Thursday, August 29, 2013

"Medium Cool": Politics and Cinema in the America of 1968

"Medium Cool (1969) is an American film written and directed by Haskell Wexler and starring Robert ForsterVerna BloomPeter BonerzMarianna Hill and Harold Blankenship. It takes place in Chicago in the summer of 1968. It was notable for Wexler's use ofcinema vérité-style documentary filmmaking techniques, as well as for combining fictional and non-fictional content.
"In 2003, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".--Wikipedia 

Much of the focus of the television news and political columns this week has focused on this being the week of the 50th Anniversary of the keystone moment in the Civil Rights Struggle, the 1963 march on Washington.  The event drew over 250,000 marches and was mostly peaceful.   Folk singers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary appeared and both empowered and soothed the large crowd.  The group was dedicated to a a march for "Freedom and Jobs" for African-Americans. Although it was not as largely noted by major newspapers like "The Washington Post" at the time, it was the 16 minute "I Have A Dream" speech by the 35-year old pastor, Martin Luther King.  To me, it is fitting that this famous day has been commented upon in general positive tones and so commemorated.  But...  

When I (and I suspect many others)  recall the Sixties and the struggles in that decade over the undeclared war in Vietnam and the struggles of black Americans and those of all colors who were poor the year 1968 looms up as a reminder how much division and chaos and violence tore at the nation and how these events still reverberate four and a half decades later.  
A quick review:     

Director/Cinematographer Haskell Wexler today. 
     "1968, as it happened, quickly turned into America’s annus horribilis. In January the Tet Offensive was launched, with North Vietnamese forces overrunning major American military and diplomatic bases. In March President Johnson, having failed to grasp the huge anti-war sentiment developing in the country, announced he would not run as a candidate for his party in the election later that year. In April Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, resulting in destructive rioting in many of America’s cities, including Washington and New York, and two months later Robert Kennedy, the leading anti-war Democrat, was also murdered. Protests convulsed the nation’s campuses, including a week-long sit in at Columbia University in New York."
So less than five years after the Great March, not only was King dead, but there were bloody riots and shootings in cities like Detroit, Newark, and parts of San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles and Chicago and other major cities.  It was in the latter City of Big Shoulders, to use Carl Sandburg's  phrase, that the fight to stop the war and bring peace and greater justice for all culminated at the Democratic National Convention.  There Mayor Richard "Dick" Daley's cops engaged in what was later determined to be a "police riot" in Grant Park and areas around the convention.  Part of these seminal events were captured by the great cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, who wrote and directed an important "cinema verite" film, "Medium Cool".  Many scenes in this film were actually shot against the backdrop of the convention and the tensions brewing up in the city between the young and old protesters as well as between whites and blacks in a city that was as seething with racial tension as many areas in the South, if not more.  Martin Luther King himself said after a 1967 march through a white section of the Midwestern metropolis that he had never been more afraid anywhere in the South as he had in  Chicago. 
This is the original trailer for the film, which features Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention partially doing their song, "Who Needs the Peace Corps?".     
 Haskell Wexler:  “Kennedy was killed a couple of weeks before we were due to start shooting, so I got a small crew together along with my two principal actors and we all went to the funeral in Washington, D.C. to shoot scenes that I thought would have a use in the final film, at that point still called The Concrete Wilderness. We also went to watch the Illinois National Guard who were preparing for the expected troubles in Chicago later that summer, and got some great footage of them training. The troops were split into two sides. Groups from each unit would dress up as hippies and protesters while the rest of the soldiers would be instructed in how to deal with these so-called deviants.”

Wexler's film succeeds as a document of the times. The story concerns a tough television reporter (Robert Forester, who also appeared in Quentin Tarentino's 1998 film "Jackie Brown".)  who tries to remain tough and "objective--until he meets a young single mother (Verna Bloom) from the poverty-stricken rural mountains of  Appalachia.  A romance begins.  He also sees how far the FBI and the Chicago police will go to maintain a lid on a major American city that has lost hope in its leadership. The March on Washington is a dim memory here: the "soldiers for peace"  have been marginalized from Civil Rights advocates to "radicals" and "dirty hippies", "commies", et al, because many were either disillusioned by the assassinations of anti-war leaders like King and Robert Kennedy or dead-set against any more changes in the name of justice and equality. What was the Civil Rights Movement or the Women's Rights Movement or The anti-Vietnam movement to them, if they were not black, female or, like my mother, had a son in South East Asia? 

  Again, back to 1968:  Remember that 550,000 Americans, draftees and volunteers,  were at war halfway across the world.  There was little end in sight, and neither of the main candidates for the Presidency seemed to have a verifiable plan to remove Americans from a seemingly unwinnable war.  In addition there was an emerging and more militant Black Power movement that didn't follow Dr. King.  To some blacks, the gains made by Voting and Civil Rights Acts had not moved the white political establishment to budge; they wanted the status quo in the cities for holding power, no matter what party they belonged to.

Haskell Wexler's film might not be the most nuanced or character-rich film of the 1960's, but its power is not in pleasing the mainstream viewer, but in its rawness and challenging look at the reality of a nation in crisis. It was released in 1969 with an "X" rating, meaning no one under 17 could see the film.  Yet the film seems to be less shocking in nudity or language than it did as an unsettling political statement.    (it was changed to an "R" rating within a year.)

Here is a link to an extended sequence from the film, showing how documentary and drama merged in Wexler's film. 



  1. Thanks for that very interesting review of the film 'Medium Cool' which I had never heard of before Doug. Given the great interest I and many others in England took in events in America in 1968, it seems strange that I never came across this film I wonder if it was shown in the UK?
    Anyway the more things change the more they stay the same. If we substitute Syria for Vietnam a similar vibe is going on here now and in America too I suspect, but methods have moved on.
    There was very close interests in the events in Chicago here in 1968.
    The antiwar movement was for the first time now truly transnational, I and my friends were very aware of Jerry Rubin and the Yippies, the so-called underground press like Oz magazine and International Times had interviews with the likes of Abbie Hoffman and Angela Davis, the situation was watched and commented upon here at the time.
    I found it interesting that Frank Zappa obviously agreed to music from the Mothers could be used in the soundtrack, Zappa was totally postmodern and of course he always will be. Very interesing as I say Doug thanks for posting this. It certainly demonstrates that the antiwar coalition has to learn from its mistakes and concentrate on providing endless information that eventually builds into an ideological coup d'etat through an infinite series of micro- interventions. That is what I call a post-modern revolution anyway Doug and I'm pleased to say its all going well. :-)

    1. "Medium Cool" was, for me, a film that was heard about, read about a bit, seemed interesting, but damned if I could FIND it to see. I first heard about it in the early 70's in film magazines, and it took almost a decade before I saw it---on a late night national network showing. I doubt it was the full film. Nevertheless,I thought the film lived up to its reputation.

      I then saw it again a couple years later and--in another vampire-time television slot, --until recently, it was one of those films that had "dropped off the table". In the San Francisco area, I never saw it scheduled to play either there or in Berkeley, the latter of which of all places you'd think it would have been a revival favorite. Perhaps it was shown at the UC Theater or Pacific Film Archive, but I didn't see it, despite my efforts to pick up schedule news.

      Another friend of mine told me recently the film is now out in a few libraries via VHS and a DVD is to be released. For a while the film was only available in VHS format and the purchase price was absurdly high ($80-$100) which always indicates a limited run of copies. Just seeing of about a third of the docu-drama film on You Tube reminded me how important this film was. I can only assume the lack of a major male or female star handicapped its re-release potential.


    Puzzle solved Doug this film was never shown in the UK until 24 may 2008 when it was apparently shown at a film festival called Cinema '68 according to IMDb. The Zappa connection is a very interesting factor and I would have thought for that reason alone the film would have been shown here, at least on the midnight movie circuit and at art cinemas.

    Of course coterminous with these events in the US we were storming the US embassy in Grosvenor Square here, while the barricades were going up in Paris and the Dutch Provos spread dissent in Amsterdam.
    I look for to the reprise of all that with some enthusiasm Doug, but the next time it would be much better that the victory were decisive, so we don't have to keep adjusting the system all the time and over and over again, day in day bloody out! That would be nice wouldn't it... if politicians would just stop repeating the same mistakes in perpetuity and be guided by the voice of reason for once. The good times would have arrived but the corruption is total and so all pervading that our only option is to take over the writing of history and to overwhelm the official line with counter arguments and clever strategies. Oh well, upwards and onwards Doug as ever, but People Power in the UK has left the British government with egg all over its face this week, we are working on a custard pie for Mr Obama next.

    1. It's very bizarre to me, AA, that a well-reviewed US film had to wait forty years to see the light of day in England.

      As you know it was originally released over here with a "X"-rating, which tamped down the audience considerably. Given that the semi-governmental ratings board, The Motion Picture Association of America, was headed in 1968 by none other than Jack Valenti, a former high-level aide to Lyndon Johnson, might explain its tamping or cooling down. The movie shows Black Panther-style groups and of course the Yippies and other demonstrators at Chicago in a positive light, which history has judged was the proper course, although at the time the war in Vietnam and the "war at home" over black empowerment was hot and let us not forget J Edgar Hoover at the FBI was the most powerful man in Washington and had his hooks in the entertainment industry as well, thanks to a popular Sunday Night television show, "The FBI", which had cast and script approval by Hoover's agency.

      Not all of Hollywood was in thrall of Hoover however, as films like Theodore Flicker's "The President's Analyst" (1967) and "Easy Rider" (1969)proved. Hoover objected to both films but the studios that made them told him, politely, to fuck off. But these were still exceptions. Somebody in a high place in the Los Angeles movie industry must have blinked on this one. (How else did it not get a release in the UK for forty years?)

      Of course, mainstream Hollywood hacks tried to make a buck off all these contentious "generation gap" issues by making glossy, Stanley Kramer style-films with 30-ish faux hippies, shows like "The Monkeys" and occasionally putting black actors like Richard Roundtree and Jim Brown in a few lead roles in second-tier action films. But "Medium Cool" was too REAL I think, showing a degree of People Power was not diluted by an "even-handed" (i.e., morally bankrupt on key issues) establishment.

      I would agree with Haskell Wexler that "Medium Cool" was slapped with a "political X" rating, not one based on excessive sexual situations, violence or language. The rating was finally changed to "R" in 1970 (Restricted--those 17 of years and younger required an adult with them.) Of course I and other kids as teens snuck into a couple dozen "R"-rated films in my neighborhood multi-screen theaters, but by then "Medium Cool" was unlikely to get a serious release the way hit films like "Bonnie and Clyde" and "MASH" were after their "R" ratings were reduced to General Audience (GP) ratings after 1971-2.

      Looking ahead, I can well agree the spirit of 1968 had some important changes for much of my country and yours, but it is always a step forward here and there and then comes the blow-back from the forces of political corruption. It must be heartening for you to see that protests and solid evidence of past Bush-era skullduggery has caused the majority in the British Parliament to finally say "NO" to an American President (and his too obliging friend in Downing Street) who have bitten off more than they can chew in the Middle East. Assad is no hero to me, but I'll be damned if I can figure out how dropping missiles on Damascus can stop anything, only make things worse.

      I find the whole Syrian situation a political lose-lose for Obama and, frankly, the rest of the world. We need a Peace Conference in Geneva, not bombs in Aleppo and more dead civilians on either side. The Arab Spring is now a busted flush in Egypt as well.

      I hope that the President's that his appearance at the G-20 Summit in St. Petersburg can produce a formula for a face-saving consensus among the major powers, one that will not involve naval bombardments or an extended war where all bets are off. Perhaps Putin can be a positive force in this matter since Assad might listen to him.

      Best wishes to the Peacemakers!