High Visibility: Reexamining “Medium Cool” on Its 50th Anniversary




IT’S CHICAGO, 1968, and a woman in a dress the color of a high-visibility vest is running through a crowd of protestors gathered in Grant Park. Her appearance — neatly belted waist, coniform “bullet bra,” and white heels — stands in marked contrast to the sloppy androgyny of the men and women around her. She looks like a relic of an earlier generation, a fleeting glimpse of Mayor Daley’s beloved “law and order” amid a world unraveling.

There’s another discordant element here, one not immediately evident. This woman is an actor, chasing a boy who’s not really gone. But the protestors? They’re real — historical agents of the American counterculture, protesting the war in Vietnam outside of the Democratic National Convention that summer. Because of their presence in Grant Park that day, though, they’ve become actors twice over: first as the unfortunate “stars” of a police riot broadcast live to the nation, and then as unwitting participants in a propulsive and formally brilliant movie called Medium Cool.

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Haskell Wexler’s magnum opus, which turns 50 this year, Medium Cool is a strange blend of documentary and fiction, featuring fourth wall ruptures that turn out to be staged, and mise-en-scène so realistic that even the film’s participants believe it to be improvisational. Loosely about the job woes and romantic entanglements of John Cassellis, a jaded TV cameraman, in the months leading up to the ’68 Convention, Medium Cool’s true preoccupation is the ethics of shooting film. Is the news objective, speaking truth to power, or is it merely an instrument by which power expresses itself? What is the connection between television and violence? And who controls the means of representation on-screen?

In this wide-ranging investigation into the fraught summer of 1968, Wexler relentlessly turns the filmic gaze back onto his own camera. The result is a movie that feels almost perfectly calibrated for the uneasy cocktail of stagnancy and unrest, idealism and creeping violence, truth and falsehood, that constituted its time — and which constitutes our own.

After all, in Medium Cool, Wexler’s concern is not only the politics of the day, but the politics of the visual image — how the struggle for social and racial justice gets represented onscreen. This preoccupation was almost certainly informed by his bread-and-butter work: Wexler was a cinematographer by trade, responsible for some of the most famous camera work of mid-20th-century film. He shot In the Heat of the Night, one of the first films to light Black actors’ skin properly; he filmed the soldiers featured in Interviews with My Lai Veterans and won Oscars for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory.

Production on Medium Cool began when Paramount hired Wexler, in 1968, to adapt a novel called The Concrete Wilderness, about a young boy who loves animals. The director returned to his home city of Chicago to shoot what would become the most politically and formally radical studio film of the 1960s. The deal he struck with Paramount let him do it: Wexler put up funds for production, but the studio was required to buy the finished film, even though it proved unrecognizable from its source material. Ultimately, the film even garnered an “X” rating from the MPAA, which Wexler always maintained was politically motivated.

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More than a feature film, Medium Cool strikes the viewer as an accumulation of seemingly disparate images and moments that all eventually converge, drawing toward an inexorable center. Throughout, there is a sensation of things accelerating, starting to slide. Much of this is organic. Dr. King had been assassinated in April of that year, causing riots, but Wexler could not have known that over the course of the long, hot summer that followed, presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy would also be shot and killed, and the Chicago conventions would explode into shocking violence.

But he had his suspicions, which is what drew him to Chicago in the first place. “I knew there would be demonstrations and that the police would suppress them,” the director told Time Out in 2013. “But I didn’t build the story or the script around that. It just sort of unfolded before me.” Studs Terkel, the cult oral historian, is listed as “our man in Chicago” in the film’s credits. During pre-production, he served as a sort of fixer for Wexler, introducing him to the film’s Appalachian transplants, the artists and musicians who portray Black militants in one electric scene, and the real-life journalists who Wexler shoots at a cocktail party, arguing about the ethics of depicting violence on screen. (“Talk about your job,” Wexler told them, before turning his camera on their hobnobbing.) The adult protagonists are played by professional actors — Robert Forster as Cassellis; Verna Bloom as Eileen, the neon-clad mother — but Harold Blankenship, who plays the runaway boy in what Wexler called the “vestigial organ” of the original story, was really a child from the hill country; his friend in the film is played by his real-life brother, and his absent father is portrayed by a local activist.

Given this eclectic mash-up of sources, subjects, and influences, it is a testament to Wexler’s skills as a filmmaker that Medium Cool feels so thematically coherent. The whole film is gorgeously shot, whether it’s a cocktail party filmed in 16 millimeter, or a tracking shot following a motorcyclist as he makes his way through the arcing freeways of Chicago; birds rising into the air at sunset, or discordant flashes of light and shadow at a Mothers of Invention concert.

The feeling it imparts, however, is overwhelmingly one of menace. Television is shown to have a symbiotic, even constitutive, connection to violence. A Black man aims his fingers directly into the camera, miming gunshots and riffing on the “fame” that a violent act can engender, thanks to TV, and his features dissolve into those of a middle-class housewife; terrified by the supposed threat of Black inner-city rioters, she’s practicing her shot, emptying rounds into a target. “I love to shoot film,” Cassellis declares intensely, watching footage of Dr. King just before his assassination, and one can’t ignore the violence contained in the phrase.

In the film’s very first scene, Cassellis films the dying gasps of a woman in an auto wreck; as an afterthought, he dials 911. By Cassellis’s logic, he’s merely performing his given function here: filming a news event, which will later be shown on television. But why does a car crash count as news? Does he not have an obligation to help the woman before shooting her crumpled body? Should the image of a dying woman be shown at all? These are the sorts of questions Wexler urges the viewer to take up — questions that remain clearly unresolved in 2019, when videos of police shootings are livestreamed on Facebook, and the images of dead migrant children adorn major newspapers. 

Throughout the film, student radicals decry the media’s proximity to institutional power, Black militants call Cassellis out as a “distorter,” and the members of the media themselves question the ethics of doing the work they do. Cassellis’s initial belief in the impartiality of his work is belied by the facts. Even when he thinks he’s just shooting film, he’s implicated: a water-fountain encounter with a colleague clues him into the fact that his station’s been handing over his footage for inspection by the FBI. Ultimately, his involvement with Eileen and his growing affection for her son force him out of the relatively contained environment of the Convention, where he’s working freelance, and into the chaos of the streets, where he becomes a participant in the political action.

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If much of Medium Cool feels shudderingly contemporary, its treatment of women will strike viewers as hopelessly dated — which is all the more surprising because of the clear-eyed radical politics and prescience about the increasingly vexed relationship between the media and truth that Medium Cool otherwise displays. The film “explicitly functions as both document and fantasy at once,” as film scholar Thomas Beard wrote in 2013 — and the women in this film are pure fantasy. Women’s images serve to advance Wexler’s political and artistic project, knitting fiction and reality together and making arguments about the objectification of film — even as the film objectifies them.

In Medium Cool’s opening sequence, the callousness that Cassellis displays toward the dying woman’s body is mirrored by the callousness with which Wexler’s camera regards her: he’s using her image to prove a point about the business of news as much as it’s being used by the two newsmen. The scenes of roller girls beating each other up for sport and bourgeois homemakers firing off rounds at the shooting range suggest a confusion of meanings that presages societal collapse, while a line about the preponderance of women in Washington, DC, accompanied with rapid-fire shots of their bare legs, is a “relief” from the political content.

Tellingly, Wexler fails to take up the gendered aspect of shooting film, a phenomenon he excavates in seemingly every other way. When Cassellis goes across town to shoot a story, the Black militants there call him out for tokenizing them: “You came down here [for] fifteen minutes of a Black sensibility […] to shoot in fifteen minutes what took three hundred years to develop.” Two of them disrupt the camera’s gaze, looking directly into it and addressing Cassellis — and the viewer — head-on. But the only Black woman depicted here is an uncredited actress who demands that Cassellis stop calling her “honey.” She doesn’t get to speak into the camera the way that her male counterparts do, and here, the film misses an opportunity. It is an elision that feels indicative of the broader failure of the New Left to integrate women’s liberation into its struggle for racial, economic, and social justice and the antiwar movement. Women never really get a chance to intervene in Wexler’s gaze.

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Given Medium Cool’s unconventional source material, it is fitting that one of the most damning commentaries on the limits of television’s ability to effect change might come — again unwittingly — from the protestors themselves. “The whole world is watching,” the famous chant from the 1968 convention, is an earnest one. To the people gathered in Grant Park in 1968, “The whole world is watching” meant: you’re not going to be able to get away with this. But as Mary McGrory, a Washington Post columnist who covered the convention, later wrote: “What made the scene most hair-raising was that the presence of the press — our credentials were plain to see — had not the slightest deterrent effect.” TV coverage of the convention may have brought about a national conversation about policing, but Kent State happened only two years later. How many instances of the state exercising violence on its own citizens in broad daylight have we seen since?

In Wexler’s hands, the phrase takes on a different meaning, one more cynical and sly. It’s featured twice: the first time, protestors chant it as police advance toward them. The second time, an audio recording of the protest is overlaid onto the film’s final images, which are shocking, and deeply pessimistic. And, in the very last shot, we see Wexler himself behind a camera, which he swings around and turns back on us. The whole world is watching — then, as now. So what?

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Piper French is a writer living in New England. Her writing has been published by The New Republic, Roads & Kingdoms, and Asymptote Journal.


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