Medium Cool (1969) ***

Self-important essay on the self-entitlement of journalists who see themselves as victims, hated by the authorities whose activities they expose and hated by the public for being so cold-blooded – it opens with a television cameraman getting footage of dead people in a car crash before phoning for an ambulance – and for filming stuff that genuine victims did not want filmed.

Filmed in cinema verite style and covering much of what went down in Chicago 1968 when demonstrators clashed with police and the National Guard and tanks rolled through the streets. Certainly strikes a contemporary chord when filming is an universal pastime and many criminals have been brought to book and various issues highlighted by social media.

As if making its point about action and controversy versus talking heads, the movie begins with talking heads, discussing the role of television and journalism in society, with cameramen telling stories of occasions when the public they were trying to help turned on them. The narrative is slight, following television cameraman John Cassells (Robert Forster) going about his business, and betraying girlfriend Ruth (Marianna Hill) with single mother Eileen (Verna Bloom). John is fired after objecting to his television station handing over to the cops and the F.B.I. footage he has filmed of demonstrations and incidents.

Because of the documentary style, much of what has been filmed carries particular resonance as a sign of the times, not so much the police violence because that is widely available elsewhere, but simpler scenes that seem far truer to life. Eileen’s son Harold (Harold Blankenship) is interviewed by an off-screen canvasser about his home life, age, brothers and sisters and so on. Questioned about his father, he explains his father is not at home. “Where would I find him?” asks the interviewer. “Vietnam.”

The boy’s mother Eileen, a teacher who has to manage five grades in one classroom, and John are skirting round the physical side of their romance until jokingly John takes the plunge. “I know your husband’s not going to come charging through the door.” “Buddy’s dead.” The director could already have delivered this information to the audience in talking-heads-fashion but this carries probably the biggest dramatic punch in the picture. This family provides a solid core for a movie which makes its points in more hard-hitting style.

Questions of respect and ethics loom large. Making no bones about finding audience-grabbing material, John is disgusted that people steal hubcaps and the radio antenna from his car when clearly he feels news journalists should be given more respect. But that the public hold an opposite view is clear from Ruth who instances turtles filmed going the wrong way after nuclear explosion distorted their instincts and they went inland to lay their eggs (where they would die) rather than out to sea. She complains that none of the cameramen present thought to turn the turtles round and show them the correct way.

A plot point allows Eileen and John to mingle with the demonstrators during the actual Democratic Convention. There is a shock – and ironic – ending in which John is himself photographed by a passerby after being involved in an accident.

Robert Forster (Justine, 1969) carries off the arrogant victimized reporter well and in her debut Verna Bloom (High Plains Drifter) is excellent as the real victim of the system while Mariana Hill (El Condor, 1970) raises the tempo as the volatile girlfriend. Peter Boyle (Taxi Driver, 1976) has a small part.

Oscar-winning cinematographer for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Haskell Wexler (who also wrote the script) makes a notable debut as director, mixing fact and fiction, taking a political stance and introducing a revolutionary camera technique. Half a century on, not much has changed in attitudes to media ethics although it is another photographic revolution via social media that is leading the discussion in what takes top billing in terms of news. Its content has led the film to be seen as a landmark of the cinema.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

2 thoughts on “Medium Cool (1969) ***”

  1. This absolutely passes my test; does it say anything about the time it was shot? In fact, it’s one of the best examples of mixing fact and fiction artfully. Went to see Wexler talk in Edinburgh, and he was able to break down the spontaneous moments that they caught on camera. Would like to see 10 films a year like this….

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a good time to capture the spontaneous. He could easily have sanctified journalists and may well have done had it come out a few years later after All the President’s Men. Did a very good job of making journalists human.

      Like

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