Medium Cool


1h 51m 1969
Medium Cool

Brief Synopsis

A TV news cameraman finds himself becoming personally involved in the violence that erupts around the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Film Details

Also Known As
Concrete Wilderness
MPAA Rating
R
Genre
Drama
Documentary
Experimental
Political
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
New York opening: 27 Aug 1969
Production Company
H & J Pictures
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures
Country
United States
Location
Chicago, Illinois, USA; Kentucky, USA; Minnesota, USA; Washington, USA
Screenplay Information
Suggested by the novel The Concrete Wilderness by Jack Couffer (New York, 1967).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 51m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.85 : 1

Synopsis

John Cassellis, a news cameraman for a Chicago television station, and his soundman, Gus, cover a wide spectrum of events, including the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Resurrection City in Washington, D. C. John's attitude is cool and dispassionate; he films the victim of a car crash before calling an ambulance and encounters hostility and accusations of social irresponsibility when covering a human interest story in a black neighborhood. He has a run-in with 13-year-old Harold, whom he suspects of breaking into his car. Fleeing the parking lot, Harold drops a carrying case containing a pet pigeon. Once John realizes that the boy was not trying to rob him, he returns the case to the slum tenement where Harold lives with his mother, Eileen, a welfare recipient who moved from her West Virginia home when her husband was sent to Vietnam. Meanwhile, tension mounts in the city: war protestors plan to demonstrate during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and Chicago's police force and the Illinois National Guard prepare for a confrontation. Criticized by his superiors for shooting too much film and outraged at his television station's surrender of his footage to the FBI, John creates a row and is fired. During this period of inactivity, he devotes most of his time to Eileen and Harold, thereby ending his long affair with Ruth, a nurse. As the political convention begins, John gets a free-lance assignment to cover the event. On the eve of the first session at the International Amphitheatre, Harold becomes so upset at seeing his mother and John embracing that he runs away from home. Eileen searches for him in Grant Park and is caught in a violent clash between demonstrators and police. Finding her in the midst of armed National Guardsmen and exploding tear gas bombs, John takes her to his car and drives her around the city, unaware that Harold has returned home. Distracted by the day's events, John loses control of the car and smashes into a tree, killing Eileen and seriously injuring himself. A passing motorist stops for a moment to photograph the accident and then drives on.

Videos

Movie Clip

Hosted Intro

Film Details

Also Known As
Concrete Wilderness
MPAA Rating
R
Genre
Drama
Documentary
Experimental
Political
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
New York opening: 27 Aug 1969
Production Company
H & J Pictures
Distribution Company
Paramount Pictures
Country
United States
Location
Chicago, Illinois, USA; Kentucky, USA; Minnesota, USA; Washington, USA
Screenplay Information
Suggested by the novel The Concrete Wilderness by Jack Couffer (New York, 1967).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 51m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
1.85 : 1

Articles

Medium Cool


A TV news cameraman finds himself becoming personally involved in the violence that erupts around the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Medium Cool

Medium Cool

A TV news cameraman finds himself becoming personally involved in the violence that erupts around the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

Medium Cool on Blu-ray


Some new thinking must have prevailed in 1968 when cinematographer and documentary maker Haskell Wexler began shooting a film about an underprivileged child's relationship with an animal. Paramount stayed with the project even after Wexler radically redirected it to focus on national political events that were heating up that summer. Scripted drama and documentary realism never merged so fully as in Medium Cool, in which America appears to be coming apart at the political seams. Wexler and his co-cameramen did more than just film the ill-fated Democratic Convention in Chicago, showing clashes between demonstrators and Mayor Daley's police. He also managed to put his fictional characters into real situations within the demonstrations as they developed. The protest taunt, "The whole world is watching!" becomes part of the fabric of Wexler's story, as does a frightening moment when the police fire a tear gas canister at the cameraman. "Look out Haskell, it's real!" is heard on the soundtrack, echoing the film's examination of the role played by journalists with cameras.

If anything, Medium Cool communicates its ideas better now than it did in 1969. Unlike many an avowed counterculture epic of the day, the arguments, techniques, and ethics of this amazing picture haven't dated. The production had contact within the anti-war movement and expected at least a token demonstration to occur at the Convention. But Wexler could not have predicted that his 'fictional' movie would record how a street demonstration became a police riot.

In Chicago, we see roving TV cameraman / reporter John Cassellis (Robert Forster) and his sound man Gus (Peter Bonerz) dispassionately covering various news events, including a fatal traffic accident. But John is fired for taking an improper interest in the subjects he films, and for protesting that his superiors are forwarding his news film to the FBI. Leaving his nurse girlfriend Ruth (Marianna Hill), John becomes involved with Appalachian transplants Eileen and Harold (Verna Bloom & Harold Blankenship), a mother and her young son new to the Chicago slums. John attaches himself to a docu crew covering the Democratic National Convention, just as Eileen takes to the streets to search for the runaway Harold... right in the middle of the unpredictably dangerous anti-war demonstrations.

The title Medium Cool evokes philosopher Marshall McLuhan's theories about 'hot' and 'cool' media. In one of Criterion's new interviews, Haskell Wexler claims that he had no understanding of McLuhan whatsoever. He did have his own instincts about the way Television news was distorting reality by its choice of subjects. Important stories were underreported or actually suppressed. The media'a 'blind spot' for anti-war activism made the TV coverage of the Democratic Convention a big wake-up call for the nation. "The whole world" was indeed watching when CBS correspondent Dan Rather was roughed up by Mayor Daley's thugs on the convention floor, and when the TV cameras documented police attacking and beating non-violent demonstrators. Later commentators like David Halberstam would identify this clash as the moment that the Vietnam War was lost.

Haskell was able to take his cameras into Chicago's ghetto neighborhoods only through the intervention of the respected journalist Studs Terkel, who secured the cooperation of the black residents. Minority views are heard that were not being permitted in the 'legitimate' media of 1969. The fictional part of the story raises the subject of Appalachian refugees in the big city. Young Harold, a real slum kid recruited on the street, was filmed adapting to his harsh urban environment in a way that allowed him to act in as natural a way as possible. Additional scenes involving a social worker were shot but eventually dropped. When his cameras captured the demonstration clash of the decade, Medium Cool underwent yet another major revision.

As early as January 1968, before the terrible assassinations of that fated year, Wexler and co. were planning scenes to take place amid an anticipated clash in Chicago. Like the 'summer of love' that had been willed into being the year before in San Francisco, the word on the street predicted that it was 'all going to come down' in Chicago at the Convention. The anti-war movement was still a grassroots protest thing and not yet the media circus it later became, with hippies and yippies and Nixon's counterattack and fatuous pop songs issuing calls to revolution. Jesse Jackson is one of the speakers seen in a brief Washington, D.C. segment. We see a protesters' tent camp erected in sight of the Washington Monument.

Wexler and company were permitted to film the Illinois National Guard's urban crowd control training for the Convention, indicating that the authorities knew something was coming as well. The film presents the Guard as relatively benign, and saves its contempt for Mayor Daley, who directed his police force to teach the longhaired flag-burners a lesson they wouldn't forget. In his commentary Haskell Wexler says that the cops' only mistake in '68 was in using their thug methods on the press -- beating reporters, etc.. The media turned against Daley and his cops right then and there.

Beyond its phenomenal footage of the demonstration, Medium Cool has many scenes sure to provoke discussion. The media's lack of responsibility is examined in an argument between Ruth and John about the Italian film Mondo Cane. That phony docu exploited the suffering of an irradiated sea turtle dying on an island reportedly used for atomic tests. Should the Italian filmmakers have rescued the turtle when they were done filming, or would that have been a violation of their role as objective observers? John doesn't mention his own behavior filming a shocking traffic accident on an empty road. Happening upon the scene before the police or ambulances arrive, John and Gus get their film footage and then move on to their next story without offering aid. Elsewhere Wexler draws a contrast between a rich woman behaving in an elitist manner and the kind of urban slum where kids play naked in the street and teens vandalize cars. Some scenes are obviously scripted, as when a very young Peter Boyle is shown teaching suburban women how to use firearms. But everything with the National Guard is real.

Haskell Wexler's skill as a dramatist rarely surfaces in discussions of Medium Cool. His direction of the little slum kid is gentle and perceptive, and professional actress Verna Fields comes off as an authentic West Virginian. Some full-frontal nudity in a scene between Forster and Marianna Hill may have earned the film its original "X" rating (although it has since been downgraded to an "R"). The frequent profanity may have been deemed adult material as well. Wexler's final shot is blatantly self-conscious, yet falls in with the 'new documentary' notion that films need to be honest about their own artifice. The message comes across loud and clear: 'The whole world is watching!'

Criterion's Blu-ray of Medium Cool looks terrific in HD, with Wexler's handheld 35mm footage of the Chicago demonstrations looking so good that one would think the confrontation lines had been pre-lit for his camera. The soundtrack is also very nicely turned out, allowing one to enjoy, among other pleasures, a couple of Frank Zappa songs that make fun of phony hippies.

Our curiosity about the movie's fascinating backstory draws our attention to the excellent extras rounded up by Criterion's producer Abbey Lustgarten. A commentary with Haskell Wexler, editor Paul Golding and actress Marianna Hill appears to be sourced from Paramount's 2001 DVD. Joining it is a new track with the thoughts of historian and filmmaker Paul Cronin. Extended excerpts from two Cronin documentaries based on Medium Cool are present. In the lengthy making-of show "Look Out Haskell, It's Real!" Wexler pays tribute to the input of Studs Terkel, editor Verna Bloom and production manager Jonathan Haze (the Roger Corman acting veteran). Assistant cameraman Ron Vargas backs up Wexler's descriptions of the riot filming with his own impressions of handling an extra camera during the chaos. Cronin's second docu Sooner or Later is a follow-up about Harold Blankenship, the film's child actor.

The most compelling extra is Medium Cool Revisited, Haskell Wexler's new documentary about his return to Chicago to compare the demonstrations in his 1969 film with the Occupy Movement's protests against the 2012 NATO Summit meetings. Camera in hand, Haskell wanders about showing us where key events took place, and reminiscing about his fearlessness while filming in touchy situations. He laughs when he remembers that holding the camera made him feel invulnerable in dangerous situations.

By Glenn Erickson

Medium Cool on Blu-ray

Some new thinking must have prevailed in 1968 when cinematographer and documentary maker Haskell Wexler began shooting a film about an underprivileged child's relationship with an animal. Paramount stayed with the project even after Wexler radically redirected it to focus on national political events that were heating up that summer. Scripted drama and documentary realism never merged so fully as in Medium Cool, in which America appears to be coming apart at the political seams. Wexler and his co-cameramen did more than just film the ill-fated Democratic Convention in Chicago, showing clashes between demonstrators and Mayor Daley's police. He also managed to put his fictional characters into real situations within the demonstrations as they developed. The protest taunt, "The whole world is watching!" becomes part of the fabric of Wexler's story, as does a frightening moment when the police fire a tear gas canister at the cameraman. "Look out Haskell, it's real!" is heard on the soundtrack, echoing the film's examination of the role played by journalists with cameras. If anything, Medium Cool communicates its ideas better now than it did in 1969. Unlike many an avowed counterculture epic of the day, the arguments, techniques, and ethics of this amazing picture haven't dated. The production had contact within the anti-war movement and expected at least a token demonstration to occur at the Convention. But Wexler could not have predicted that his 'fictional' movie would record how a street demonstration became a police riot. In Chicago, we see roving TV cameraman / reporter John Cassellis (Robert Forster) and his sound man Gus (Peter Bonerz) dispassionately covering various news events, including a fatal traffic accident. But John is fired for taking an improper interest in the subjects he films, and for protesting that his superiors are forwarding his news film to the FBI. Leaving his nurse girlfriend Ruth (Marianna Hill), John becomes involved with Appalachian transplants Eileen and Harold (Verna Bloom & Harold Blankenship), a mother and her young son new to the Chicago slums. John attaches himself to a docu crew covering the Democratic National Convention, just as Eileen takes to the streets to search for the runaway Harold... right in the middle of the unpredictably dangerous anti-war demonstrations. The title Medium Cool evokes philosopher Marshall McLuhan's theories about 'hot' and 'cool' media. In one of Criterion's new interviews, Haskell Wexler claims that he had no understanding of McLuhan whatsoever. He did have his own instincts about the way Television news was distorting reality by its choice of subjects. Important stories were underreported or actually suppressed. The media'a 'blind spot' for anti-war activism made the TV coverage of the Democratic Convention a big wake-up call for the nation. "The whole world" was indeed watching when CBS correspondent Dan Rather was roughed up by Mayor Daley's thugs on the convention floor, and when the TV cameras documented police attacking and beating non-violent demonstrators. Later commentators like David Halberstam would identify this clash as the moment that the Vietnam War was lost. Haskell was able to take his cameras into Chicago's ghetto neighborhoods only through the intervention of the respected journalist Studs Terkel, who secured the cooperation of the black residents. Minority views are heard that were not being permitted in the 'legitimate' media of 1969. The fictional part of the story raises the subject of Appalachian refugees in the big city. Young Harold, a real slum kid recruited on the street, was filmed adapting to his harsh urban environment in a way that allowed him to act in as natural a way as possible. Additional scenes involving a social worker were shot but eventually dropped. When his cameras captured the demonstration clash of the decade, Medium Cool underwent yet another major revision. As early as January 1968, before the terrible assassinations of that fated year, Wexler and co. were planning scenes to take place amid an anticipated clash in Chicago. Like the 'summer of love' that had been willed into being the year before in San Francisco, the word on the street predicted that it was 'all going to come down' in Chicago at the Convention. The anti-war movement was still a grassroots protest thing and not yet the media circus it later became, with hippies and yippies and Nixon's counterattack and fatuous pop songs issuing calls to revolution. Jesse Jackson is one of the speakers seen in a brief Washington, D.C. segment. We see a protesters' tent camp erected in sight of the Washington Monument. Wexler and company were permitted to film the Illinois National Guard's urban crowd control training for the Convention, indicating that the authorities knew something was coming as well. The film presents the Guard as relatively benign, and saves its contempt for Mayor Daley, who directed his police force to teach the longhaired flag-burners a lesson they wouldn't forget. In his commentary Haskell Wexler says that the cops' only mistake in '68 was in using their thug methods on the press -- beating reporters, etc.. The media turned against Daley and his cops right then and there. Beyond its phenomenal footage of the demonstration, Medium Cool has many scenes sure to provoke discussion. The media's lack of responsibility is examined in an argument between Ruth and John about the Italian film Mondo Cane. That phony docu exploited the suffering of an irradiated sea turtle dying on an island reportedly used for atomic tests. Should the Italian filmmakers have rescued the turtle when they were done filming, or would that have been a violation of their role as objective observers? John doesn't mention his own behavior filming a shocking traffic accident on an empty road. Happening upon the scene before the police or ambulances arrive, John and Gus get their film footage and then move on to their next story without offering aid. Elsewhere Wexler draws a contrast between a rich woman behaving in an elitist manner and the kind of urban slum where kids play naked in the street and teens vandalize cars. Some scenes are obviously scripted, as when a very young Peter Boyle is shown teaching suburban women how to use firearms. But everything with the National Guard is real. Haskell Wexler's skill as a dramatist rarely surfaces in discussions of Medium Cool. His direction of the little slum kid is gentle and perceptive, and professional actress Verna Fields comes off as an authentic West Virginian. Some full-frontal nudity in a scene between Forster and Marianna Hill may have earned the film its original "X" rating (although it has since been downgraded to an "R"). The frequent profanity may have been deemed adult material as well. Wexler's final shot is blatantly self-conscious, yet falls in with the 'new documentary' notion that films need to be honest about their own artifice. The message comes across loud and clear: 'The whole world is watching!' Criterion's Blu-ray of Medium Cool looks terrific in HD, with Wexler's handheld 35mm footage of the Chicago demonstrations looking so good that one would think the confrontation lines had been pre-lit for his camera. The soundtrack is also very nicely turned out, allowing one to enjoy, among other pleasures, a couple of Frank Zappa songs that make fun of phony hippies. Our curiosity about the movie's fascinating backstory draws our attention to the excellent extras rounded up by Criterion's producer Abbey Lustgarten. A commentary with Haskell Wexler, editor Paul Golding and actress Marianna Hill appears to be sourced from Paramount's 2001 DVD. Joining it is a new track with the thoughts of historian and filmmaker Paul Cronin. Extended excerpts from two Cronin documentaries based on Medium Cool are present. In the lengthy making-of show "Look Out Haskell, It's Real!" Wexler pays tribute to the input of Studs Terkel, editor Verna Bloom and production manager Jonathan Haze (the Roger Corman acting veteran). Assistant cameraman Ron Vargas backs up Wexler's descriptions of the riot filming with his own impressions of handling an extra camera during the chaos. Cronin's second docu Sooner or Later is a follow-up about Harold Blankenship, the film's child actor. The most compelling extra is Medium Cool Revisited, Haskell Wexler's new documentary about his return to Chicago to compare the demonstrations in his 1969 film with the Occupy Movement's protests against the 2012 NATO Summit meetings. Camera in hand, Haskell wanders about showing us where key events took place, and reminiscing about his fearlessness while filming in touchy situations. He laughs when he remembers that holding the camera made him feel invulnerable in dangerous situations. By Glenn Erickson

Quotes

Trivia

In the psychedelic nightclub sequence, the band seen performing on the stage is The Litter, a Minneapolis-based group. However, in the original release version, their music is not heard; instead, we hear a piece by Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention.

Film was originally rated "X", but re-rated "R" after an appeal.

The main character was originally called "John Cassavetes", and was going to be played by the actor-director of that name. When John Cassavetes withdrew from the film due to a scheduling conflict, the character's name was changed to "John Cassellis" and Robert Forster was cast.

When the film was released on video, Paramount was sued by the copyright holders of the song "Merry-Go-Round". Under their 1969 agreement, Paramount had rights to the song for showing the film in theatres and on television. Paramount argued that video release was the same as television broadcast. The courts ruled that the copyright holder in 1969 could not have considered videocassettes to be like television broadcast, as home videocassettes were not invented.

The line "Watch out, Haskell, it's real!" was actually dubbed in after the shooting. It was supposedly what Haskell was thinking to himself and he wanted to include it.

Notes

Filmed entirely on location in Kentucky, Minnesota, Chicago, and Washington, D. C. The working title of this film is Concrete Wilderness.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States 1983

Released in United States 1996

Released in United States 2013

Released in United States Fall September 1969

Re-released in United States on Video February 21, 1995

Feature dirctorial debut for acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler.

Released in United States 1983 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Verna Fields (editor): A Dedication Tribute) April 13 - May 1, 1983.)

Released in United States 1996 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum) as part of program "Out of the Seventies: Hollywood's New Wave 1969-1975" May 31 - July 25, 1996.)

Released in United States 2013 (Special Presentation)

Re-released in United States on Video February 21, 1995

Selected in 2003 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Released in United States Fall September 1969