Medium Cool (1969), dir. Haskell Wexler


Medium Cool is of its time. This is not a criticism; it is its reason for being. Its genre is difficult to categorise, because it throws convention out of the window. In essence, it becomes a ‘time capsule’. It encapsulates a period where narrative is not necessarily its most important element, and is decidedly experimental.

Having never existed in 1969, I cannot fully judge how well it captured the period, only speculate. We see strobe lit raves with live performers singing about hippies and psychadelia within politically charged lyrics); a modern, more casual sexuality; campaigns for Robert Kennedy’s election; MLK’s speeches about finding the kingdom of God; lake-side baptisms; civil rights protestors; dominant police forces; the role of a cameraman; run-down, minority neighborhoods, defined by early seasons of Sesame Street  (1969-present); Eddie Adams’ iconic ‘gun to the head’ image from Vietnam, reproduced from magazine pages on John’s apartment wall.


There are still pertinent questions here. Our image of MLK today relies upon forgotten aspects: we remember “I have a dream”, but we forget that he was a reverend, powerful within the spiritual part of the black community; too we forget the more vitriolic speeches, and we forget his equally important peers. The film raises questions around civil rights protesters, drawing parallels with modern fights for equality, and the post-Ferguson consciousness around police brutality. Where a black woman demands her voice be heard in the media, and let her define her own identity, these battles are still not won. When a child bemoans the dominance of the television in classroom, not as an educational aid, all I can think of is how in high school I had substitute teacher lessons watching everything from Mr Woodcock (2007) to Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2008). This is not the same world, nor a different world.

Photographic and videographic journalism faces new dangers today: more prevalent, but also more risky, war journalists captured or murdered by ISIS. The film presents us with the idea of respect with the cameraman: both giving respect to your subjects, and being respected. In perhaps the film’s most memorable scene, we see a black protestor lecture our protagonist; another man speaks, with a color photograph of MLK behind him on the wall. In the confrontation with the police, the cameraman becomes an obstruction.

Eileen searches through the crowd of protestors to find her boy, only to be enveloped into them; a bystander becomes the guilty. She stands apart from them, with her bright yellow dress creating a contrast; she has individuality, yet is simultaneously a part of a mass consciousness. Like the degrading “human interest” stories the Black Panthers speak of, the narrative of the film is a “human interest” story, profiling characters as a means of exploring a wider issue, of creating a connection with the audience. Eileen is our interest amongst an indistinguishable crowd; too often we think of mass crowds, rather than acknowledging that there is a story, a personality and a history behind each protestor.

The camera plays an interesting position here. We frequently break the fourth wall, with John speaking into the camera, or by looking at a cameraman, staring out at us. We are ‘filming’ by watching the film, creating a record of it through our lenses (our eyes) within our memory; but the camera pointed towards the cameraman is doing the same, albeit in a physical manifestation as a negative; the camerman is doing the same through his camera. In a sense the subject becomes active; the disconnect between cinematic reality and our reality become lost. The film’s cinéma vérité style never truly creates the feel of documentary because of its character driven narrative, yet there is also a sense of immediacy, especially during the scenes of the convention.


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