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Movie Reviews

Medium Cool  

Usually, there's a fine line between a fiction film and a documentary film. Of course there is - fiction is fiction and a documentary is real. But then we get a movie like Medium Cool (1968), which is neither one or the other. It sounds fascinating, and it is, although the movie itself is not a full-fledged success. Sometimes I was intrigued, while sometimes.... I was kind of bored.
The time is 1968. The country is in turmoil, as civil rights actions, the assassinations of Martin Luther King, JFK, and Robert Kennedy, and the Vietnam War are at the forefront of the nation's problems. And, of course, the TV cameras are there, covering all of these important events, as well as all of those trivialities, such as car crashes and the like. This is the story of one of those carrying the camera, a man played by Robert Forester, who in the very first shot, films the aftermath of a single vehicle accident before he even gets around to phoning an ambulance. This guy, like possibly a lot of TV guys, is very detached from his work, more concerned with getting the perfect shot than with feeling for the camera's subjects, and there is a long scene involving him and other players in the TV world who justify their work.

During the first half of the film, Forester's character just goes through the motions, having an affair with a nurse, and basically not giving much of a damn. One day, however, he sees a kid whom he thinks is vandalizing his car. He tries to catch the kid, but only retrieves the kid's basket, which contains a homing pigeon; the kid was trying to get it to fly. Forester returns the basket to the kid, and in the process meets his mother, played by Verna Bloom. A short, polite meeting, but later on, he happens to meet the mother again, and the two begin a relationship. Unlike the relationship with the nurse, however, this relationship involves a completely different set of issues; the mother and the kid are from the country, and the mother moved into the city only to discover that there are little opportunities for her. She is a teacher, but her experiences in one-room schools are of no use here in the city school system, and she and the son now live in the lower-class part of town. The movie clearly attempts to create a contrast between the scenes with Forester and the nurse (their only major scenes involve a trip to the roller derby, and a couple of sex scenes), and with Forester and the teacher. The nurse is an accessory, the teacher is someone who can enlighten Forester.

Subtly, the movie switches gears in general due to this new relationship; he becomes aware of the people behind the stories he's covering. During this time, he reports on a black cab driver questioned by authorities after he retrieves 10,000 dollars from his cab; the implication is that the cops will find any excuse to suspect a black man, even if he has in fact committed a good deed. The cameraman tries to follow up on the story by visiting his apartment, but instead he finds himself surrounded by the man's friends; some try to prod him to interview them, while others are suspicious, wondering why a white guy would want to interview a black man, unless he is really from the police. Eventually, he does record the other black people in the apartment, who discuss how things really are between blacks and whites. Forester wants to use this material, but is fired from the station due to its belief that he wastes his time on stories that aren't newsworthy. He's without a job, but then suddenly he is working again when he is part of a crew (and apparently the same crew he worked with before his job loss) working at the Democratic Convention in Chicago (the film doesn't exactly elaborate on how he manages to get his job back).

The high point, absolutely, is the final fifteen to twenty minutes. As Forester covers the Convention, Bloom's character searches for her son, who for some reason hasn't returned home. She walks through the city, and in the process walks into a demonstration and an actual riot. Not a staged recreation; the actual riot which took place during the Conventions. It is a genuinely surreal sight to see an actor, in character, wander through groups of police, hippies, protestors, and assorted troublemakers (including one sequence where she walks alongside the group, the lone passive amongst a group of genuine activists). The fourth wall is constantly broken here; many protesters raise their signs for the benefit of Wexler's camera, and, most memorably, when police start discharging the tear gas, the camera lingers until we hear a voice off-camera saying, "Get out of the way, Haskell, this is real!". And during a particularly violent scuffle between hundreds of protesters and police, just as the actress finds herself amongst screaming protestors and park benches being tipped over and piled on top of one another, Wexler tries to get everything while hoping to leave the scene intact. I wonder if perhaps the suits at Paramount were sweating bullets at the prospect of the cast and crew risking life and limb (or at least limb) just to make a damn movie.

Of course, while the riot is obviously the real thing, Wexler counted on such an event occurring, since events in both real life and in the film were building up to this point, and the director was basically waiting for the moment when it would all explode into something. It's not as if they were shooting some pretty scene in the park, and then suddenly a politically motivated riot broke out! Wexler wants to make a statement about how it is impossible, indeed unjustified, for us, as with Forester's character, to ignore the social crisis facing America ("The whole world is watching!!"); the heavily pretentious final shots try to beat those ideas into us. In the year 2001, this doesn't quite work, but that's to be expected.

The major problem with this film, strangely enough, is the fact that scenes such as this occur in the film. Obviously, when you are dealing with real life as it is happening, you can't exactly push the narrative along to your liking, and for a long time, we are interested in this sequence, just as if we were watching it on CNN or some other channel, and forget that there is supposed to be a story here. In actuality, the story is not put together very well, since the final scene and many others function like part of a documentary, while the fictional scenes merely hold everything together. The acting from the two leads is nothing special. There really isn't much of a focus. The only truly interesting parts of the film are the scenes that either are or appear to be spontaneous and unscripted. As well, the direction is persuasive; the camera flows just like it would in a documentary. Camera angles, zooms, and other technical effects are used very well; they capture or accentuate certain things in the background or narrative which conventional (read, films made before the late 60's) techniques would have ignored or not have been aware of. Perhaps it might have been much better if Wexler went ahead and did an actual documentary about the issues which may have played a part in those riots. Here, however, even though Medium Cool is a cinematic landmark and of much historical significance, the whole does not equal the sum of its parts.

David Macdonald

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