Blu-ray review: Medium Cool

Starring: Robert Forster, Marianna Hill, Verna Bloom
Director: Haskell Wexler

medium-cool 1Breaking down barriers between documentary and drama, Medium Cool is a true cinematic one-off of a kind that seemed possible back in the free-wheeling, pot-smoking ’60s but is all too rare nowadays. Using interviews, improvised scenes and some remarkable journalistic footage, its places its central character, hardboiled Chicago TV cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster), smack bang in the middle of the era’s social tensions … but does he, should he, feel these tensions himself, or is he simply a passive recording instrument?

The film has distinctly Godardian aspirations – pillow talk becomes political talk in a standout scene in which John frolics with naked nurse Ruth (Marianna Hill) while she takes perceptive jabs at his veneer of aloofness. Medium Cool most impresses as a vivid snapshot of the times, but a story slowly coalesces when John comes into contact with a lonely Appalachian mother (Verna Bloom) and her young pigeon-fancying son who have just moved to the city and are struggling to come to terms with it (figures of dignified pathos who might be out of a D.W. Griffith movie, an eerily timeless touch in a movie that is otherwise so determinedly contemporary).

If other filmmakers haven’t rushed to imitate Medium Cool, it’s perhaps because blending fact and fiction isn’t the easiest or most efficient way of telling a story. In theory it should furnish rich new insights by allowing us to observe characters in their social context, but in practice John remains remote, almost inhuman, little more than a convenient perch for the camera which he points at the world around him. But the experiment pays off handsomely in the movie’s last act. There’s nothing quite like those final sequences, as police and protesters square off (for real) outside the National Democratic Convention under the glare of the lowering sun, and the fictional protagonists – looking small and vulnerable – weave and bob through the turbulent crowds. Flawed perhaps, but anyone who loves the ’60s will be fascinated. 7/10

TRANSFER
Apart a cocktail party scene shot on 16mm which comes straight after the title sequence, the transfer looks clean and sharp, without grain or damage. The more conventionally shot dramatic scenes inside TV HQ look extremely bright and crisp, but so too do many of the set-ups that were filmed in more challenging conditions. The complex composition where John is staring out of a cafe window and then Eileen (the rural mother) walks past and peers in at him has a lovely sunny shimmer and immediacy of impact. Similarly, in an early scene involving the National Guard, the colours and crisp textures of the uniforms are vivid and almost palpable. 9/10

EXTRAS
Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real! – celebrated 53-min documentary by Paul Cronin, with lotsmedium-cool 2 of good stuff about the origins of the film, including how Wexler wrote the up-coming Democratic National Convention into his script on the assumption that it would make for a dramatic conclusion, only to find the reality far exceeding his expectations. ~ 16-min interview with Harold Blankenship, who was plucked from the Chicago slums to play the boy in the movie and then sent back whence he came when he was no longer needed. ~ Excellent 10-min piece in which Wexler shows us the lightweight cameras used for the filming, complete with customized alterations, which will be a delight for anyone who likes exact info about this sort of thing. ~ Audio commentary with Wexler, film editor Paul Golding and actress Marianna Hill, with some interesting insights as to how the opening titles were shot and various scenes were moved around, and how they originally wanted John Cassavetes to play the lead character. 10/10

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