CHICAGO — When thousands of anti-war protesters came to Chicago in the summer of 1968 during the Democratic National Convention, filmmaker Haskell Wexler was there on the ground with his camera, shooting his narrative feature “Medium Cool” for Paramount.
The movie is fiction (mostly) with actors and a script. But a chunk near the end was shot like a documentary, when Wexler sent his lead actress — in character — out into the very real, very combustible goings on at Grant Park and the downtown streets nearby. For long stretches, we see her threading her way through police lines and crowds of protestors alike. At one point the police set off tear gas and Wexler and his crew are caught in the fray.
Here’s how Wexler’s methods are described in an essay about the movie commissioned by the Criterion Collection: “What if a riot doubled as a film set?”
That stopped me cold when I read it.
It sounds so exploitative. So opportunistic. But the film doesn’t come across that way, to me anyway. Maybe because Wexler’s sympathies are so obviously not aligned with law enforcement.
The police violence captured in “Medium Cool” has a lot common with the police violence we’re seeing at Black Lives Matter protests right now and I suspect there are filmmakers already wondering whether a movie like “Medium Cool” could (or even should) be made today. What happens when you insert actors into real protest environments and let the intensity of that play out on camera? Does this create too many ethical complications in 2020?
A Chicago native, Wexler died in 2015 at the age of 93 with an extensive list of credits; he made a number of documentaries but was best known as a cinematographer, picking up an Oscars for his work on 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and again for 1976’s “Bound for Glory.”
“Medium Cool” was sandwiched in between those two Oscar wins, and it was his first outing as a director of a fictional drama.
A studio picture with the enticingly watchable renegade spirit of an indie, it stars Robert Forster as a glib local TV news cameraman who makes all kinds of questionable decisions; Verna Bloom is the young mother he becomes entangled with. The movie is consumed with questions about media ethics, made clear in the opening scene: Forster’s cameraman films the gruesome aftermath of a car crash on an empty stretch of the Eisenhower, and it’s only when he’s walking back to his own car that he turns to his soundman and casually mentions: “Better call an ambulance.”
Fifty years later, we’re still asking many of the same probing questions of the media we consume, but the context feels different. In “Medium Cool,” we see a real NBC news car filming as it slowly drives through — and then away — from the protests and off screen you hear someone shout, “Hey! Come back! Stay with us!”
Today, information isn’t funneled through legacy media only; social media and camera phones have upended that dynamic. There’s a distrust and a skepticism, as well as a savvy and a sense of agency that activists have about determining how their message is shaped and how their images are used. And because of that, I wonder if they’d be willing to be turned into background players in someone else’s movie. Police officers might also have their own opinions about being use this way, as well.
The questions become especially fraught if the project in question is a studio movie that has the potential to enrich shareholders and executives who uphold the kind of structural racism that activists are protesting against.
This wasn’t a dilemma Wexler had to contend with. Steven North was an associate producer on “Medium Cool.” He was 26 when they made the film.
“I sat in at lunch counters in the ’60s and was arrested and pushed around, I lived through that,” he said. “And if someone had used footage of me in a commercial vehicle — as you’re pointing out, it was a Paramount picture — would I have felt exploited? Very, very possibly. At the same time, I think I would have felt honored that someone cared enough to put our fate on film, and include it in something that was going to be seen widely and hopefully understood from a different perspective.”
Here’s another aspect that feels tricky: Fifty years ago, I think audiences were better equipped to make distinctions between fact and fiction. Today, even the whisper of fake news throws all of that into chaos. Consider the technology of deep fakes and the ease with which images can be manipulated. Fold in reality TV, with its toxic brew of semi-scripted scenarios. In 2020, our points of reference are all jumbled up in ways that they weren’t when “Medium Cool” came out in 1969. Could a modern-day version of a movie like this do more harm than good, fueling conspiracies that protestors are really just paid actors?
Documentaries aren’t immune from these debates. Decisions about which footage is used, which footage is discarded — all of that creates a “composed” version of reality. Here’s what Northwestern film scholar Kalisha Cornett said about inserting an actor into that already complicated framework: “It’s ultimately irreconcilable and I think Haskell realized that. And I think that’s why the film ends the way that it does.”
The final scene mirrors the opening scene. There’s a car wreck. But this time, the camera breaks the fourth wall as it pans up and over to a scaffolding where Wexler himself stands behind a movie camera, which he then turns on the viewer. “When there’s an irreconcilable contradiction, there’s nothing to do but destroy it,” said Cornett. “He’s acknowledging that there’s no way to do this.”
Could a filmmaker today attempt something similar to what Wexler does in “Medium Cool”?
Damayanti Wallace is a student at New York University, where she is a collaborative arts major studying film, writing, acting and digital media. She is also part of the Chicago social justice organization GoodKids MadCity.
Here’s what she had to say: “I definitely think that someone could remake this movie, but the perspective would have to change” — centering stories of activists rather than a member of the media.
Wexler grew up in Chicago, but he had been based in L.A. for years by the time he made “Medium Cool,” so he relied on Studs Terkel as a local fixer of sorts. Wallace thinks a filmmaker in 2020 would need to do deeper work in that regard.
“You would need to have your ear to the ground and know what’s going on in these communities and actually be integrated into these organizations — not just come in and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to film this’ — because then you would get a sense of who is willing to be on camera and who isn’t,” she said.
“A lot of the problem,” said Wallace, “is that people will come in and try to tell organizers’ stories — ‘Talk me through your process really quickly and then I’m going to leave’ — instead of staying around. A lot of reporters that I’ve encountered over these last few months, I see the same reporters almost every week at this point and they barely know my name or can’t pronounce it. They don’t know anything about me, they only know the trauma that they’re taking in bits and pieces.
“So as a filmmaker, maybe you need to come for six or seven months — not necessarily even filming — and you’re really talking with people and building a sense of community with us, just being with the work and seeing what we do. Because you will see how dangerous it is. And you will see that we are putting our lives at risk on a regular basis.”
It also matters who that filmmaker is.
“People are tired of getting their stories told through the white gaze,” Wallace said. “They’re tired of their stories not being told by folks who look like them and can understand them.”
Vashon Jordan Jr. is studying television production at Columbia College Chicago and is also a photojournalist who has been out covering the recent protests, posting his work to social media.
“I think the idea for a film like this works,” he said, “as long as the intention is to accurately characterize and display what the protests are about. But the way ‘Medium Cool’ was shot, I don’t think that could happen again because he used these protests as a prop in the larger story, which wasn’t directly related to what the protests were about. So the director was capitalizing off of that, and I didn’t learn anything about why they were protesting.”
This is a great point; when the film came out in ’69, audiences would have immediately understood what they were seeing, but the movie doesn’t go out of its way to understand or convey what the protests were actually about.
Jordan had another critique about “Medium Cool” that I think is incisive: “The filmmakers and actors were extremely disconnected from what was taking place.” Wexler’s actress isn’t a part of the protests so much as an observer. “The perspective of the person we’re following is so detached from the people there.”
A filmmaker today would inevitably come at a project like this with different techniques and strategies, but I keep coming back to the idea that movies often curate images in a meaningful way.
As it is, when we encounter images on social media it can feel like a deluge of information. A filmmaker can pick and choose and shape those into a story with themes and ideas.
North, “Medium Cool’s” associate producer, alluded to this when we talked. Three people in the crew shot footage at the protests, including Wexler himself.
“Nobody has really credited Verna Fields, who was the editor of the film,” North said. “Because Haskell had tons and tons of footage.”
Though not currently streaming, physical copies of “Medium Cool” are available for purchase through the Criterion Collection.
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