Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Medium Cool (1969) directed by Haskell Wexler

Medium Cool opens on Robert Forster’s cameraman character and his sound guy getting a shot of a car wreck then going back to their car and calling in the police. This sets the themes of the movie; what is the responsibility of a media member to intervene in the stories they cover? To what extent does the media create news via narrative as opposed to covering the facts? Set around the 1968 Democratic convention, and, famously, mixing narrative film elements with actual footage from the convention (you see a young Jesse Jackson in one shot) it tries to illustrate the tumult of that time.

I’m no expert on either the French New Wave or the New Hollywood, but I’ve seen enough to know this was an example of the latter modelling itself on the former. Wexler highlights the French New Wave connection by having Forster light up a cigarette under a poster of Jean Paul Belmondo smoking. He wears a suit and a fedora much of the time.

In an attempt to show the contrast between the culture and the counterculture, there is a plotline involving a single mother whose husband is either fighting in Viet Nam or has been killed there, depending on who is telling the truth. Her son is obsessed with homing pigeons. The flashbacks to WVA and the accent work (particularly on the part of the son) lean toward unbelievability. But the film is strong enough to overcome that.

While the film does meander a bit, it has much more to say, and says it in a more convincing way than its spiritual cousins like Easy Rider or A Safe Place. Its part fiction part documentary feel (though the documentary is mainly just the setting) really gives it a lot of energy and an authenticity those films can’t keep up with. It implicates the viewer in ways those films don’t.

Wexler is primarily known as a cinematographer, and it shows. There is real craftsmanship on display. Certain images will linger with me. The child’s father, in a flashback, indoctrinating him on how to treat women as they walk through a meadow, a shot of hundreds of homing pigeons being released, the child returning home and beating on window calling for his mother.

The film will linger with me as well. I suspect it will only improve on rewatching.

Highly Recommended.

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