My curiosity is always piqued when a cinematographer is given the opportunity to direct. Jack Cardiff, Barry Sonnenfeld, Jan de Bont, or more recently Wally Pfister, are all well known DP’s who have made the jump with varying degrees of critical and commercial success (Pfister’s Transendence will be released sometime next year). Then there’s Haskell Wexler’s directorial debut ‘Medium Cool’, which is arguably one of the most radical and influential examples of a well known cinematographer making the jump to directing and utilizing the medium of cinema in fresh and exciting ways.
The films stars a young Robert Forster as TV news cameraman John Cassellis. Questions of moral and ethical responsibilities amongst the media and news journalists arise as the film continually sets aside its mostly conventional plot in favour of exploring various issues of the time. It’s the late 1960’s and the political climate is volatile and slowly eroding. Wexler’s characters act almost as tour guides, exposing the audience to issues of gender, race, and war all within the context of 1968 Chicago and leading up to the infamous riots of that year’s Democratic National Convention.
One scene in particular that stood out as specifically influential takes place in a small apartment as Forster’s character visits a black man who he’d done a story on. He and his partner are met with immediate skepticism and aggression as they’re bombarded with questions from the black residents. Each character gets their own short monologue performed directly at the camera, laying out their issues with the media’s misrepresenting and misunderstanding of African Americans. Obviously Spike Lee’s fourth wall-breaking racial rants come to mind.
Later on in the film, Mondo Cane is mentioned in conversation as some sort of illustration of journalistic ethics. It’s a curious reference that dates the film but also reveals Wexler’s own influences and his cinematic headspace at the time. The French New Wave is an obvious point of inspiration both visually and thematically and is referenced within the film itself. Cassellis’ apartment features a giant portrait of Jean-Paul Belmondo and a TV broadcast of Jean Luc Godard’s ‘Contempt’ is heard being introduced on his television. Wexler’s documentary background also plays a major role in his fusion of fiction and non-fiction throughout the film.
It’s Haskell Wexler’s fairly radical film techniques that really define Medium Cool as an important piece of cinema. His use of non-actors and documentary footage combined with staged elements elevates the subject matter beyond a simple dramatization, resulting in a third act that plays out more like a document. Wexler planned to film his actors in character, roaming around the 1968 Democratic National Convention under the suspicions that a riot would break out. The result was an intriguing and terrifying mixture of fiction and non-fiction as characters from the film wander through — and get caught up in — the chaos of the day. Even Wexler himself is referenced in one scene in which the camera crew is overcome by tear gas and someone can be heard off camera shouting “Look out Haskell, it’s real!!” And of course, the ending of the film takes a dark turn — a trend which would be carried on with films like Easy Rider, Vanishing Point, and Two Lane Blacktop — and once again completely breaks the fourth wall as Wexler himself turns his camera onto the audience.
Medium Cool arrives on blu ray with a beautiful high definition transfer thanks to the Criterion Collection. The film was shot mostly on 35mm (minus a few sections of 16mm) and looks absolutely stunning. Wexler’s camera work is respectfully represented here with an organic look featuring strong colours and a light sheen of grain. As for special features, Criterion has added two commentary tracks, one of which features Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding and actor Marianna Hill. The other features film historian Paul Cronin. There’s also newly filmed interviews, some documentaries (including clips from “Look out Haskell, It’s Real!”, a documentary about the making of Medium Cool), and short film shot by Wexler during the Occupy Wall Street protests. Overall it’s a great package for a great film. — Jay C.