Medium Cool (5 stars)
Director: Haskell Wexler
Starring: Robert Forster, Peter Bonerz, Verna Bloom, Sid McCoy
HASKELL Wexler's name has been seen most often on credits as a cinematographer on films such as In the Heat of the Night and the original The Thomas Crown Affair to The Secret of Roan Inish. He has garnered three Oscars for his work. Yet, his status stems mainly from Medium Cool, considered now as one of the essential reflections of 1960s counter-culture.
Mixing the immediacy of documentary style with conventional narrative, Wexler's film broke the mould in no uncertain terms. The director juggles the moral dilemmas of a television news cameraman who cannot reconcile his job as a "neutral observer" and his mounting desire to intervene in the iniquities he sees on the streets. He's first glimpsed with his sound man tending a dying woman at a traffic accident.
The background is the Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968, which produced some very ugly scenes of police brutality after Mayor Daly called upon the National Guard to quell the protests. Wexler uses hand-held cameras, fast, grainy film and telephoto lenses to mix with the action.
The decades may have passed but the film has the same force and shock value as it did the first time round. Wexler is clearly influenced by the French New Wave in his freewheeling mix of styles, especially Jean-Luc Godard -- currently basking in a similar revival. At one point the camera pulls back to reveal a poster of Jean-Paul Belmondo in Godard's Breathless.
Forster's back story involves Verna Bloom as a Vietnam war widow who lives with her teenage son in a ramshackle apartment block. The cameraman's growing hostility to his craft is strengthened when he finds out that his footage of draft card burners has been given to the police and the FBI to enable them to identify the so-called subversives.
When his girlfriend's son runs away from home his mother wanders the riot-torn streets to look for him. Wexler actually made his actress take part in the real riots (in character) to enable him to capture one of the film's most disturbing sequences.
In the final frame, though, we the audience are put on the spot in a way that will haunt future image-watching. Medium Cool is not just one of the most important films of the 1960s, but in the whole panoply of American cinema.
Lumiere, Edinburgh, tomorrow
Robert Forster in counter-culture classic, Medium Cool
-- From the Festival Saturday section of The Scotsman, 18 August 2001