Criterion // 1969 // 111 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 7th, 2013
Beyond the age of innocence...into the age of awareness
Cinema has long suffered a shaky relationship with the line between fiction and reality. Yes, the very earliest examples of the technology are largely "documentary," because they capture a few seconds of what happened to be in front of the camera. But, by and large, filmmakers have been mixing fact and fiction for over a century now. That includes everything from staging "realistic" scenes that did once occur but don't anymore (like the famous shots of Nanook harpooning in Nanook of the North), to using cinema's power to show the re-assembly of a collapsed building by reversing the projector. However, for much of cinematic history (at least in America) filmmakers have ignored this line, producing fictional tales which have their roots in fictional stories from the page or the stage, shot with recognizable stars on studio sets. With the increasing availability of lightweight 16mm cameras and portable sound recorders, documentarians had new tools to take their film to the streets. On the flipside, fictional directors had more freedom to incorporate reality outside the studio into their films. One of the most famous (and successful) of these is Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool. Criterion has lavished the film with a near-perfect Blu-ray release that showcases an important piece of America's cultural history.
John Cassellis (Robert Forster, Jackie Brown) is a television news cameraman in Chicago 1968. He doesn't give too much thought as to what he covers, as long as the footage is good and he gets paid. When he discovers his politically charged footage (including interviews with underground organizers) is being given to the FBI for screening, he becomes incensed and loses his job. This sets him off on an odyssey during which he falls in love with, Eileen (Verna Bloom, High Plains Drifter), a recent transplant from West Virginia. However, Eileen's son runs away when he discovers his mother's romance, and the private world of John and Eileen collide with the very public world of the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Medium Cool is one of those films that's continually in danger of being overshadowed by the stories around it. Yes, it was the debut fiction feature of Haskell Wexler, noted cinematographer on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? who would go on to lens classics like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Yes, the film mixes fictional scenes with its protagonists alongside documentary footage of the actual riots surrounding the '68 Democratic National Convention (including scenes where the fictional protagonists roam around the factual protests). And yes, the film's potent blend of fact and fiction is related to a similarly potent political message about the media and the responsibilities inherent in documenting.
However, Medium Cool is also a visually inventive drama with an interesting story to tell, even if there are no intersections with contemporary American politics. Cassellis' journey from jaded cameraman to engaged activist is a classic narrative, while the portrait of Eileen and her son is an affecting story of rural transplant to the big city. Of course these stories wouldn't work without decent actors, and Wexler cast the film perfectly. I'll admit, when I first saw Jackie Brown, I couldn't understand why Tarantino would want to revive Robert Forster's career. It took seeing Medium Cool to appreciate the real magic. He's believable to start as the jaded camera-guy, and later as the more engaged-but-seeking-direction lost soul. Verna Bloom plays off Forster's masculinity beautifully, as the strong willed but obviously vulnerable new person in the big city. Even Harold Blankenship does a great job as Eileen's son.
In 2003, Medium Cool was chosen for inclusion in the National Film Registry, and Criterion has provided a Blu-ray release that lives up to that historical importance. It all starts with the new digital restoration of the original negative as overseen by Wexler. The result is a gorgeous 1.85:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer whose distinct color scheme of the period is well-maintained, and fine object detail is always impressive. Black levels stay consistent and fairly deep as well. Most laudable is the near-total lack of print damage. For a film that was shot very unconventionally, in sometimes-dangerous circumstances, it's amazing the film has been preserved so well. The LPCM 1.0 Mono track is just as impressive, even if the limited 1968 technology means it's not quite as appealing as the visuals. Dialogue is clean and clear, and there's a surprising amount of dynamic range.
The upgraded a/v presentation alone would have made this a must-buy, but Criterion went and added on a ton of extras into the mix. Things kick off with two commentaries. The first features Wexler, consultant Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill, discussing most of what you want to hear: production stories, stylistic choices, and real-life locations. Though the track is a carryover from a previous release, the second track from film historian Paul Cronin is new for this edition. Cronin is an expert on Wexler and the film, sharing fascinating tidbits about Medium Cool and its afterlife. Cronin's hand is also seen in the excerpts (totaling 54 minutes) from his documentary Look Out Haskell, It's Real, a fascinating look at the making of the film through interviews with many of those involved. Another Cronin project -- 2007's Sooner or Later -- is also excerpted, this time focusing on Harold Blankenship, to see how his life has been affected by the film. We also get a 34 minute interview with Wexler, and a new featurette which finds the director re-visiting Chicago to interview members of the Occupy movement. The usual Criterion booklet includes a perceptive essay by film critic Thomas Beard that nicely lays out the historical and theoretical issues surrounding the project.
Medium Cool is a surprising film that maintains its ability to affect audiences more 40 years after the events it captures. Utilizing a potent mix of fact and fiction, Haskell Wexler captured lightning in a bottle, as his country's future changed completely. While the unconventional storytelling and outdated styles might be a sticking point for some, thanks to this Criterion Blu-ray, viewers will be able to appreciate Wexler's unique vision for a long time to come.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 111 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Rated R