Medium Cool is a 1969 American film about the unhealthy interaction between a corporate media in search of spectacle and violence and a restless and angry populace. It predated Network by about seven years. It's notable as one of the few films directed by prolific cinematographer Haskell Wexler (who's also credited with the cinematography and the screenplay).
It takes place in Chicago in the summer of 1968. The film stars Robert Forster as 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.
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.
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 Jr. was promising a major march on poverty in lieu of racism that 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 Wexler 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 Wexler 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.
Robert Forster stars as John. Verna Bloom, who stars as Eileen, appeared as Mrs. Wormer ten years later in Animal House. A young Peter Boyle, already bald, appears briefly as the manager of a gun range that caters to women.
Tropes featured in this film include:
- Anarchy Is Chaos: The protestors, roaming around Chicago, screaming "Fuck the pigs!", "The whole world is watching!", and the like. Causing a lot of chaos, accomplishing—not so much.
- As Himself: The crew were somewhat nervous shooting the "Black Panther interview" scene, since the Panthers were basically playing themselves doing a TV interview and accusing the media of indifference to the problems of the inner city.
- Book Ends: The film starts with John and his sound man taking pictures of a fatal car crash on the highway, and not calling for an ambulance until after they've gotten all the pictures they want. It ends with John crashing his car into a tree, injuring himself and killing Eileen, while tourists in another car drive by and take pictures.
- Color-Coded for Your Convenience: In the climax of the film, the female protagonist is shown wandering through the midst of the actual police riot (with the real camera-men in tow behind her). To avoid losing her in the crowd, she is dressed in a bright yellow dress.
- Creator Cameo: That's Haskell Wexler as the cameraman on the scaffold who points his camera at the audience in the last shot of the film.
- Credits Gag: Studs Terkel, veteran Chicago journalist who apparently gave assistance to the filmmakers, is credited as "Our Man In Chicago".
- Decoy Protagonist: The hero's Love Interest, an impoverished Appalachian woman and her child, who he meets during the course of reporting on a story.
- Fanservice: The scene where a naked Robert Forster chases a naked Marianna Hill around John's apartment, before sex ensues. Very daring for 1969.
- Hipsters: The protagonists visit a (real, of course) psychedelic rave, very dry-ly scored to Frank Zappa's Who Needs The Peace Corps:What's there to live for...? Who needs the peace corps?
America Is Wonderful! Wonderful wonderful wonderful...
Hi, I'm Jimmy Carl Black and I'm the Indian of the group!
Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet!
Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street!
- If It Bleeds, It Leads: Discussed Trope. A frustrated TV guy talks about how all his in-depth journalism gets terrible ratings, because all people want to see is "30 seconds of someone getting their skull cracked."
- Interplay of Sex and Violence: John and Ruth go to a violent roller derby, the sort of event that has members of the audience screaming "IN THE CROTCH!" This is immediately followed by John and Ruth having sex.
- Jitter Cam: The shaky, bouncy handheld camera is first seen in the sequence early in the film where police are shown taking training exercises against simulated protestors. It's seen a lot more in the latter portion of the film as chaos reigns on the streets of the city, with hippies fighting cops as Eileen wanders around looking for her boy.
- The Last DJ: Our journalist hero, who is an up-and-coming correspondent in his monolithic media organization. He is horrified when he's told that his television station has been turning over its footage to the Chicago PD and the FBI.
- Mockumentary: Filmed documentary-style during the course of actual events, with Real Life passerby.
- New-Age Retro Hippie: Unbuilt Trope and thus, surprisingly averted. Discussed, however, by Frank Zappa on the soundtrack:[...] First I'll buy some beads,
And then perhaps a leather band to go around my head.
Some feathers and bells, and a book of Indian lore.
I will ask the Chamber of Commerce how to get to Haight street,
And smoke an awful lotta' dope.
I will wander around barefoot.
I will have a psychedelic gleam in my eye at all times.
I will love everyone. I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street...
- Most of the demonstrators in Chicago '68 were members of the New Left and not hippies, although Abbie Hoffman got all the attention in his famous "incitement to riot" trial. Hippies were there, however.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The police turn on journalists filming them and some DNC delegates.
- Not Named in Opening Credits: None of the actors are listed in the opening credits, to make it feel more like a documentary than a narrative film.
- Parental Substitute: The protagonist softens up when he becomes a surrogate father figure to the kid.
- Pinball Protagonist: Taken to a literal extreme. John and Eileen basically bounce around Chicago for the last third of the movie, accomplishing very little. But the camera as it follows them around records the sights and sounds of the infamous protests at the Democratic Convention of 1968.
- Real Life Writes the Plot: The filmmakers took their cameras to Chicago guessing that stuff would happen at the 1968 Democratic Convention, after the tumultuous year that saw two assassinations and growing anti-war protests. They were right, as their cameras caught the infamous "police riot" in which Mayor Daley's cops attacked protestors throughout the city.
- Reckless Gun Usage: One of the women at the gun clinic walks up to the manager (Peter Boyle) and complains about her gun being stuck while pointing it at his head."Watch it. I've only got one head."
- The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: "Fuck you pigs! Fuck you pigs!" The rage-filled protestors at Chicago 1968 seem to be looking for a confrontation, and they get it.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Eileen spends the last quarter or so of the film frantically hunting around Chicago, looking for her son. She finds John, he gives her a ride in his car...and he crashes the car, killing Eileen and critically injuring himself. And just to make things worse, unbeknownst to the two of them, Harold had already come home.
- Soundtrack Dissonance: The Democratic Convention plays "Happy Days Are Here Again", a peppy upbeat tune that had been the unofficial Democratic anthem ever since FDR in 1932. The song then plays over a montage of bloodied and wounded protestors after they were mauled by the cops, some being given first aid, some being taken off in stretchers.
- You Bastard!: The film's message. A major theme is the responsibility of the viewer, and their obligation to actually help and take part in events rather than just watch from a distance. In an early scene a woman confronts John about his detachment, telling him that he's a man, not a video camera. Another man complains about how all his deep dive journalism always gets crappy TV ratings, because all people want to watch is violence. In the last scene some passers-by casually take a picture of John and Eileen's car crash, without making the slightest effort to help. The film then ends with a cameraman on a scaffold turning and pointing his camera at the movie camera—that is, at us, the audience—before the film cuts to black.