Retro: our movie & TV vault... a fresh look
at neglected classics and cult favourites
Chicago, 1968 - the Democratic National Convention is taking place in town, and discord is in the
air. John Katsalis (Robert Forster) is a TV news cameraman. His attitude is, to watch and observe, to
capture the footage, to do his job and not get involved. However, this dispassionate exterior
changes, due to his growing relationship with Eileen (Verna Bloom), an Appalachian single mother
raising her son (Harold Blankenship) in a ghetto. This comes to a head when protesters battle the
police and rioting breaks out.
Marshal McLuhan called television "the cool medium," hence the title of this film, written, co-produced, directed and photographed by Haskell Wexler. The TV camera simply records and doesn't analyse. In fact, as one of John's colleagues points out early on: analysis is a turn-off for the audience. They just want the violence and the sensation. Wexler makes this point quite explicitly by cutting from a violent roller-derby to John and his girlfriend Ruth (Marianna Hill) having sex.
Medium Cool is a film inevitably of its time and place. It's hard to imagine a major studio financing a film like this nowadays, and Paramount weren't especially happy with the result back then. Wexler was, and still is to this day, a highly distinguished cinematographer, winning Oscars for Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and Bound For Glory. Although he has made documentaries before and since, Medium Cool was Wexler's first fiction film. He took until 1985 to follow it up, with the little-seen Latino. Wexler's documentary experience plays dividends, as he often uses a handheld camera, filming his cast in character against real backgrounds. These include the riots, which Wexler and his crew filmed with 16mm cameras. At one point the police release tear gas, and you can hear a voice on the soundtrack shouting, "Look out, Haskell, it's real!" (Unfortunately for Wexler, he didn't get out of the way in time.) In scenes like this, Wexler aims for, and achieves, an intense realism, blurring the line between fiction and fact with considerable flair. However, he doesn't let us forget that we're watching a movie: his editing (influenced somewhat by Godard) lets us keep a necessary distance: we're involved in the story, for sure, but not at the expense of our critical faculties. In the final shot, Wexler turns his camera on to us, the audience.
The MPAA gave the film an X rating, ostensibly for occasional strong language (including some early 'fucks', some of which are spoken by the rioters) and especially for a bedroom scene where Forster and Hill are both seen fleetingly full-frontally nude. However, it wasn't hard to work out that the restrictive rating was for the film's political content. (With changing times and standards, Medium Cool has since been re-rated R without any cutting.) Even so, Paramount demanded some changes so that the film wasn't seen to be entirely on the side of the rioters against the police.
Although it was never a commercial success, Medium Cool's influence has been considerable. It can be seen as a forerunner of the journalist-in-a-war-zone films that were made in the 1980s (Salvador, Under Fire, The Killing Fields), whose protagonists made a similar journey from detachment to commitment. Although it's certainly too didactic in places, Medium Cool is an impressive film to this day. Wexler elicits strong performances from his cast, both professionals and amateurs. Long before many of us rediscovered him in Jackie Brown, Forster shows us how good an actor he is. Wexler's camerawork, both in 35mm and 16mm, is first-rate, and there's a strong guitar-based score from Mike Bloomfield, with incidental soundtrack appearances by the Mothers of Invention.
Unfortunately, this DVD release is not the original theatrical version of the film. The reason for this is due to problems with music rights clearances. This is something that affects many American films made between roughly the late 1960s to the early 1980s, which use pop/rock music on their soundtracks. Rights for cinema and TV showings were cleared at the time of production: however, either home video didn't exist, or (in later cases) the makers didn't bother clearing the video rights because they assumed the new medium wouldn't take off. The upshot is that the incidental music often isn't cleared for home viewing (TV showings apart). Many films from this era either have music substituted or are not released on video/DVD at all, depending on how easy it is to clear the rights (which are often more expensive and in some cases are simply not available, or the owner cannot be traced), and how easy it is to replace the music if the rights are no longer available. In the case of Medium Cool, the theatrical version (which can also be seen on TV) features Wild Man Fischer's song Merry-Go-Round over the roller-derby scene referred to above. This DVD, like previous video releases, replaces it with Sweet Georgia Brown, performed by Brother Bones, and the final credits are changed to reflect this. Fischer's song, crude and shambolic as it may be, was a highly effective accompaniment to the scene, and the replacement music alters the tone considerably.
This DVD has an anamorphic picture in a ratio of 16:9, with the original Dolby digital 2.0 mono soundtrack. Extras: a commentary by Wexler, Hill and editorial consultant Paul Golding, and the theatrical trailer.