Medium Cool

Professors of film, journalism, and political science can rejoice now that Medium Cool has been issued on DVD, because they no longer have to dig up scratchy prints or dingy pan-and-scan videotapes to show students what "cinéma vérité" means, or what the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was really like. Cinematographer and documentarian Haskell Wexler's lone narrative feature melds fiction and real life into a portrait of late-1960s turmoil and a meditation on the artificiality of all storytelling, even that of "true" stories—in the process critiquing a genre that he was in the process of creating. Robert Forster stars as a Chicago TV cameraman and reporter who bounces from one scene of carnage to another, filing stories on demonstrations, riots, black rage, inner-city poverty, traffic accidents, and anything else soaked in blood. Medium Cool follows Forster as he falls in love with single mother Verna Bloom, who transplanted herself and her son from Appalachia to a city slum. At the same time, he experiences a handful of world-shaking moments that lead him to question whether his job is distancing him from events in the streets: He's confronted by black militants who accuse him of exploiting their aggression for drama, he's informed that his bosses have been sending his footage to the cops so they can identify agitators, and he witnesses inevitable violence between police and concerned citizens outside the Democratic Convention. The inevitability of that violence drew Wexler to make Medium Cool; in the DVD commentary, he confesses that he had heard well in advance that the summer of '68 was going to be a mess in Chicago, and he tailored his movie to what he suspected would happen, playing to the audience that would see the finished film in the light of the events that occurred around it. Wexler teases with footage of the National Guard practicing how to handle politicized hippies, and he and editor Paul Golding cut the picture to make such watershed events as the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King (which took place during production) all the more ominous. Aside from the romance between Forster and Bloom—which gets in the way of the volatile Summer Of Love action, and ends in typically nihilistic '60s-youth-pic fashion—Medium Cool still has impact. The film's signature moment still lies with the fist-pumping young people chanting "The whole world is watching!" while their heads are bashed in by a riot squad, but Wexler gives places just as much emphasis on people who want to be seen and heard, while controlling when, how, and why.

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