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Medium Cool

Directed by Haskell Wexler Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray

First of all, greatest title ever.

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"Medium cool" doesn't derive from anything that happens in the film, per se, or a line of dialogue, but rather tweaks a Marshall McLuhan observation about the level of individual involvement in media. Yet not only does it beguile as a stand-alone phrase (not too cool, nor not cool enough, though maybe just middling), it also bullseyes the paradoxical passion and detachment of both Robert Forster's TV-news cameraman and of legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler's best-known directorial effort. Intermittently out of circulation since its 1969 debut,

Medium Cool

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returns in a typically luxe new Criterion edition and, despite some of its dated aspects, remains as provocative and pungent as a tear-gas waft. We first meet Forster's John Cassellis when he and his ever-present soundman (Peter Bonerz) happen across a traffic fatality, which they capture on film before calling the police. That distance from humanity, afforded by the camera's lens and a reporter's objectivity, contrasts with Casselis' impetuous personal politics. He's young and it's 1968, after all. Mid-film he chases down a "human interest" story—a black cab driver who finds $10,000 is his taxi and turns it in—while clearly having only a certain level of interest in the human he's trying to put on TV. This results in a straight-to-camera lecture by various background characters on mainstream media's presumptions about parachuting into the black community for feature fodder, a talking-to many reporters could still stand to hear. That permeable fourth wall is one of the many then-groundbreaking conceits that writer/director Wexler uses to animate what passes for a plot here—Cassellis runs afoul of his employers for political reasons, and he finds himself drawn away from his glamour-puss girlfriend (Marianna Hart) and toward a poor young mother (Verna Bloom) and her young son (Harold Blankenship). But Wexler, an angry young-ish man with a camera himself, arranged to film his story on the streets of Chicago with the 1968 Democratic National Convention looming. He captures National Guard troops training for riot duty—and captures Forster filming it in character. He shoots Forster debating journalistic ethics with real journalists, and walking the real convention floor, credentialed. And, ultimately, he films Bloom's character mingling in the fractious throngs as Chicago police clear out protesters, cracking heads inches away. When a tear-gas shell goes off a few feet from the lens, someone off-camera shouts, "Watch out, Haskell, it's real"—a warning the director left in the final sound mix, no doubt for its delicious layered irony. Some of the boundary-pushing antics seem a bit pretentious now, and some of the politics a bit inchoate, but Wexler's mix of docudrama and musings over media and society still retains a charge. And it helps that Wexler the director had Wexler the cinematographer (

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

,

The Conversation

) to lean on. An early POV shot from what seems to be the pillion position of a motorcycle zooming through the streets of Chicago still astonishes. And Wexler's agitating documentary-film roots shine through too: Seeing actual urban poverty here reminds you of how little you see the real thing onscreen to this day. Of its time, perhaps, but with more than you might expect to offer to ours.

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