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Film: Medium Cool

"Mama! Mama! / Someone said they made some noise.

Medium Cool is a critically acclaimed and highly obscure film from the 60's about the unhealthy interaction between a corporate media in search of spectacle and violence and a restless and angry populace. It predated the film Network by about ten years.

It's also famous for a simple reason: it's just about the only Mockumentary fictional film ever to be deliberately shot and filmed during the course of a historical event: The 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and police riot, during and after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy which preceded it.

That's right: they filmed all the scenes "in real", with the scripted actors and cameramen wandering through historical events. Aluminum Christmas Trees abound for contemporary viewers, since as we all know, Reality Is Unrealistic.

The film stars a young cameraman who is basically The Last DJ within his news organization, struggling to get the word out about what's actually going on in the streets. Fans of media criticism will note that the subsequent whitewashing of his reports is largely accurate. When we meet him, he's apolitical and driven, with his own code, seeing the role of the journalist as a quest to "capture" the moment on film as it really happened. As he accidentally gets to know some of his subjects, Character Development ensues.

Interestingly, when the film was first scripted, it wasn't intended to be about the Movement versus The Man at all. The director wanted to shoot a piece in docu-cam about the indifference of the media towards the problems of the poor in inner-city Chicago, focusing on an Appalachian family. After all, Martin Luther King was promising a major march on poverty in lieu of racism that Long Hot Summer, similar to his March on Washington in '63, to urge the next administration (which he hoped would be RFK) to take the money from The Vietnam War and use it to re-fund Great Society programs.

However, after both MLK and RFK got shot during the course of initial filming, director Haskell Wesker had made friends in Fred Hampton's Chicago Black Panther Party during the course of making the film (one of the scenes is an interview with the Panthers basically playing themselves). They informed him that a massive demonstration was underway for the summer of '68 and Wesker decided to center the climax of his film around that.

The title is from a famous Postmodern thesis by media critic Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Message: namely the idea that there are "hot" mediums such as theater that are highly interactive, and then there are more "cold" mediums, like television, which lull the audience into a stupor require little interaction from the audience.

The Internet, which has room for huge amounts of interactivity but mostly confined to correspondence with ill-informed people, would thus be an example of a populace that prefers its Medium Cool. With lukewarm spots such as wikis, like the one you may be editing now. The Situationists like Guy Debord would probably ask why you are in here on the computer when you could be out forming a flash-mob or impromptu theater, of course.

The film was rated "X" by the Moral Guardians for political content on its release (the film contains little sexual content or swearing), the first film to do so (swiftly followed by Midnight Cowboy); thus making the title reference all the more meaningful.

Tropes featured in this film include:

Look out, Haskell. It's real!

HeadFranchise/Frank ZappaThe Real Frank Zappa Book
The Man Who Knew Too MuchCreator/The Criterion CollectionMenace II Society
The Magic ChristianFilms of the 1960sMidnight Cowboy
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KidUsefulNotes/National Film RegistryPatton
MeatballsCreator/ParamountThe Miracle of Morgan's Creek

alternative title(s): Medium Cool
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