By Andrew Hager, Historian-in-residence
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About halfway through Medium Cool, the two central characters, hardened cameraman John and single mother Eileen, watch a television documentary about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. She is devastated, but he has seen this sort of thing before.
He explains to her the familiar process used by the media in times of tragedy to draw viewers in and provide a superficial expression of National Grief. Nothing is learned. No problems are solved. The ratings are high, and that’s what matters.
Medium Cool is a blistering critique of American media (among other things), but it’s not a satire in the vein of Network or Wag the Dog–it’s a hybrid of drama and documentary footage shot on location in Chicago during the spring and summer of 1968. Actors mingle and converse with real people. Writer-director Haskell Wexler developed his characters and his story, then took to the streets to see what would happen with these fictional people in real situations. Early on, John (Robert Forster) and some real-life cameramen discuss whether it’s more important to help an injured person or get good footage. It’s not played for dark laughs. This is serious.
Wexler guessed correctly that the Democratic Convention, held in Chicago that August, would be a circus of demonstration. His shooting script called for Eileen to roam through the protests in search of her lost son.
The filmmakers weren’t the only ones anticipating trouble. Early on, we see John “filming” actual training exercises of the Illinois National Guard, who practice gassing Guardsmen pretending to be angry hippies. There’s a sense of dread underpinning the action.
What no one foresaw–not Wexler, the National Guard, or Chicago Mayor Richard Daley–was the violence of what would really happen at the convention. Wexler and his small crew followed actress Verna Bloom as she made her way through crowds of demonstrators. We see white-helmeted Chicago police looming in the background. We know what’s coming, even as the actress and the filmmakers can only guess. There are taunts and orders shouted over bullhorns, and then s tear gas canister flies directly at the camera. (A voice shouts, “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!,” because it actually is.) This is the world as a movie set, history going off script. What the filmmakers capture are scenes from what was later dubbed “a police riot.” The streets of Chicago appear indistinguishable from those of Prague just a few months earlier, when the Soviets crushed the budding Czech protest movement.
1968 was a traumatic year for America, a time when everything seemed to be falling apart. During pre-production on Medium Cool, Dr. King was murdered. During filming, Robert Kennedy was killed. The optimism of the early 1960s was a charred wreck by the time the Convention riots happened. Standing there with a camera was Haskell Wexler. Some critics might compare him to the callous photographers more concerned with good footage than the wounded victim. Such an analysis misses the point.
Medium Cool is his call for help.