Defying Convention: Musings on Medium Cool

Medium Cool (1969): Political film written and directed by Haskell WexlerEven though it was abandoned by its studio, received an undeserved verboten X rating by the MPAA, and was plucked out of circulation and largely forgotten for years, Medium Cool has risen above the shoddy treatment it received on release and claimed its place as one of the most important films of its era and an shining example of the cinema verite movement in documentary filmmaking.

The irony of it all, however, is that the film is not a documentary.

In fact, Medium Cool is an oddball hybrid, a film that mixes a fictional story with real-life newsreel footage, set and filmed during the heated, violence-strewn 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Yes, that’s the one where the radical elements of the counterculture squared off with the riot gear-clad Windy City police and the National Guard in an ugly standoff of brute force and political ideology.  The whole world was watching, indeed.

At the middle of this tumultuous point in history was Haskell Wexler, Oscar-winning cinematographer of such films as In the Heat of the Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Thomas Crown Affair and Bound for Glory. He was behind the camera, as well as first-time director, for this 1969 film centering on a cynical TV news cameraman (Robert Forster) who gets involved the widow (Verna Bloom) of a soldier killed in Vietnam. The relationship occurs in the middle of the violent altercations throughout Chicago at the time of the convention. And in the middle of it all was Wexler, his crew and his surprised cast.    

Forty-five years after it first appeared in theaters, Medium Cool still packs a wallop. It makes for a powerful chronicle of the time and the place that is indelible. It also makes one think about the place objectivity and subjectivity play in the media as well as documentary films.

Wexler, now 87 years old, went on to shoot scores of other films and direct such politically oriented efforts like Latino. He has been an outspoken advocate of liberal causes throughout his career.   

Most of the reviews for Medium Cool reviewed were enthusiastic when it was released.

Wrote Vincent Canby in The New York Times: “Medium Cool is an angry, technically brilliant movie that uses some of the real events of last year the way other movies use real places — as backgrounds that are extensions of the fictional characters.”

Roger Ebert picked it as the second best film of the year.

The film also inspired a documentary Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!: The Making of Medium Cool , a version of which can be found on the DVD and Blu-ray recently released by the Criterion Collection.   Historian David Farber recounts the events that led up to the events in and around Chicago, from the ongoing Vietnam War to the withdrawal of Lyndon Johnson from the presidential race to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Wexler speaks openly about how he wanted to mesh fiction and documentary into “true honest fiction” and how an agreement with Paramount to film a book called “The Concrete Wilderness,” about a New York boy and pigeons, led to Medium Cool. 

Unfortunately, the studio was wary of the film’s explosive nature from the get-go.

 “Paramount held the film for over a year before they released it and that was because they were obliged to release it,” Wexler said in a 2003 interview. “I used my own money and money from investors to make it.”

Wexler explained that the reason they gave him for the holdup was there were insurance issues and Wexler didn’t secure the proper clearances from real people in the movie. The studio also thought the film should show “the other side” of the conflict at the time.

“Then, when it did come out,” Wexler said, “it got an ‘X’ rating, which meant people under the age of 18 weren’t allowed to see it, although this was probably the ideal audience for it. Then, despite great reviews, the audience studio didn’t publicize it.”

Medium Cool 1969 political thrillerWexler, a leading liberal activist in Hollywood for decades, attributes lots of the problems the film faced to politics. Since Mayor Richard Daly of Chicago was a Democrat, Wexler believes there was pressure put on Gulf & Western, the owners of Paramount at the time, by Mayor Daly’s son. Also, he says, his taxes were audited by the IRS.

Surprisingly, Wexler explained that “90 percent of the film is scripted.”

“We knew things were going to go on there, but we were surprised to what extent,” Wexler recalled. “I knew that if the government ignored the anti-war protestors, there would be some sort of conflict.”  

Forster, the Rochester, NY-born performer—later a busy character actor, Oscar-nominated for his role as low-keyed bail bondsman Max Cherry in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown—had made a few films (Reflections in a Golden Eye with Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando, and Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon with Gregory Peck) when he was cast as the cameraman in Medium Cool.

“The film was as adventurous for me as it was for Haskell and the crew,” said Forster in a 2003 interview. ”I didn’t know films could be shot in which actors were expected to improvise, but much of the stuff in the film is improvised. Let’s just say I got a crash course on the process.”

Forster related that he “felt responsible for bringing a frame of reference to the material, and, especially in this case, being myself was a key to creating the character.”

In 2003, Medium Cool was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress and has been remains a landmark film.  

The new DVD and Blu-ray includes a remastered version of the film as well as such extras as commentaries, essays and a version of the documentary Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!