Sunday, March 5, 2017

Medium Cool

SPOILER ALERT! The plot of the movie will be discussed.

I thought I would follow up last week’s discussion of LA Confidential with this 1969 film, which was viewed and analyzed at my class at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Both movies deal with distinguishing fact from fiction.
Medium Cool was written and directed by the cinematographer Haskell Wexler, and it was filmed in Chicago at the time of the Democratic National Convention in 1968, when the possibility of confrontation between protesters and the police was predicted in the wake of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Added to the mix were the opposition to the Vietnam War which caused President Lyndon Johnson to not seek reelection, and the blocking of anti-establishment candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy in favor of Vice President Hubert Humphrey. These events produced the ingredients for turmoil.

The title of the movie derives from the theories of media scholar Marshall McCluhan, who became famous for the line, “the medium is the message,” that is, (in my non-expert take), not what was communicated, but how it was done became primary. McCluhan said film was a “hot” medium, because it relies on less participation by the audience receiving the “message.” Through sensory immersion, films require less effort on the part of the viewers to fill in the gaps in the message. Television and print require more activity on the part of the audience, so they are more detached, allowing for the receiver to engage the content, and are thus called “cool” media. Anyway, Wexler is playing with these concepts, because he is providing a fictional story within the context of actual events, thus mixing the two types of media.
What results is a made-up story with actors playing characters in a film that is part documentary. By blurring the lines between what is and is not real, the movie brings up questions about how true is what we see in the news, how it can be manipulated, and how the “cool” aspect of journalism can lead to detachment from feeling for other human beings. The opening credits of the film contain no actors’ names, making it feel like a nonfiction work. The first scene shows the aftermath of a car accident, with an unresponsive woman on the ground. There are two men there, news photographer John Cassellis (Robert Forster), and soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz), who coolly record the incident for several minutes before they call an ambulance. This coldness of just wanting to get scoop coverage by adhering to the sleazy rule of journalism which preaches “if it bleeds, it leads” has compromised the journalists’ humanity. Later, in Washington, D. C., Cassellis dispassionately observes that the networks know where to place the cameras for Robert Kennedy’s funeral, because they did it before (a detached reference to the funeral of President John Kennedy). He shows a cold admiration for the efficiency of the visual process without emotional torment for the tragic proceedings. Cassellis also uses women for sex, without a true emotional connection.
There is a scene where the National Guard is preparing for possible confrontations at the convention. They use people pretending to be protesters. So, we, the audience, watch a fictional movie that photographed actors filming a fake representation of a riot. This blurring of the real and the pretend is further emphasized later with the actual convention confrontations being interlaced with fictional footage. During the showing of the actual conflict, we hear on the soundtrack someone saying the line, directed to Wexler, “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!” It seems like it’s really happening at that moment, but it’s not. Wexler dubbed the line in later, showing how artifice passes for reality. However, the director said that was what he was thinking at the time of the actual shooting. So, in essence, he added later what actually was happening, but just not recorded in the moment. Would we call this altering the work to reflect what was really happening, or is it altering the truth?
In another scene, Gus the soundman says they can’t record the gun range man (Peter Boyle) too close to the noise of the gunfire. This compromise with reality illustrates an accommodation to the filming process. The director then shows a scene where the two main characters come out of a diner, move away from Wexler’s camera and mic, and the audience can’t hear them. This shot emphasizes what it is like when there is no manipulation, which is what happens in real life when some things are out of sight and there are overlapping sounds. But, reality can be bad for filmmaking, which excludes and focuses to follow its own agenda.
Cassellis wants to do a human interest story about an African American cab driver who discovered ten grand and turned it in. One can argue that he wants to show honesty winning out. But, the other blacks in the cab driver’s apartment tell the reporters they need to present a more comprehensive story of the black experience, not just one little story squeezed into the news about a “Negro” that fits in with the general conception of what is the right thing to do, when so many wrongs are inflicted on people of his race. They seem to be saying that the news must report the bigger picture of the black struggle in America to get social injustice addressed. We get the African Americans directly addressing the audience, in a sense breaking the 4th wall, and crossing the line between verisimilitude and reality, at the same time being part of a script, but stepping out of a character while in a movie. Wexler gives them the time to have their say here since the commercial-driven, condensed television coverage won’t.
Cassellis encounters a 13-year-old boy named Harold (Harold Blankenship), who he thinks is breaking into his car. When the photographer realizes that the youth was not trying to rob him, he returns a case, which contains a pigeon, that the boy was carrying, but dropped, to Harold’s home. He lives in a slum with his mother, Eileen, (Verna Bloom), who moved to Chicago after her husband went to Vietnam. Earlier, a well-to-do woman is interviewed, and she talks about how she will vacation outside of Chicago to avoid the disturbing protests. Her wealth allows her to escape to Ontario, which contrasts with the inhabitants of Eileen’s ghetto tenement, where poor people can’t escape the turmoil of their environment. Perhaps Harold’s caging and releasing of the pigeons refers to these alternating situations of imprisonment and freedom. Flashbacks of Harold and his father contain vivid colors which contrast with the muted “cool” hues of the city. But, ironically the ideal flashbacks are undercut with gun toting, and his father’s misogyny toward women. This contrasting of image with content shows how the image can be used to distort the viewer’s perception of reality.

Cassellis becomes attached to the boy and his mother, as he starts to relate to them as people, not just as subjects for his news stories. He is overly amorous with Eileen at one point, and, unfortunately, Harold spies the encounter. The boy, hurting from the absence of his father, is upset by the act, and runs off. In the meantime, Cassellis moves further away from his detachment when he realizes that he, just as his photographed subjects, is being used, when his boss gives his footage to the FBI, probably to be used to target protesters. After being fired, he gets a job filming the convention. Eileen goes looking for her son among the protesters and the authorities. Her bright yellow outfit makes her stand out as an individual just searching for her missing boy in the midst of the indistinguishable crowds of people representing the opposing factions. The film seems to be saying that there are people who are just trying to deal with their own dramas and struggles, which continue on a smaller scale and are not reported by the media.

Cassellis shows his developing humanity by leaving the news story at the convention to help Eileen look for her son. The ending of the film is a bookend to its beginning as Cassellis loses control of the car and crashes the vehicle. Eileen is killed and Cassellis badly injured. Someone driving by takes a picture of the scene and then drives on, echoing the emotionless Cassellis at the beginning of the movie, and showing that what goes around comes around, as he is now the subject of an uninvolved observer. We then have a shot of a TV camera swiveling away from the accident and stopping with the lens pointing at the audience. The implication is that the cold detachment is spreading, and we may be its next victim. The film ends on an ironic note as we hear “Happy Days are Here Again” playing at the convention. It is the theme song of the establishment presidential nominee Humphrey, whose attempt at putting an upbeat spin on this period of time is undermined by images of battered protesters.
Today, we hear a great deal of talk about fake news. This 1969 film seems relevant, as it addresses the need for objectivity to report the news, but cautions against the danger of not feeling empathy which is inherent in emotional distancing. It also raises the issue of whether what is shown in photographic journalism is the complete news or just a snapshot manipulated by those in control of the media to feed the popular appetite for sensationalism and to skew perceptions into desired versions of reality.

The next film is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

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