Essays · Movies

‘Medium Cool’ is Still the Most One-Of-A-Kind Movie Ever Made

In this essay published in 2014, Christopher Campbell celebrates the uniqueness of Haskell Wexler’s 1969 drama.
Medium Cool
The Criterion Collection
By  · Published on August 27th, 2014

What if in the midst of the Ferguson protests, literally on the scene with actors intertwined with real demonstrators, someone was filming a fictional drama with a romantic plot? That would seem disrespectful, I’m sure, if only because those events have been centered around the death of an individual. It might be different if there was a Hollywood production filming in the middle of something less personal, like the Occupy Wall Street protests, as Warner Bros. had reportedly been considering doing for parts of The Dark Knight Rises. That didn’t happen, and maybe it never was supposed to, because that sounds like a logistical nightmare as far as release forms and such are concerned. Plus, in retrospect, it would have been an unfortunate cameo for the 99% given that the movie’s superhero comes off as anti-OWS, even if Christopher Nolan doesn’t mean to be critical of the movement.

In spite of where the technology is at today, having a fictional film use real events as not only a backdrop but as onscreen background material is probably not possible. Sure, there’s better capability now of involving high-quality stealth cameras in something like a protest march or battlefield or other bit of history in the making, but the legalities have to be too much of a headache to deal with. We can navigate more easily through the crowds, but not through the paperwork. That is one of the reasons Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, which Paramount Pictures released 45 years ago on this date, is so extremely cool. It’s maybe the most one-of-a-kind film ever made, never able to be replicated let alone remade, because it sets a scripted story during the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago (46 years ago this week) and actually came away as both a document of those events and also a part of them.

For the first significance, Medium Cool has no hired extras during scenes where Verna Bloom is running around Grant Park and finding herself in the middle of police action erupting during a peaceful protest against the Democratic Party. Those are real cops (or “pigs” as protestors shouted at them through the incident) and real hippies, yippies, etc. And at one point, she and the director (who wasn’t all that well-known at the time, in spite of having recently won an Oscar for his cinematography in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) are genuinely shot with tear gas. Keeping the documentary element confused with the fabrication, at that moment a shout of “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!” was something added in post, contrary to legend that it was an accidental break of the fourth wall.

For the second significance, the filmmaker and his characters are an intrusion on the history of this moment. I’ve seen CBS news footage where Bloom is visible wandering in the background, and that sort of corrupts the reality. Given how bright the actress’s yellow dress is in contrast to the police uniforms and most of the protestors’ clothing, she should be easily identifiable in much of the media coverage, though the only one I’ve spotted her in was black and white and just the single shot. To apply a combination of the “sorites paradox” and “Theseus’s parodox” to cinema, how many real people in Grant Park that day could have been replaced with actors playing fictional characters before it’s no longer a genuine protest or really a historical event? And what if every member of the media was just shooting a fiction film rather than recording for journalism sake?

The concept of Medium Cool often reminds me of the premise in Back to the Future where Doc and Marty need foreknowledge of an exact moment when lighting will strike. It’s not often that we can predict events that will go down in history the way the ’68 DNC protests did. But Wexler could presume that this convention and its opposition would turn into a big deal. Still, it was technically a gamble on his part, the kind of thing that has since been done regularly with real parades (including Chicago’s Von Steuben Day parade, as featured in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) but not chaotic situations like police riots.

What Wexler achieved has been attempted before, however, at least once in direct homage to Medium Cool. If you think Wexler’s film isn’t famous enough, consider This Revolution, a 2005 feature by Stephen Marshall starring Rosario Dawson and Brendan Sexton III. Like Medium Cool, which primarily follows a TV news cameraman (played by Robert Forster), This Revolution is about a network-level shooter covering the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, and like Medium Cool it was actually filmed during the real events, which were even more easily presumed to get out of hand than the ’68 protests were. But unlike Wexler’s film, the RNC is really the focus of the story of This Revolution rather than a thematic backdrop. It’s also terribly acted, especially by the more recognizable members of the cast, and so none of it feels spontaneous.

Medium Cool might not always be as spontaneous as it seems to be, though, because the producers tried to find out from real folks each night what the plans were for the next day. Yet it’s still far more improvised than any movie of its kind these days. Not that a film like it would be all that stunning or necessary or exciting now anyway. And who, unless for serious documentary purpose, would embed themselves into a violent situation the way this crew did? Wexler and sound man Christopher Newman admit to not expecting they’d be in such danger, later claiming they were more afraid for their lives than when they were filming in Vietnam or in riots in foreign countries. This was less predictable and scarier because it was American police and military and they were using incredibly immoral tactics.

That sounds like stuff heard from journalists and protestors in Ferguson as well as from those watching those recent events unfold immediately on streaming video and over social media. Who needs a Medium Cool set in the middle of that? There’s already plenty of unbelievable history mixed with intense drama there, and there’s some fiction, too, if you think about it. Maybe there could be another film just like Medium Cool now, but there’s no reason for one. Nearly a half-century later, with things just as screwed up as they were then, it’s just not worth it for the fascination of the concept alone. And everything else is coming through online for the most part, medium cold.

You can find Medium Cool on Criterion disc. I also recommend watching the below making-of doc Look Out Haskell, It’s Real!, for some of the Ferguson parallel comments.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.