Home > Movies, Reviews (Movies) > [Review] Medium Cool (Wexler, 1969)

[Review] Medium Cool (Wexler, 1969)

Originally published 7 March 2012

Medium Cool is a terrifying film.

The photography is beautiful, set up by the man who would one day be responsible for the inimitable Days of Heaven. The result is visceral. It seems so incredibly “real.”

But Medium Cool occupies this bizarre, hollow land on the spectrum of cinematic “realism.” Realism is an abstraction. Never attainable and, at least in cinema, never wanted. By nature, movies present a clearly fictionalized atmosphere where events, people, and influences from reality are inserted. Medium Cool inverts that system by inserting fictional characters into situations constructed from genuine human anger and fear. As far as cinematic innovation goes, this may be the most dangerous.

Wexler is fabricating reality. Our culture is so full of corporations, politicians, and interests trying to construct their own portrait of reality. The movies might be the most famous example of this abstraction. However, Medium Cool‘s danger exists in its presentation. Wexler was a genius. How he thought he could get away with this film I will never know. He inserts Eileen into the climactic riot, helplessly walking against the tide of police officers, clueless about the issues and only concerned with finding her son. His confidence in such direction points to the horrifying fact that he also believes that history is a malleable material. By inserting a fabrication, a symbol, into tangible human danger, Wexler argues for his ability to alter history. That delusion wouldn’t be so dangerous if the material were not presented as a veritable document of late-1960’s violence and ethics. The counterargument asserting that all cinema is presented such only strengthens this point — if all films possess the trappings of realism, Medium Cool attempts to create one anew. Ultimately, the moral argument is murky and Wexler’s left-wing fortitude is made silly by the bookending car-wreck. The film turns out to be a self-indulgent autobiography on Wexler, himself. He doesn’t try to hide his Godardian influence, but it becomes trite and facile with the final hijacking of Le Mepris. His obsession with the power of the camera eventually usurps fringe cultural concerns like Racism, Violence, Political Upheaval, and Feminism. They’re all there in Medium Cool, but in the end they only exist because of the camera.

Much scholarship is made about Cassellis’ responsibility as the hero. So many admire his calm inversion of stereotype. He is the archetypal revolutionary hero. Unmoved and unshaken in the face of tragedy (the opening, for example), he is depicted as someone who lives for the camera. As footage of MLK is shown (who was shot that year), he says “Jesus, I love shooting film.” Cassellis is Wexler — a grounded permutation of “heroic” behavior. But with plenty of faults to balance everything out.

Maybe the most interesting question is — why Wexler? why 1968? why distort filmic tradition now? The answer might be revealed when Wexler films a series of Black adults in the ghetto. They make (somewhat garbled) pleas for Cassellis to get in touch with the “real people.” What was the late-60’s revolution but a demand for individual attention and the premature glorification of youth? In Medium Cool, Wexler makes an impossible attempt to faithfully represent the little man. This brings us back to the terrifying message of the film.

All of this is not to say that Medium Cool doesn’t have brilliant sequences. If Wexler wandered around with a camera for a year, I would be fixated. The opening scenes at the security base, the final riot prelude (whenever Eileen was absent), and most scenes with Harold are perfect instructions for cinematic suggestions of reality. The pictures are colorful, focused, and energetic and most of the acting is realized successfully. Indeed, as long as the audience has the capacity to understand the fabrication they are seeing, the photography does enough to resurrect the broken ideology into a formal revolution in itself.

Medium Cool is a unique study in cinematic representation. Many passages render and preserve a critical cultural paradigm. One only wishes that Wexler might have actually filmed the events without feeling the need to dress them up.


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