Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real: The Making of ‘Medium Cool’ (2001)

It’s interesting to wonder how 1968 would have played out in the age of social media.

It began with the Tet Offensive on January 30th. In the Spring, there was the assassination of not only one, but two progressive leaders of national stature, Martin Luther King on April 4, and Robert Kennedy on June 6. The students at Columbia University were on strike for most of April. Their French counterparts almost overthrew the De Gaulle administration in May. The Soviet Army would put down the Prague Spring a few months later on August 20th.

What exactly would have been the trending topics on Twitter?

According to the cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler it might have been a commercial for Coca Cola or Wrigley’s Spearmint Gum. As he recounts in the documentary Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real: The Making of ‘Medium Cool’, the inspiration for Medium Cool came from two sources. The first was the French New Wave, where avant guard directors like Jean Luc Godard had broken with the rules of Hollywood, and had begun making innovative new films with hand held cameras, natural lighting, and small crews. The second was the failure of the American media to adequately cover what was going on in the world. The world you saw on TV in 1968, Wexler remembers, was an alternate reality, and you weren’t on TV, he continues, you didn’t exist.

So when he got the opportunity to make a film about a boy from Appalachia who lived in the big city, he not only seized the opportunity, he seized the opportunity to completely rework the script. The result was Medium Cool, which is both fiction and documentary, a distinction, Jean Luc Godard had always argued, had much less relevance than most people think. After all, if you make a movie that presents itself as being purely fictional, you are still “filming objects in the world.” If you make a documentary, you are choosing which objects in the world you decide to film. Wexler decided to do away with the distinction altogether, and arrange the objects in the world he decided to film before he turned on his camera. Then reality hit.

For most of the Spring of 1968, Wexler had filmed a “documentary” about John Cassellis, a fictional Chicago TV cameraman played by Robert Forster. There was the Appalachian poor white ghetto in uptown Chicago, something I had never even realized existed until I saw Medium Cool, and where, interestingly enough, Chicago police officer would occasionally kidnap and torture poor white kids, just for the sport of it. There was the Robert Kennedy assassination, which Wexler poignantly dramatizes by filming a hotel kitchen, not in Los Angeles, but in Chicago. Then there was Resurrection City, the “occupy” encampment 43 years before Occupy Wall Street, the tent city organized by Martin Luther King’s “Poor Peoples’ Campaign” months after his death.

When Wexler returned to his home town of Chicago that August with Robert Forster and the rest of his small crew, he certainly knew there would be controversy, and protests. Chicago, which was under the control of the Democratic, but reactionary Mayor Richard Daley, was a tough city with a huge police force, and a hard, backward white ethnic culture that hated hippies and antiwar protesters. Even though a strong primary challenge from Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy had pushed Lyndon Johnson into forgoing the opportunity to run for President a second time, the Democratic Party was set to nominate Hubert Humphrey and Edmund Muskie, neither of whom would make an explicit statement against the Vietnam War. Wexler had already filmed the Illinois National Guard training to put down an urban insurrection earlier that year, but not even he could anticipate what would happen that August 24th in Grant Park, when the Chicago Police waded into a crowd of antiwar protesters, swinging their billy clubs and cracking skulls, staging a full scale police riot against a diverse crowd of Americans exercising their First Amendment rights.

Having seen Medium Cool three times, and Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real: The Making of ‘Medium Cool’ twice, I do understand the gravity of what happened in Chicago in August of 1968, but I still only think I get part of it. Indeed, one of Wexler’s assistants remarks that even though they used three camera crews they captured only a fraction of the violence that took place, violence so intense, and so disturbing for being “American on American” violence, that it scared him more than filming in Vietnam did. Indeed, for many people of the “Baby Boom” generation, the spectacle of a militarized police force of American citizens attacking other American citizens was a crucial breaking point in American history. As cynical and worldly wise an observer as Hunter S. Thompson would go on to call it “the end of America.” Gore Vidal would compare the Chicago Police to Nazi stormtroopers.

I was only 3 years old in 1968, but the fact that I wouldn’t hear about the 1968 Democratic National Convention until I became politically active as an undergraduate in my early 20s is no accident. Medium Cool was so incendiary that Wexler’s studio did everything in its power to suppress its audience, giving it an “X” rating — purportedly for sex and foul language, but in reality, as Wexler remarks, for political content — and the most limited distribution they could justify under the contract. Nevertheless, while Medium Cool was not widely viewed upon its release, it’s every bit as relevant in 2015 as it was in 1968. Just substitute “Ferguson” for “Chicago” and “Occupy Wall Street” for “Resurrection City” and you’ll feel as if you were watching a film made last yesterday.

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