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Douglas Pratt

By Douglas Pratt Pratt@moviecitynews.com

DVD Geek: Medium Cool

8005_1In 1968, it was clear that something would happen on the streets of Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. With Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler and his collaborators assembled a viable romantic story, a Cinderella Liberty tale where a news cameraman (Robert Forster), chases after a kid who steals his bag then winds up falling for the kid’s hardworking but struggling mother (Verna Bloom). But, along with sending his character to pre-Convention events, Wexler also got Forster press credentials and into Chicago’s International Amphitheatre as rules votes and other events were unfolding at the Convention. Although it makes me wince, Wexler also put Bloom onto the streets as cops were attacking protesters. So there’s this fictional story, but instead of being staged, like the burning of Atlanta, it happens right in the middle of real, live history. However trite the romance is—and it concludes in what would be a ridiculous manner if Jean-Luc Godard hadn’t done the same thing, twice—it becomes profound as a shadow to the marriage of fiction and non-fiction. At least, that is how it seems, watching the Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection with its even better image and sound transfer, and a greater array of supplements.

Along with a repeat of the commentary from the DVD, Criterion includes a commentary by film historian Paul Cronin, who was also responsible for an elaborate retrospective documentary about the film, from which 53 minutes of excerpts (a quarter of the complete work) have been included. Cronin’s thesis is that by capturing one of 1968’s watershed events, the film exposes the attempted suppression of social protest and the media’s collusion in that suppression, both of which are actually fighting a tide of technological progress that was charted so brilliantly by the visionary, Marshall McLuhan. Wexler denies that McLuhan had that prominent of an influence on his work—Godard was more materially his inspiration—but poets often draw from the subconscious and looking back at it now, the film’s allegorical depiction of the metamorphosis media was undergoing at the hands of portable cameras is undeniable. “What’s important to note is that [Forster’s character]’s attitude reflects those of many members of the media after the Convention in Chicago. During those days in August ’68, there’s no doubt that the press was singled out and targeted by police. Several journalists were beaten and, as Haskell himself witnessed, some police explicitly tried to crack open the many cameras on the streets and expose the film. The result was that some members of the Chicago press were, if not radicalized by their experiences, certainly able to see the police and other power structures in a new light.”

Cronin also deconstructs how Wexler put the film together, planning some things, reacting on the spur of the moment to others, and he reports upon what went on during the staging or shooting of each segment. The documentary includes interviews with many of the participants (including some of the figures who were ‘interviewed’ by Forster’s character) and more details that enhance, without redundancy, what he covers in the commentary. Medium Cool runs 110 minutes, but there was extra footage, and some of that is included in the documentary, as is footage of Warren Beatty at the Convention, which Wexler shot in exchange for floor passes.

Guided by a suggestion from Studs Terkel, which had led Wexler to visit the region and do documentary research, migrants from West Virginia had settled in a specific Chicago neighborhood, and Bloom’s character was one such migrant—it was a legitimate way to explore the social dynamics of poverty and oppression without complicating the narrative with race. Portraying Bloom’s son, the young actor Harold Blankenship had himself grown up in West Virginia and moved to Chicago. Although he is seen reading a book in the movie (as Cronin points out, his character is associated with the ‘Old World’), he was actually illiterate and fell off the radar after the movie was made. Cronin tracked him down in 2007, back in West Virginia, and there is a heartbreaking 16-minute interview in which the viewer quickly surmises that, although some of his children have apparently made it through school, his life remains mired in the poverty he knew as a child—he was not even accomplished enough to work in a coal mine. His one opportunity to break free of that fate—the film—came to nothing. Eerily, he brings out a snapshot of his own mother, who looks uncannily like Bloom.

Wexler supplies a retrospective interview from the 2013 Criterion DVD release, running 15 minutes, looking over his career a bit and pointing out specific aspects of Medium Cool, including the interviews with radicalized African-Americans, that represented the real core of what he wanted to get across, the sense that a social movement can only succeed if it can find an entrance to the public discourse. He also speaks about his passion for recording events on camera, and how that has defined his life.

Finally, remember the big protests that were held in Chicago in 2012 when the city hosted a NATO summit? The national media chose to ignore the demonstrations and gatherings that were accompanied by an equal number of security forces. Wexler was there, and filmed a 33-minute epilog, “Medium Cool Revisited.” He’s in the doc itself (he’s in Medium Cool, too, as the supplements show you how to spot him), but he also garnered footage from inside the summit, so that he could juxtapose the pomp and circumstance of the meeting with the chaotic displeasure being expressed outside. The piece is an old guy trying to relive the “80-yard run” glories of his youth, but the film is also a validation of his earlier feature: that what he captured the first time was not a random incident, but part of a pattern of governing beyond democracy that will remain America’s dirty little secret until more movies like this get made, and this one gets widely seen.

 

 

You would think that given the film’s documentary roots, there would not be that much of an improvement to the image, since the DVD was decently produced to begin with. But the picture is sharper and better detailed, with slightly improved colors, and the enhancements, along with the crisper monophonic audio track, improve the viewer’s concentration.

Along with a repeat of the commentary from the DVD, Criterion has included a commentary by film historian Paul Cronin, who was also responsible for an elaborate retrospective documentary about the film, from which 53 minutes of excerpts (a quarter of the complete work) have also been included. Cronin’s thesis is that by capturing one of 1968’s watershed events, the film exposes the attempted suppression of social protest and the media’s collusion in that suppression, both of which are actually fighting a tide of technological progress that was charted so brilliantly by the visionary, Marshall McLuhan. Wexler denies that McLuhan had that prominent of an influence on his work—Godard was more materially his inspiration—but poets often draw from the subconscious and looking back at it now, the film’s allegorical depiction of the metamorphosis media was undergoing at the hands of portable cameras is undeniable. “What’s important to note is that [Forster’s character]’s attitude reflects those of many members of the media after the Convention in Chicago. During those days in August ’68, there’s no doubt that the press was singled out and targeted by police. Several journalists were beaten and, as Haskell himself witnessed, some police explicitly tried to crack open the many cameras on the streets and expose the film. The result was that some members of the Chicago press were, if not radicalized by their experiences, certainly able to see the police and other power structures in a new light.”

Cronin also deconstructs how Wexler put the film together, planning some things, reacting on the spur of the moment to others, and he reports upon what went on during the staging or shooting of each segment. The documentary includes interviews with many of the participants (including some of the figures who were ‘interviewed’ by Forster’s character) and more details that enhance, without redundancy, what he covers in the commentary. Medium Cool runs 110 minutes, but predictably, there was quite a bit of extra footage, and some of that is included in the documentary, as is footage of Warren Beatty at the Convention, which Wexler shot in exchange for passes to get his people onto the floor.

Guided by a suggestion from Studs Terkel, which had led Wexler to visit the region and do documentary research, migrants from West Virginia had settled in a specific Chicago neighborhood, and Bloom’s character was one such migrant—it was a legitimate way to explore the social dynamics of poverty and oppression without complicating the narrative with race. Portraying Bloom’s son, the young actor Harold Blankenship had himself grown up in West Virginia and moved to Chicago. Although he is seen reading a book in the movie (as Cronin points out, his character is associated with the ‘Old World’), he was actually illiterate and fell off the radar after the movie was made. Cronin tracked him down in 2007, back in West Virginia, and there is a heartbreaking 16-minute interview in which the viewer quickly surmises that, although some of his children have apparently made it through school, his life remains mired in the poverty he knew as a child—he was not even accomplished enough to work in a coal mine. His one opportunity to break free of that fate—the film—came to nothing. Eerily, he brings out a snapshot of his own mother, who looks uncannily like Bloom.

Wexler supplies a retrospective interview from 2013, running 15 minutes, looking over his career a bit and pointing out specific aspects of Medium Cool, such as the interviews with radicalized African-Americans, that represented the real core of what he wanted to get across, the sense that a social movement can only succeed if it can find an entrance to the public discourse. He also speaks about his passion for recording events on camera, and how that has defined his life.

Finally, remember the big protests that were held in Chicago in 2012 when the city hosted a NATO summit? Of course you don’t, unless you lived there at the time. The national media chose to ignore the demonstrations and gatherings that were accompanied by an equal number of security forces, attempting to further suppress whatever vocalization was attempting to contradict NATO’s mandates. Wexler was there, however, and filmed a lot of it, creating a 33-minute epilog to Medium Cool, “Medium Cool” Revisited. He’s in the film itself (he’s in Medium Cool, too, as the supplements show you how to spot him), but he also managed to garner footage from inside the summit, so that he could juxtapose the pomp and circumstance of the meeting with the chaotic displeasure being expressed outside. On the one hand, the piece is about an old guy trying to relive the ‘80-yard run’ glories of his youth, but on the other hand, the film is a validation of his earlier feature, that what he had captured on film the first time was not just a random incident, but part of a pattern of governing beyond democracy that will remain America’s dirty little secret until more movies like this get made, and this one gets seen more often.

 

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The Promised Land steers into the fact that the United States can mean whatever people want it to mean. You may not be able to be Elvis, but you can sure as shit impersonate him for a living. America, like its current President (at least as of this article’s publication), is so dangerous precisely because it’s a blank canvas on which anyone can project their dreams. Whatever it is that you see for yourself, there’s someone you can pay for the pleasure of believing that it’s possible. In his view, the pursuit of happiness is the ultimate con, a delusion that prevents us from seeing our circumstances for what they are.

“Forget the Matrix, it’s the invention of happiness that blinded us to the truth. The rich got richer and the poor help them do it. Jarecki doesn’t argue that the American Dream is dead; he argues that it was never alive in the first place — that we were all lobsters in a pot full of water that was boiling too slowly for any of us to notice. And now it’s time for dinner. Donald J. Trump is the President of the United States. Elvis has left the building.”
~ David Ehrlich