[box cover]

Medium Cool

While watching Martin Luther King Jr. deliver a moving, beautifully rendered speech on television, news cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) is entranced, but not by King. Viewing the civil rights leader's words as terrific television rather than a historic milestone, he blurts out: "Jesus, I love to shoot film." In Haskell Wexler's experimental, interesting Medium Cool (1969), such is the stance of those who operate cameras and capture sound for news — without attachment, without feeling. They are merely professionals, recording events for posterity, dedicated to their work. A "shooter" himself, famed cinematographer Wexler (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair) wanted to create a movie that blurred the line between illusion and reality. He succeeded beyond even what he originally conceived. As noted in the DVD commentary, Wexler got it in his head that the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago could be rife with riots. And thus Wexler thought: Why not throw actors into the swarm of protesters and cops, shoot a movie, and make both a story and a statement out of the raw, often disturbing footage? It was smart thinking. Medium Cool is about as verité as a fictional movie can get — it's easy to be actually worried about these actors while they "act" amongst bloodied, disorderly hippies and hostile police officers. The young, offbeat Forster (recently seen in Jackie Brown) stars as the jaded Cassellis. At the start of the picture he films a girl hanging near death from a car accident, and he and soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz) appear shockingly callous. Watched today — with movies and television shows that revel in detachment and gallows humor — it's not so surprising, but it doesn't diminish Wexler's point; it only shows how ahead of its time Medium Cool was. The "real" moments, as when Cassellis slinks around a gathering of news-people discussing their profession (all of whom were actual reporters), are stunning. But when Wexler weaves fiction into the film it becomes awkward and loses emphasis. Cassellis becomes romantically involved with the poor Appalachian-born Eileen (Verna Bloom) and befriends her sensitive-but-tough 13-year old son, but the film is expressing so many ideas that it's hard to focus on either the verité statement or the romance. However, Forster is terrific in both areas — he's casually hardened to the world but also cares when it comes to Eileen and her son. Wexler would have been wise to follow Forster's lead, as the actor deftly compounds his hard-boiled newsguy with a man internally struggling with the violence around him. Still, one can't help but be affected by Wexler's film, which is not so much a movie as it is a cinematic essay — a picture so powerful it earned an X-rating when released. Paramount's DVD presents a clear, crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1), with audio in Dolby 2.0 mono and English subtitles. Also included is an engrossing, informative commentary by Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill. Theatrical trailer, keep-case.
—Kim Morgan

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