The opening shot of Medium Cool, Haskell Wexler’s fictionalized documentary about a TV cameraman at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, is so heavily influenced by Jean Luc Godard’s 1967 film Weekend that it comes close to plagiarism. There’s a car burning alongside the highway. A woman is lying on the cement in a puddle of her own blood, one leg up on the seat on the passenger side of the car, her arms limp above her head. The horn is blaring, stuck, a cacophonous negation of everything but our offended ears. Two TV reporters, John Cassellis, played by Robert Forster, and Gus, Peter Bonerz, circle the carnage, camera and sound equipment in hand. As Cassellis records footage of the dead woman, Gus reaches over and turns off the horn. They go back to their car.
“Better call an ambulance,” Cassellis says to Gus.
If Medium Cool was rated X back in 1969, yet seems tame in 2014, that’s because it’s both innovative and badly dated. An examination of the breakdown of American society in the late 60s, the images that got it the X rating — a few nude love scenes between Cassellis and his girlfriend — are positively tedious. Unlike in Weekend, which is a far more angry, pessimistic, obscene, and yet culturally conservative film, there’s no Mozart in Medium Cool, only Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention. Where Jean Luc Godard portrayed the counterculture as just another symptom of bourgeois materialism, Wexler holds out the hope that if we all just listened to enough Rock ‘n’ Roll and did enough drugs things might just get better. At least we wouldn’t be the pigs (cops) in Grant Park. For Godard, sex in a corrupt society is corrupt, the bourgeois men, bourgeois. For Wexler, even as he portrays photography as voyeuristic, disengaged, perhaps immoral, he still puts the cool, hip, swinging dick of a cameraman up on a pedestal. Cassellis has his faults, but he’s also a culture hero and a rebel.
Godard got it right. The counterculture would become mainstream, both in France, and in the United States. There was nothing rebellious or subversive about Rock ‘n’ Roll, drugs, casual sex, or youth. By 1980, a few years after the draft ended, the hippies would all be Republicans, Reagan voters who brought sex, drugs, and Rock ‘n’ Roll into the mainstream. Wexler got it wrong, and it shows. Cassellis frolicking with his glamorous blond mistress is both tedious and hilariously dated. When Cassellis romances an Appalachian single mother — who’s come to Chicago after the death of her husband – and plays father figure to her 13-year-old son, it’s cringe worthy. The movie grinds to a halt. The hippies swirling about in a drugged out haze to the Mothers of Invention look like something out of an Austin Powers film.
As Steve Jobs demonstrated, you can have capitalism and the counterculture too.
When Medium Cool turns to politics, however, it becomes startlingly new, and startlingly relevant, superior, in its own way, to Weekend. Godard went for the jugular. In Weekend, the radicals, a pair of philosophical garbage men eating sandwiches in tight closeup in front of a trash heap and the guerrilla army of cannibal hippies are, by turns, gross, and murderous. There is no political alternative in Weekend. “The only thing that can overcome bourgeois horror,” one of the cannibals says, “is more horror.” The angry nihilism that gave Jean Luc Godard the ability to see through the fraudulent counterculture the way few other people could in 1967 turns his political critique sour. The idea that everything and everybody sucks is not radical. It’s what every good capitalist believes. Godard takes his attack on the French bourgeoisie to such an extreme it works, but it also seems like one long sneer.
Wexler calls out the corporate media for its complicity with the police and the FBI. It hits home so hard because, unlike the puritanism of the 1950s, this complicity is still here. As anybody who participated in Occupy Wall Street knows, the NYC newspapers still coordinate their coverage with the NYPD, still see themselves as helping the police. The Black Panthers who call out Cassellis for his shallow coverage of African Americans are no cannibal hippies, no depiction of radicalism as just another symptom of bourgeois decay. They are absolutely dead on. The young black militant who explains why nameless and faceless people loot stores and throw bricks threw windows could have been talking about Ferguson Missouri in 2014. When Cassellis gets fired after he gives the outtakes of a draft card burning to the protesters themselves — the station had planned on giving the footage to the cops — he realizes that he’s a fraud, that the whole corporate media is a fraud.
What’s more, Wexler blends fiction and reality in a far more innovative way than Godard. Godard makes it obvious. His repellent bourgeois couple set young Emily Bronte on fire. “She’s crying,” the wife says. “But she’s a fictional character,” the husband rejoins. They go hitchhiking. “Are you real or are you a character in a film?” they ask the driver of a car. It’s all clever, very obviously clever, and tells us little or nothing about the political chaos in France on the even of May 1968. All it means is that Jean Luc Godard has read Brecht. Haskell Wexler, on the other hand, not only screws with our perception, he shows us why it’s politically relevant. Cassellis and Gus walk through the mud of Resurrection City, the encampment Martin Luther King’s “Poor Peoples Movement” set up on the Capital Mall. Did Wexler have his two actors walk through the real Resurrection City in 1968 and include it in his fictionalized portrayal of Resurrection City, or did he re stage Resurrection City? I honestly have no idea. The romance between Cassellis and Eileen, the single mother from West Virginia, initially so tedious, comes alive during the police riot in that took place outside the Democratic Party National Convention. Deftly mixing documentary footage of the riot itself with a re staging of parts of the riot, he sends Eileen into Grant Park looking for her 13 year old son. We are no longer watching the Chicago Police beat up anonymous people in a newsreel. We are watching a single mother, a well-developed fictional character, wander into an arena where she could, quite possibly, get beaten up herself. The fictional Eileen becomes more “real” than the “real” people in the documentary footage. Godard might have told us to be conscious of the difference between reality and fiction. Wexler shows us.
The strongest scenes in Medium Cool just might be the documentary footage of the Illinois National Guard training in the Spring of 1968 to suppress the protests they know are coming in the Summer. The lines between documentary and fiction are blurred. It’s real footage of the Guard training, and yet Wexler has inserted the fictional Cassellis. What’s more, the guardsmen are playing both sides, staging a riot, and suppressing a riot. It’s the insertion of a fictional character into a a real life military exercise which is, in turn, nothing more than a staged protest. I was startled by how well the Illinois National Guard captured the sounds, the speeches, the signs, the very rhythm and flow of a typical anti-war demonstration. How can any protest be effective when the military can re stage it this easily? Indeed, after watching Medium Cool, I look back at anti-war protests I’ve been involved in and wonder if they had all just been staged to head off the possibility of genuine, effective protest. The contempt the guardsmen have for the peace movement in these scenes is obvious, and justified. Many “real” anti-war rallies no more transcend the idea of “theater” than the staged anti-war rally of the Illinois National Guard.
In the end, however, theater becomes real, as real as it can be in fiction, anyway. John Cassellis may have angrily walked out of his job as a TV cameraman when he found out that the station was giving the outtakes to the police. But he’s still basically an observer, not a participant in the protest the police attack outside the Democratic convention. Is a journalist outside of what he covers, or is he part of the story? We hear some documentary footage. A journalist got through police lines by showing his “press pass.” I’m sure it occurred to him that some other people did not. But I wonder if had ever asked himself if he should be carrying a “press pass” at all. In the very last scene of Medium Cool, we come full circle, not only back to the first scene in the movie but back to Weekend. Cassellis becomes part of what he so callously observed in the film’s opening. Another car drives by. There’s a boy with a camera. Godard couldn’t have staged it better himself.