|Anyone who saw televised coverage of the demonstrations at the FTAA summit in Quebec, or at the G7 summit in Genoa, Italy earlier this year, will find some of the imagery in Medium Cool (U.S., 1969) uncomfortably familiar.
I first wrote about this film in Fast Forwards activist guide last May, but now that Medium Cool has been resurrected on DVD, its worth reiterating the relevance of the film to a contemporary audience. The film is largely about social responsibility, as it documents the tensions (race relations, sexual politics and police militarism) that gave rise to the riots surrounding the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. It also explores the different ways various media approached coverage of the riots, and in the process provokes consideration of the way similar protests are being reported on today.
Still, as fascinating as the films documentary footage is, there is a greater narrative at work here, and the location provides the backdrop to a fictional story about a TV cameraman (Robert Forster) who is slowly realizing his detachment as a professional observer is affecting his ability to relate to other people. Cynicism an unfortunate by-product of his job, Forsters character finds himself in the midst of a moral dilemma does his desire to capture astonishing images distance him too much from the rest of humanity?
Its an interesting question of voyeuristic spectatorship that was, according to the commentary track on the DVD, provoked by the experience of writer-director-
cinematographer Haskell Wexler in Vietnam. There he was faced with the question of whether to photograph suffering people or to help them, and he says that the question haunted him throughout much of his subsequent career. Interestingly, Wexler gets right in among the throngs of protestors with his hand-held 35mm camera, while NBC cameras are ushered back and forth behind police lines, presumably capturing a much different perspective of the demonstrations.
Medium Cool is Wexlers best-known film as a director, but hes much more celebrated as a cinematographer (he won Oscars for his work on both Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory), and its not hard to see why. While Medium Cool is a particularly fascinating polemical document, its not the most accessible story this inaccessibility isnt a bad thing, but it probably prevents some viewers from connecting with the films ideas. Still, theres almost no way that a film like this would be made in the United States today, although apparently some Italian filmmakers attempted to do something similar in Genoa, using Medium Cool as their inspiration.
Whats notable about the film is that Wexler wrote the riots into the script long before they occurred in reality. On the commentary, he notes wryly that he was familiar with the ways violence escalated when the anti-war movement clashed with police. Its his astute understanding of human nature that is the most commendable quality in this film, and for that reason alone, its worth watching again.
Medium Cool is available on DVD at better video stores in Calgary.