Documentary?

Medium Cool

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For those of us who remember the turmoil and the deception of the 1960s, Medium Cool (an iconic, journalistic phrase, if ever there was one!) stands out as a bravura performance by acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler.

Once upon a time, this film would have been considered incomprehensible to the general movie audience.  So what’s going on when an experimental, radical film like “Medium Cool” can get this sort of exposure?

Even five years ago, most Hollywood movies insisted on stopping at B on their way from A to C. Directors were driven by a fierce compulsion to explain how the characters got out of that train and up to the top of the mountain.

 Bullitt, to grab a recent example, did something else. In all movies, from Bogart to James Bond, symbols meant what they were. Bogart got into a souped-up Buick Special and Bond got into an Aston-Martin, and it was the car’s prestige that was important. But in fact, the cars mostly sat there being Buicks and Aston-Martins.  Bullitt distilled the power of the car symbol. The Bullitt chase was not about what a Mustang and a Charger were — but about what they did. And it was the doing, the action, the speed, that exploited the cars as symbols of power.

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Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool knows these things about the movie audience as well.  The narrative forges back and forth through several levels.  There is the fictional story about the TV cameraman, his romance, his job, his girl.  There is also documentary footage about the riots during the Democratic convention.  There is a series of set-up situations that pretend to be real (women taking marksmanship practice, the TV crew confronting black militants).  There are fictional characters in real situations (the girl searching for her son in Grant Park).  There are real characters in fictional situations (the boy playing a boy, expressing his real interest in pigeons).

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This intertwining of the real with the unreal gives the narrative an otherworldly sort of quality.  It also serves to distinguish the symbols from their function.  Both sides in this conflict have a function only when they confront each other.

Medium Cool is a vitally important piece of work largely because of the way in which Wexler weaves all these seemingly disparate elements together.  He has made an almost perfect example of the new movie.  We are aware that this is a movie.  And because of this, it seems more relevant and real than the fictional surface of, say, Midnight Cowboy.

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