If any movie aspires to capture What It All Meant, you can’t get much more assertive than Medium Cool, which tried to sum up the Summer of ’68 in Chicago less than a year after it occurred. This has to be some kind of response-time record: we couldn’t get 9/11 going on-screen ’til about three years later. The reason, of course, was that Haskell Wexler had heard—like anyone else with half an ear to the ground—that the Democratic convention would probably blow up in a big way, and shot his climactic footage accordingly (the opening title complements, reading “Chicago, 1968” over the sound of a siren). Forty years later, Medium Cool seems like one of the most ambivalent political films ever, which is both good and bad.
Good, because this is the opposite of, say, the shrill if compelling hysteria of Peter Watkins’ 1971 Punishment Park. In that film, the gagging of Bobby Seale—one of the Chicago 8, tried by the clearly nuts and power-abusing Judge Julius Hoffman—is taken not as the fairly unprecedented bad decision of one old-guard judge, but the logical, systematic endgame of a soon-to-be openly fascistic judicial system. Medium Cool is far more tenuous in its commitments—its protagonist basically disappears halfway through, large portions of the film are given over to outside voices simply to speak, and the climactic death doesn’t result from police brutality (which is relatively light on-screen—you’d never get a true sense of the convention’s police beatings if this was all you knew), but an arbitrary narrative decision.
Bad because Medium Cool is its title—pretty interesting, but never fully impassioned. (Alternate title: Lukewarm.) At times, it seems like a DP’s demo reel—which it is, in a way. Wexler’s first narrative feature as a director is full of gorgeous images that frequently have nothing to do with each other, visually or thematically: rural pastoral shots in the golden sun; a frantic chase through a spacious apartment as nude Robert Forster chases his girlfriend and a bird flies through the air; another chase through a parking lot, the (apparent) zoom lens flattening all the cars, removing all depth, and rendering the chase an exercise in stark geometry. Aside from that, it’s mostly Forster’s solipsism, the mandatory late-’60s tripped-out warehouse party sequence… and documentary footage. Lots and lots of documentary footage.
Medium Cool’s much-vaunted verisimilitude doesn’t strike me as a big deal, partly because the seams show in a big way. Some examples: late in the film, Verna Bloom is searching for her son among the tumult. She walks up to cops holding back protesters from going further, whispers something, and gets by. Presumably her character says, “I’m searching for my son,” but it’s all too transparent that she’s explaining her status with the film, the people with her, and so on. The far more infamous example, of course, is the late film yell, “Look out Haskell, it’s real!” Aside from the fact that not everything that’s true should be included… well, it’s not real. Dubbed in after the fact, the cry is, I gather, supposed to shatter the boundaries between participant, documenter, and spectator—shattering the complacency of those watching after the fact, calling into question what it means just to watch and cluck your tongue (as the correctly cynical newspeople say at the beginning of the film, evening news viewers want to watch for 20 seconds, say “isn’t that terrible?”, and then turn to dinner) as opposed to participating, all that good stuff. Plus, all the boundary-fucking post-modernism you could want—uneasy divides between what the viewer knows is going on behind the camera and distanced quote marks around the on-screen narrative, etc.
As a twentysomething, I’m pretty much automatically allergic to Class of ’68 “we changed the world” self-congratulation (Stephanie Zacharek got the tone exactly right in this Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, reviewing a tome about Carly Simon/Joni Mitchell/Carole King: “Weller’s dedication ... reads: ’To the women of the 1960s generation. (Were we not the best?)’...If…the nakedly self-congratulatory quality of that dedication makes you want to play a record by the Slits or Hole or Sleater-Kinney, really loud, you may be in a different category, or just a different age group—not the ’best’ one.”).
So the weird thing about Medium Cool? As a time capsule unsure of what it wants to say—besides giving a voice to everyone not represented in the media, as in the fascinating monologues from mildly militant black activists—it’s muddled, yet fascinating political fare. But the real smugness is in the aesthetics, in the conviction that Wexler’s solved the problem of the narrative once and for all (or realized it can’t be solved, which is the same thing in certain strands of French theory anyway), and reached the outer limits of the fucking thing. He hadn’t; like Easy Rider, what once looked like the outer limits now looks like a dead end.
Vadim Rizov is a New York-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Reeler, Nerve, and, oddly enough, Salt Lake City Weekly.