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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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One of the great movies. Charles Bronson, great, Charles Bronson. Great movies. Today you can’t make that movie because it’s not politically correct, right? It’s not politically correct. But could you imagine with Trump? Somebody says, oh, all these big monsters aren’t around he’s easy pickings and then shoot.”
~ Donald Trump

“The scene opens the new movie. It was something Ridley Scott told me a long time ago, when I was on my eighth draft of Blade Runner. He thinks it’s my fault, which it probably is, but it’s also his fault, because he kept coming up with new ideas. This time, he said to me, “What did Deckard do before he was doing this?” I said, “He was doing what he was doing, but not on such a high level. He was retiring androids that weren’t quite like Nexus Sixes, like Nexus Fives, kind of dumb androids.” He said, “So, why don’t we start the movie like that?” He always had a new beginning he wanted to try. Let’s start it on a train, let’s start it on a plane. Let’s start in the snow. Let’s start in the desert. I was writing all that. He said, “What if Deckard is retiring an old version of Nexus?” Right away I was feeling him, like fate, and he said, “There’s a cabin, with soup bubbling on the stove …” When he said soup boiling on the stove, I said, “Don’t say any more! Let me get home.” I wrote a scene that night. Just three or four pages. Deckard retires this not-very-bright droid, and you feel sorry for him. It’s like Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men. It’s just those two guys, with Deckard as the George character and the droid as the Lennie, and Deckard doesn’t want to do it. But then the droid gets mad, and then Deckard has to do it. The audience thinks he killed someone—he reaches into the guy’s mouth and pulls off his whole jaw and we see it says made by tyrell industries or whatever. I wrote that scene and took it to Ridley. I was proud of it. I remember standing and watching him read the whole thing. He loved it, but no. There are a lot of scenes that didn’t get in, but I never forgot that one. I wrote it as the beginning to this new short story called “The Shape of the Final Dog.” I’d always wanted to have a dog that wasn’t real, so I wrote one into the scene at the cabin. After Deckard retires the droid, he’s getting ready to take off and he wants the dog to come with him. The dog rolls over and keeps barking with his mouth closed. The dog’s an android dog. I thought, If there’s ever a new Blade Runner, we’ll have to use this scene. Three weeks go by, and I’m working on the story and it’s ready to hand in. The phone rings. Someone with a posh English accent says, “Would you be available in ten minutes for a call with Ridley Scott?” These people are so important they don’t waste their time on voicemail. I said, “I’ll be here.” Ten minutes go by and Ridley calls. “Hampton! Did you know, I think we’ve got it together to do Blade Runner a second time?” I said, “You finally got so hard up you’re calling me.” I knew they’d been looking for a year. People had been telling me, “You’ve got to call Ridley,” but I was a little chagrined or embarrassed. I thought, He’ll call me if he wants. Ridley said, “We’re interested in whether you have any ideas.” I said, “Funny you should ask that question. Let me read you a paragraph.” I walk over there with the phone and I read him the opening paragraph. And he says, “Fuck me. Can you come to London tomorrow?”
~ Hampton Fancher