Like Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider and Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, two other definitive American pictures of the late 1960s, Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool ends in motor-vehicle calamity that shatters any illusion of a happy Hollywood ending. (See also: Vanishing Point, Electra Glide in Blue.) Hopper’s two hog-riding, inverted American dreamers are indiscriminately gunned down by passing yokels, presumably affronted by their long hair. Two-Lane Blacktop doesn’t end with an accident, but with James Taylor’s customized Chevy One-Fifty burning through the celluloid itself, dissolving into the white of an empty frame with the non-hopes of its coolly existentialist drag racer.
Medium Cool’s final sequence splits the difference between these nihilist and modernist new-cinema gestures, with Robert Forster’s John, a local-news cameraman covering anti-Vietnam and black power movements in 1968 Chicago, crashing his company car into a ditch. After a series of Eisensteinian smash cuts, a family drives by the scene, with a young boy hanging out the window casually filming the carnage. The shot then pans out to reveal the film’s—that is, Medium Cool’s—own camera operator (Wexler himself) capturing all of this. It echoes the film’s opening scene, where John and his accompanying mic operator film a fatal car accident. “Well,” says John casually, after picking up the footage, “better call an ambulance.”
The suggestion in both scenes is that documenting something doesn’t just capture its reality, but makes it real. Set against the culture of the Vietnam War, where pictures of far-off foreign warfare and domestic mobilization against it were beamed into American homes, Medium Cool ingeniously captures the images of its era, via the documentary footage of riots and head-on monologues soldered into its narrative architecture, along with its mood.
Taking its name from the McLuhanist barometer of hot/cool media, Medium Cool analyzes the potential of television. “Medium cool” works as a pun, pointing at once to McLuhan’s diagnosis of TV as a passive, “cool” medium, one that “requires a higher sensory involvement from the user,” as well as to the latent possibility for TV, and especially TV news, to attain the “hot”-ness of information-dense media like print. As a medium, broadcast news is both “cool” and “medium cool”—and as such lukewarm.
The ideas coursing through Wexler’s film may scan as academic, but they’re grounded by the potency of its narrative. Like All the President’s Men, Absence of Malice, and the whole broad canon of ennobled American journalist-themed cinema, Medium Cool follows Forster’s John as he struggles to excavate the truth and humanity at the heart of the anti-war and black power movements. The structuring difference is that, as a camera operator, John is seen by higher-ups at his network as the broadcast equivalent of a typewriter: in place merely to record the news, not evaluate newsworthiness. When he finds out this his network has been handing his tapes over to Chicago’s police, and the F.B.I., his outrage is so intense because he’s realizing his diminished role as an adjunct to journalism, rather than a journalist, in place to help sell feeling and sensation rather than information and awareness.
Like Forster’s frustrated sort-of journalist, Medium Cool aggressively straddles the place between reportage and something else. The film is perfectly liminal, moving between documentary and fiction, between observations and incitement, between hot and cool, between the buoyant optimism of America in the 1960s and the warranted cynicism that would come to define the 1970s. Medium Cool stages, not so much with voguish nihilism, despite its demonstrably downbeat ending, as dispassionate vérité straightforwardness, the growing pains that strain a nation when the countercultural ideal of limitless possibility matures into something closer to political reality.
Criterion’s director-approved 4K digital transfer was struck from the film’s original 35mm negative. The disc’s accompanying booklet makes a point of playing up the painstakingness of the endeavor, stating that "[t]housands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter, and flicker were manually removed." Per the Criterion standard, it looks fantastic: removing the "impurities" of film while preserving the warmth and color of the 35mm stock. The audio track is similarly excellent, especially considering the film’s mixing of overlapping dialogue, raucous and noisy crowd scenes, and incidental music—much of which is provided by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention.
Fittingly, many of the extras assembled for this release focus on the film’s status as a historical artifact. The new commentary by historian Paul Cronin—who made the 2001 making-of doc "Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!," large sections of which are also excerpted on the disc—provides ample context for the film, focusing on the political culture of America, and Chicago in particular, in 1968. The most worthwhile feature, though, is "Medium Cool Revisited," a documentary short set against the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. It sees Wexler returning to the same streets where Medium Cool was shot, and offers a pretty convincing "the more things change, the more they stay the same" argument for the tightening of political freedom in the United States. Shots of Iraq and Afghanistan war vets tossing their medals in the direction of the NATO summit prove truly moving. Also nice is a 15-minute sit-down interview with Wexler, during which he describes his move from working as a cinematographer on social dramas like In the Heat of the Night, his involvement in the civil right movement, and how this background helped shape Medium Cool—which he originally signed onto when it was a simpler story about a boy releasing wild animals back into the city, a plot strand the finished film weaves into its larger structure. The disc also includes a previously recorded commentary with Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and co-star Marianna Hill, and excerpts from a documentary about co-star Harold Blankenship. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Thomas Beard, situating Medium Cool within the broader context of Wexler’s career as a cinematographer and documentary filmmaking, regarding its genre hybridity as a natural result of Rober Flaherty’s oft-quoted notion of lying to tell the truth.
Criterion painstakingly restores and beautifully packages Medium Cool on Blu-ray, positioning the film as a definitive document of the political tumult in late-1960s America.