Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Medium Cool (REPOST)

This repost (written in 2009) is in honor of Haskell Wexler, cinematographer extraordinaire, who died a few days ago. He was 93.

If you remember the 60s, you weren't there

-Dennis Hopper

I wasn't there either. Technically I was, having been born in 1969, but how oblivious I was to all the furor outside my gauzy, Fisher-Price confines. I was bawling in a crib while an entire generation was on fire. Taking to the streets. Marching across campuses. When I meet Baby Boomers especially, I wonder if they were once part of some angry, sign carrying collective. Perhaps one of the peaceful hippies who slipped flowers into rifle barrels. Maybe they were flinging molotov cocktails at shielded "pigs" on horseback. Indeed, all the imagery we've seen time and again in documentaries of that most troubled decade. Cliched by now. Certainly, not everyone was out in the fracas. Those who were tended to be caught in chilling stills, immortalized as their open mouths in not quite taciturn protest against Vietnam, the Establishment, or maybe some political candidate, were seen worldwide. We open a retrospective edition of Time or Newsweek and see the images of which I speak.

Fictional films have splashed this imagery across screens, too. All those bathed in nostalgia flicks, often romantacized. Then there are films like writer/director/cinematographer Haskell Wexler's MEDIUM COOL, from '69, that is as cinema verite as it gets. That French term, loosely translated as "cinema of truth", denotes a filmmaking style which employs naturalistic elements for and with devices of the artists. Put another way, the filmmakers often go out to real locations, filled with real people, adding actors to try to blend in and react to/provoke some drama. I'd say that is an apt summation for Wexler's film.

The setting: Chicago, 1968. Democratic National Convention. The year was already a torrent of sorrow: Tet Offensive in Vietnam, the assassinations of MLK and RFK. The nation was increasingly restless. As Wexler penned his screenplay the year before, he quite presciently believed that the stormy pot would boil over even more. The Deomocrats were courting a peace-loving candidate but the current Democratic Commander in Chief, Lyndon Johnson, likely couldn't show his face publicly in 1968 without a welcoming committee of protesters. There would be no peace at the Convention, as saying all hell broke loose is a gross understatement.

The National Guard anticipated a storm. Their training was intense as they prepared to keep the peace. When the rubber hit the road (quite literally in the events of MEDIUM COOL), any sense of organization was lost in a sea of chaos. It was all over the news, naturally. Wexler and his actors and crew were also there, right in the middle. Professional thesps like Robert Forster, portraying John Cassellis, a tough and dispassionate television news reporter, wandered through very vivid and very real conflicts. Peter Bonerz was Gus, the sound guy who wades through the troubled sea along with him. As Wexler frantically tries to guide his camera around the mayhem, we see genuine looks of concern on the actors' faces. As in "Holy shit, that billy club is about to make contact with that guy's skull." We actually do hear someone say, during one of the many scenes of Convention protest violence, "Look out Haskell, it's real!" Indeed it was, but the director cheated there, as that line was dubbed in after principal photography. He really didn't need to do that, as any visual conveyed the urgency of that statement well enough.

Before we see the climatic turmoil, we follow Cassellis, driven and detached, as he investigates the ugliness of everyday urban city life. There are car crash scenes, shocking pockets of poverty, drug abuse fallout. All waiting to be documented and aired. John shoots miles of footage, but remains clinical, never to become connected to what is in his foreground. He's like a later fictional character, Harry Caul, the surveillance expert in THE CONVERSATION. Exact at what he does, and able to file it away without those nagging concerns of empathy. Maybe it is the correct paradigm, as what he faces would surely eventually wear down even the most mechanized soul. Many physicians are like this.

John has relationships, but sex can be had (at least in the meanwhile) without the affection and responsibility. In a film that very cleverly flirts with the avant garde at many turns, a more conventional narrative emerges when he meets Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her frustrated son, Harold. They are unsophisticated folk from Appalachia, as lost in Chicago as John is in his apathy. This will change as the adults meet and discover a bond. Harold is further depressed and disappears, prompting his mother to undertake a citywide search, leading to a blunt finale that stings the longer you mull it over. A random, devastating conclusion that puts everything we've seen in a whole new light. Watch it again and you will see how every seemingly unimportant moment was essential.

Wexler is best known for his lensmanship on films like COMING HOME, IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, and FACES. The latter film shares much with MEDIUM COOL, as both are uncomfortably voyeuristic. We sit through scenes where for long stretches there's no cut to relieve the tension, the charcters' or the audience's. We eavesdrop on meetings, lovemaking, playful fighting, real fighting. Not just the actors', as you know. Fozen in time, preserved on celluloid, are the words and actions of neighborhood folks. Non-actors. John and Gus arrive in a ghetto and are lectured by the locals about the black man's plight. The non-actors look right into John's (and Wexler's) camera and lay it all down, off the cuff. Spike Lee must have seen this, as it prefaces the sort of breakways of the "fourth wall" we would see decades later in his DO THE RIGHT THING and THE 25th HOUR. The energy is similiar, too. The authenticity of these scenes are a treasure. They do not feel engineered like that of many other documentaries, and Lord help us, not like any of the dozens of reality programs that have plagued prime time TV in the last decade plus.

As a cinematographer, Wexler composed masterful shots of the whims of other masters. In MEDIUM COOL, his tour-de-force behind the camera electrifies an already potent scenario. I'll bet if he just locked the camera down on a tripod and let it run, he still would've captured a good chunk of the natural drama that was the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Life doesn't necessarily need to be enhanced with art. But by composing a mash-up of the real and surreal, he has made a valuable document that serves both as a time capsule and an artistic groundbreaker. Well worth your time.
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