By Peter Robinson
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Medium Cool

This article is over 6 years, 4 months old
Issue 405

The year 1968 was a defining one for a generation of political activists and it is not surprising that artists sought to reflect this. In Europe film makers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Lindsay Anderson made explicitly political movies savaging the ruling class and calling for revolution.

In Hollywood the studios were floundering under their own weight and insignificance. They could only hint at the cataclysms going on in society, bringing out subversive genre movies such as Planet of the Apes and Once Upon a Time in the West.

A new generation of independent minded film makers was emerging and the studios started offering them small budgets to produce their own movies.

Now one of the most directly engaged pieces of US cinema from that year — one that was as a result largely buried — has been released on DVD in the UK for the first time.

When award winning cinematographer and documentary maker Haskell Wexler was given money by Paramount to make his first feature film, he was determined to reflect the political convulsions going on in society.

Medium Cool’s backdrop is the Democratic National Convention that took place in Chicago that August. As with the rest of US society, the Democratic Party was deeply divided over the war.

President Johnson had withdrawn his nomination for re-election and Robert Kennedy, another candidate, had been assassinated two months before the convention. In Chicago’s Lincoln Park protesters set up a peace camp near the convention centre.

The film is shot with a small film crew in a documentary style. A major theme is the nature of journalism and documentary making. Robert Forster plays news cameraman John Cassellis. At the start of the film he is cold and dispassionate. Watching King’s last speech on television, his reaction is, “Jesus, I love to shoot film.”

The two other main characters are an Appalachian mother and her son. Eileen (Verna Bloom) is an assembly line worker. Her son Harold, memorably played by non-actor Harold Blankinsop, keeps pigeons on the roof of their ghetto tenement. John is attracted by their simple, honest life of working class integrity.

The actors are shot in real situations. In the last 20 minutes of the film we follow Eileen as she searches for her son amid the riots in Lincoln Park. As water cannons and tanks roll down the streets and the National Guard fire tear gas, bloodied anti-war protesters chant, “The whole world is watching”. This is all intercut with scenes on the conference floor.

Wexler’s influence on directors from Robert Altman to Spike Lee is evident. His visual style is arresting and his use of sound is wonderfully inventive. It has to be said that the film is uneven but its political engagement, abundance of ideas and formal experimentation mean you can forgive this.

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