At the time of its release, "Medium Cool" received rave reviews all over the world and its reputation remains undiminished over thirty years later. The first time I tried to reassess it in late 1997, I found myself mysteriously unmoved. The second time I tried, in late 1998, the mystery cleared up: As a writer/director, Haskell Wexler is a world-class cinematographer. I suspect that "The Making of 'Medium Cool'" would be a far more fascinating story than the film itself. Shot on location in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention in 1968, "Medium Cool" follows the career of John (Robert Forster, then in his pin-up days at age 27) as a television news photographer. The first shot of the film (eerily echoed at the end) shows cameramen John and Gus (Peter Bonerz, 30) shooting a grisly auto accident in matter-of-fact style. Only after they have all their footage does Gus mention anything about an ambulance.
John's life, as can be seen in a sequence with well-endowed Marianna Hill as Ruth, is hedonistic, unblinking and unthinking. While covering a routine human interest story, he is confronted by members of the black community who tell him that television films are being scanned by the Chicago police department and used to harass and arrest people. (Duh!) The uncomprehending John doesn't know anything about that, he's just doing his job, Honey, Dear. (Don't call me Honey! Don't call me Dear!) Then John is fired. It turns out that the Chicago police department IS scanning his television films and using them to harass and arrest people. (Duh-Squared!) John the robot cameraman is John the human being again and he becomes involved with a 13-year-old kid named Harold (Blankenship) and his mother Eileen (Verna Bloom, then 29).
John's story is grafted onto the riot footage that Wexler shot during the convention. (At one point, someone yells, "Look out, Haskell, it's real'" as the police attempt to control protesters with a canister of tear gas.) Bloom wanders through the crowds, long hair neatly combed, wearing a bright short yellow dress with a white belt and high heels, not your basic riot gear. She's looking for Harold in all the wrong places. Why doesn't she stay home where Harold is sure to find her? Because she has to be grafted into the riot footage. She's wearing that atypical outfit so that we can spot her in a crowd, like the Queen of England. She gets in a car with John & there's a flash forward voiceover. No matter what, her face NEVER changes expression. (I pressed the pause button a lot.) And that is the problem with grafting a fictional story onto a much more exciting true story. Unless you're a genius writer as well as a genius cinematographer, there's no way a made-up story can compete with reality. The problem is compounded by the fact that "Medium Cool" is populated with TERRIBLE actresses, not to mention one excruciating dance band! (There are so many GREAT actresses and bands in Chicago, why not use some of them?) Moreover, the film is riddled with bland images of women and bland language for and about them. The guys are the Real Story, Honey, Dear, and so much more important. Overapply that makeup and wait your turn like a good girl. "Medium Cool" will continue to remain an important document because Wexler is a cinematography god. And the years, previously unkind, have become kind to Robert Forster. His 1997 performance in "Jackie Brown" is a text on what a great character actor can do with a role. As picture perfect as Forster is in "Medium Cool," his eyes are a vacant lot, lacking the texture and density only real life could give them.
© 2002 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 5/15/02
USA - 1969