about the making of Medium Cool) and Sooner or Later (about the legacy of child actor Blankenship), respectively, and new pieces in which Wexler takes centre stage. The first commentary, featuring Wexler, actress Hill, and editorial consultant Paul Golding, was recorded for Paramount's 2001 DVD and is lively and informative, if finally trivial. The highlights of this one are the anecdotal contributions of a charming Hill, as well as the reminiscences from Wexler and Golding about working with real television reporters, working with real Black Panthers (ad libbing their lines ("Do you realize how many guns 10,000 dollars would have bought, man?")), and of course shooting at the infamous Chicago Democratic Convention.
In the interest of full disclosure, I met Paul Cronin a decade ago in Denver and we've kept in touch. Nevertheless, I have the sincerest admiration for (and occasional jealousy of) Paul, who contributes an authoritative analysis of the picture in the second yakker, pulling it all together from production to performance (Bonerz was key in helping the cast learn to improvise! I'll never watch "The Bob Newhart Show" the same way again) to reception to aftermath. As befitting a man who's put so much work into examining this film, he comes off as an expert without appearing pedantic--a neat trick, and an enviable skill. I want to thank him for his repeated spotting of Godard references: that picture of Belmondo in John's flat; that glimpse of Contempt on a television in the background. Add to the list of sci-fi films that Medium Cool reminds me of the deconstructionist horror of Alphaville.
The two excerpts from Cronin's documentaries, one running 54 minutes and still called "Look Out Haskell, It's Real!" (1080i), the other titled "Harold Blankenship" (1080p) and running 16, offer vast insight into the first sparks of creation (the picture was based on a book it ultimately had nothing to do with), in addition to touching on the illiterate Blankenship's first experience with a shower and various sequences--including RFK being rushed into the abovementioned hotel kitchen--that were shot and deleted or planned but never shot. What I wouldn't give to see some of this elided material. A present-day interview with Wexler (15 mins., 1080p) finds the legendary (and legendarily cantankerous) filmmaker in an expansive mood; alas, by this point his recollections, ever-dimming, are largely redundant. A longer stint with Wexler, "Medium Cool Revisited" (34 mins., 1080p), is set at the NATO summit in Chicago 2012 as Wexler resurrects his hippie roots by interacting with today's counterculture. Brother, it don't hold a candle--it's like that Woodstock sequel they tried a while ago. Who knew that in 2013 we'd look back with this much regret that the new day dawning never broke over the horizon?