Medium Cool

Director: Haskell Wexler
Screenplay: Haskell Wexler
Stars: Robert Forster (John Cassellis),Verna Bloom (Eileen), Peter Bonerz (Gus), Marianna Hill (Ruth), Harold Blankenship (Harold), Charles Geary (Harold’s Father), Sid McCoy (Frank Baker), Christine Bergstrom (Dede), William Sickingen (News Director), Robert McAndrew (Pennybaker), Marrian Walters (Social Worker), Beverly Younger (Rich Lady), Edward Croke (Plain-clothesman), Doug Kimball (Newscaster)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1969
Country: U.S.
Medium Cool Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Medium Cool
“There is a basic principle that distinguishes a hot medium like radio from a cool one like the telephone, or a hot medium like the movie from a cool one like TV. A hot medium is one that extends one single sense in ‘high definition.’ High definition is the state of being well filled with data.... Hot media are, therefore, low in participation, and cool media are high in participation or completion by the audience."—Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, pp. 22-23

The title of Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool is a play on the work of media theorist Marshall McLuhan, whose writings about the importance of how “the medium is the message” took the academic world by storm in the mid-1960s, causing scholars to rethink how the media affect us. In his third book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, McLuhan tried to capture the entirety of humankind’s history and every major development in communication and media, which to McLuhan represented everything from spoken language to the electric light bulb. Reaching as far back as the dawn of humankind, McLuhan used 359 pages to interconnect almost every important step humankind had taken, from inventing the wheel to showing the first movies. In McLuhan’s world, development didn’t come quietly, but in the form of explosions that rocked the world and carried humans toward more change.

Thus, it is not surprising that a dedicated liberal, anti-establishment filmmaker like Wexler would feel drawn to McLuhan’s worldview, even as he sought to undermine some of the theorist’s most strident conclusions. After all, since McLuhan declared movies to be a “hot medium,” one that is so filled with information that it requires little participation on the audience’s part, Wexler’s intent in Medium Cool seems to have been to prove this wrong—that movies could provoke thought and participation from the audience. They could, in effect, transcend the physical properties of their medium. To Wexler, the message was the message.

Set against the backdrop of Chicago in 1968, one of the most violent years in modern U.S. history (between 1967 and 1968, the peak year of the Civil Rights movement, there were 384 riots in 298 different cities, including the most infamous in Detroit and Newark), Medium Cool tells the story of a rise to political consciousness. Wexler, who both wrote and directed the film, starts with a series of seemingly unrelated narrative fragments. In the opening scene, we see two television newsmen, a camera operator and a soundman, blithely filming the still-twitching body of a woman who has been in a serious car wreck before calling an ambulance. We watch as various news reporters stand around a television station, discussing violence in the media and the dangers of their profession. We see a young Appalachian boy, dirty and tousled, releasing a pigeon in his slum neighborhood in downtown Chicago.

Wexler doesn’t immediately supply us with connections between and among these scenes, but rather makes us work to piece them together, and it isn’t until more than half an hour into the film that we realize how these characters’ lives will begin to intersect and create a narrative we can follow. Much of the story centers around the detached cameraman we saw in the opening scene, John Cassellis (Robert Forster), who slowly learns through the events unfolding around him that he does have a part to play in the larger picture—that he is not just there to document, but to interact and participate. Part of this evolves through his relationship with Eileen Horton (Verna Bloom), a poor Appalachian woman struggling to make ends meet in the slums of Chicago with her young son, Harold (Harold Blankenship, a native Appalachian boy who was living in Chicago when he was plucked off the street neorealist-style to star in the film).

However, the conventional narrative in Medium Cool is almost entirely subsumed in the atmosphere of the times. Wexler had always intended to film his story against the ’68 Democratic national convention being held in Chicago, and his cameras ended up getting caught in the maelstrom of violence that erupted between protestors and police in the streets outside. Thus, Medium Cool became more than a fictional movie set against a current backdrop; instead, it became a rare hybrid that fused the fictional and the real, as Forester and Bloom, maintaining their characters, rush through the chaos of the actual street conflict. The violence becomes part of the story, yet it exists outside of it, as well. Those are real protestors bleeding on the ground; the pile of park benches through which Eileen must crawl was not stacked by a production designer; the unrelenting chorus of screaming and yelling was not recorded in a postproduction studio.

Even without this serendipitous confluence of the fictional and the real, Medium Cool would still be a revolutionary example of how the medium of film can convey deeper political urgings. The exact political message of Medium Cool isn’t always entirely clear, and this lack of clarity is more a reflection of the turbulent times than a lack of thought on the filmmakers’ part. If anything, it is about the need to be involved, to participate, to make history, not merely record it.

Wexler, primarily known as a cinematographer who won two Oscars (one in 1966 for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and one in 1976 for Bound for Glory), was already an accomplished documentary filmmaker when he wrote, directed, and photographed Medium Cool. He ably employs the aesthetics of cinema verite to give the film a gritty, realistic texture that makes it difficult to separate the real from the fabricated, and his use of political themes recalls the influence of French New Wave filmmakers, particularly Jean-Luc Godard, whom he consciously evokes. The result is a powerful, utterly unique film, one of the few that truly captured the turbulent late-’60s zeitgeist in all its sound and fury.

Medium Cool Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
Medium Cool is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by writer/director Haskell Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actor Marianna Hill
  • Audio commentary by historian Paul Cronin
  • Video interview with Wexler
  • Extended excerpts from the documentary Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!
  • Excerpts from the documentary Sooner or Later
  • Medium Cool Revisited” short documentary by Wexler
  • Trailer
  • Essay by film critic and programmer Thomas Beard
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateMay 21, 2013

    The digitally restored 4K transfer of Medium Cool on Criterion’s Blu-Ray looks fantastic. The transfer was made from the original 35mm camera negative and then restored with multiple software packages, bringing the image to something very close to pristine. Of course, having been shot documentary-style with mostly natural lighting, the film has a naturally unpolished look that is crucial to its effect. The transfer maintains a good presence of film grain while also removing most signs of age and wear. I was surprised at how bright and intense some of the colors are, as I had remembered the film as being darker and more limited in its color palette. Yet, the intense blue of the sky and the bright yellow of Eileen’s dress at the end of the film are truly striking. The lossless monaural soundtrack is also excellent, with fine clarity and decent depth for a mono track.
    From the previously available Paramount DVD, Criterion has included a screen-specific audio commentary by writer/director Haskell Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill. Recorded during the summer of 2001 just after a retrospective screening of Medium Cool at the Edinburgh Film Festival, it is consistently fascinating and truly adds to the experience of watching this unique film. Golding acts as the self-proclaimed “emcee,” although Wexler needs little prodding. They talk at length about the details and challenges of filming the movie, where some of the actors came from (many were pulled right off the streets), and how Wexler had some inside tips that led him to believe there would be an uprising at the Democratic convention, thus undermining that long-held belief that it was simply a matter of fate or luck or some combination of both. Criterion has also added a brand-new, extremely informative commentary by historian Paul Cronin, who offers his own insights into the film’s unique production and status in film history. That is not all Cronin has contributed, though, as the disc also includes outtakes from two films he produced: about 53 minutes from Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!, a documentary about the making of Medium Cool that features interviews with Wexler, Golding, Bloom, actors Peter Bonerz and Robert Forster, and Chicago historian Studs Terkel; and Sooner or Later, which catches up with Harold Blankenship, who plays Harold in the film and is now (as of 2007) a grizzled, long-haired resident of West Virginia. Also on the disc is the film’s original theatrical trailer, a new 15-minute video interview with Wexler, and Wexler’s new half-hour documentary “Medium Cool Revisited,” which chronicles the Occupy movement’s protests against the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection and Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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