Medium Cool and Hippy Modernism

I revisited Haskell Wexler’s 1969 Medium Cool Tuesday night. The first time I saw it, I had to lie about my age to get into the X-rated film. I was 15, and I thought it was fantastic. Almost 50 years later, it looks more like an occasionally brilliant mess.

Medium Cool will screen this weekend at the Pacific Film Archive as part of the new series Hippie Modernism: Cinema and Counterculture, 1964–1974. The series, which runs well into May, opened Tuesday night with Jordan Belson: Films Sacred and Profane. Tonight, they’re screening Monterey Pop, the first great concert movie of the counterculture era.

Haskell Wexler was known primarily as a cinematographer, but he occasionally dabbled in directing and screenwriting. Medium Cool was his first narrative feature in either of those disciplines. He was politically active, and often took assignments because he believed in their progressive messages.

In Medium Cool, he created a narrative that looks like a documentary, and occasionally placed his actors amidst actual events – some of them of historical significance.

The basic story is pretty thin. A Chicago-based TV news cameraman (Robert Forster) runs around with a 16mm camera on his shoulder with his sidekick soundman (Peter Bonerz). He befriends a woman and her young son (Verna Bloom and Harold Blankenship). Will there be a romance? She’s Christian, and her husband is in Vietnam. Probably not.

Wexler wants to show us how the act of filming separates you emotionally from what you’re capturing. When we first meet the two-man camera team, they’re filming and recording the aftermath of a horrible car accident. Only after they get their footage do they call an ambulance. As the story progresses, the cameraman finds it harder and harder to keep his professional detachment.

Medium Cool looks at America coming apart in 1968 – the year the film was shot. We get Bobby Kennedy fans, black militants, and gun rights activists.

And then there’s the riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago. For the climax, the wife and mother runs through the fighting, looking for her missing son. Wexler actually put Verna Bloom in the middle of an actual riot, and captured it on film. This sequence is like nothing you’ve ever seen. You’re caught up with a fictitious character while watching actual, dramatic history. At one point, when the Chicago police turn on the teargas, an off-screen voice cries “Look out, Haskell. It’s real.” The sense of personal and national disaster fill the air.

But here’s the problem: Forster, who would turn into a very good actor, barely emotes here. You rarely feel anything for him. The political and personal don’t mix well here. The badly-recorded dialog reminds you that you’re watching a low-budget film. The personal story isn’t all that interesting, although Bloom succeeds in making you care for her character.

When I was 15, I found Medium Cool‘s ending brilliant, sardonic, and meaningful. Now I find it stupid, pointless, and overly symbolic.

That Medium Cool got an X rating seems absurd. There’s a few four-letter words, some very brief sex, and a few seconds of full-frontal nudity. The Last Picture Show, released two years later, showed far more skin and got by with an R. But the rating system was less than a year old when Medium Cool was released, and they were still figuring things out. According to Wikipedia:

The censors “objected to the language and the nudity,” Wexler said later; “What no one had the nerve to say was that it was a political ‘X’.” In 1970 the film was re-rated ‘R’.

I give Medium Cool a B.

Hippie Modernism isn’t just a film series. The Berkeley Art Museum, which houses the PFA, opens its own Hippie Modernism exhibition today. Along with other members of the press, I got a chance to examine – and even photograph – the works Tuesday morning. I enjoyed it.

Here are a few of the works on display: