Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969) is remembered as one of the great political films of its era—who could forget its climactic melding of fact and fiction, shot in the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention, in which Robert Forster’s TV news cameraman is swept into the real-life chaos of police and protesters? Medium Cool is also recognized as a pointed early critique of the news media, noting the amoral detachment of TV journalists and the collusion between their corporate bosses and the government to shape a political narrative. But for people who love Chicago, the film may be most valuable as a cultural document, recording a much younger city in the midst of a turbulent summer. Inspired by Studs Terkel’s book Division Street: America, Wexler set out to integrate real Chicagoans into the action, often letting them improvise their own dialogue; some of that footage wound up on the cutting-room floor, but the voices that remain are strong, honest, and still challenging even after 46 years.
Only in the late 60s, when the commercial power of youth-oriented cinema was sending shock waves through Hollywood, would Paramount Pictures have released a movie like Medium Cool. Wexler, a Chicago native and one of the most respected cinematographers in Hollywood, had contracted with Paramount to direct an adaptation of Jack Couffer’s novel The Concrete Wilderness, about a New York boy who’s befriended by a wildlife photographer; he supplied his own production funds, and the studio was obligated to buy the finished film. As Wexler remembers in a DVD commentary for Criterion Collection, the studio suits were flabbergasted by the result, an edgy, Godardian tale that ricocheted from one hot-button topic to the next (poverty, racism, civil rebellion, the war in Vietnam, the Kennedy and King assassinations). The only vestige of Couffer’s novel was a subplot in which the cameraman, John Cassellis, gets involved with an Appalachian boy and his mother in Uptown.
Terkel—named in the credits as “our man in Chicago”—provided Wexler with a great many introductions, helping the director locate a variety of real people to augment the story. Just after the opening credits, Wexler shows Jack and his soundman, Gus (Peter Bonerz), at a cocktail party with an assortment of Chicago journalists that was orchestrated by Terkel at the home of photographer Lynn Erlich (included are news photographer Mickey Pallas, former WBBM cameraman Morris Bleckman, and Lester Brownlee, first black reporter for the Chicago Daily News). Wexler simply set them loose without a script to talk about their work, which resulted in a heated debate about the quick-hit ghoulishness of local TV news. “I’ve made films on all kinds of social problems,” declares one guest, “and the big bombs were the ones where we went into detail and showed why something happened. Nobody wants to take the time. They’d rather see 30 seconds of somebody getting his skull cracked, turn off the TV set, and say, ‘Wasn’t that bad? Let me get another beer.'”
That’s only a prelude to the tense nine-minute sequence in which Jack and Gus show up at a ghetto apartment looking for a human-interest story and clash with black militants, played by an assortment of local musicians and artists. “When you come in here, and you say you come to do something of human interest, it makes a person wonder whether you’re going to do something of interest to other humans, or whether you consider the person human in whom you’re interested,” says one guy, speaking directly to the camera. “You are the exploiters. You’re the ones who distort and ridicule and emasculate us.” The sequence was partly scripted, partly improvised, involving such figures as Kuumba Theatre founder Val Grey Ward, Soul Train announcer Sid McCoy, jazz musicians Muhal Richard Abrams and John Shenoy Jackson (of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), and visual artists Jeff Donaldson and Barbara Jones-Hogu (of AfriCOBRA—subject of a retrospective through September 29 that includes Friday’s screening of Medium Cool).
As a time capsule of the city, the film is most valuable when Wexler turns to Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her young son, Harold (Harold Blankenship), native West Virginians living in blighted Uptown. Robert Kennedy’s visits to poverty-stricken Appalachia during his presidential campaign that spring had drawn national attention to poor white southerners; even as Wexler was shooting Medium Cool, the Chicago Tribune ran a fascinating three-part series on the estimated 65,000 southern migrants living in Uptown. Migrants found good-paying factory jobs at companies like Bell & Howell, Teletype, and Crane Packing, and affordable housing in the north-side neighborhood, whose grand past as an entertainment district had resulted in numerous hotels being turned into SROs. “Entire blocks in Uptown are inhabited by the former residents of a single Alabama or West Virginia county,” wrote reporter Clarus Backes. “Apartment buildings are filled with members of a single mountain clan.”
Wexler walked around Uptown, taking it all in. “Almost any day of the year,” wrote Backes, “along Wilson or Montrose or Kenmore or a dozen other streets, there are children of school age standing about, talking together, looking for something to do, and nobody knows who they are. Some of them are without families, left behind at their own request.” Wexler and one of the producers drove to the corner of Clifton and Sunnyside with a cooler full of sodas and gave them away to neighborhood kids; in the process they met Blankenship, a 13-year-old boy whose parents had moved him to the city in 1966 and were now getting by on welfare. The boy was a natural, and Wexler essentially let him play himself, though the character in the film has a father fighting in Vietnam. By contrast, Verna Bloom, who’d appeared in Terkel’s play Amazing Grace, collected accents with a tape recorder to play her role (and, ironically, would later have to overcome the impression of casting directors that she was really from the hill country).
Originally, Medium Cool was to have an entire subplot rooted in Uptown, though Paul Golding, billed as “editorial consultant” and tasked with crafting a narrative from Wexler’s burgeoning film shoot, excised nearly all of it. At its center was Peggy Terry, a real-life activist who was helping Students for a Democratic Society mobilize support for the antipoverty initiative JOIN (Jobs or Income Now). “Uptown was a slum,” Terry recalls in Paul Cronin’s making-of documentary Look Out Haskell, It’s Real! (2001). “There were apartments that weren’t fit to keep your pet in. And the police come in that area like an occupied country. . . . If they’d catch our kids out after curfew, which was I think nine o’clock, they’d sometimes take ’em down to the lake and beat ’em between the legs.” Cronin excerpts some of the deleted scenes, in which Terry nudges Eileen toward class consciousness. They even travel to Washington, D.C., to tour Resurrection City, a muddy tent camp erected on the National Mall by the Poor People’s Campaign; Wexler shot them in the audience at an Operation Breadbasket rally as Jesse Jackson delivered a fiery speech.
Southern migrants in Uptown were notoriously transient; as one insurance man quoted in the Tribune series observed, “If you stop any one of them on the street and ask them where they live, they never give you an address on Kenmore or Racine. They will always tell you Hazard, Kentucky, or Mingo County, West Virginia, just as if they were only visiting here and hadn’t moved in at all.” Blankenship, orphaned a few years after appearing in Medium Cool, moved back to West Virginia to live with family and never left, though Cronin tracked him down years later for a short video called Sooner or Later (both this title and Look Out Haskell are excerpted on the Criterion release). For all the commentary Medium Cool has generated about television and the thin line between drama and documentary, one of the more telling fictions in the movie is the scene in which Harold turns off the TV and settles down to read a book; as Cronin discovered when he paid Blankenship a visit, the man had always been illiterate, and a TV played constantly in a corner of the room.
At 91, Haskell Wexler is still alive and kicking—in fact, he’s kicking harder than many filmmakers a third his age, having returned to the Gene Siskel Film Center just last month to preview his new documentary about the street protests that greeted the NATO summit in May 2012. Medium Cool was ahead of its time in recognizing the awesome political power of the camera, something we all reckon with now in a surveillance society where a cell phone lens can become a private citizen’s last avenue of defense against the police. In the end, though, Wexler’s understanding of the camera’s importance may not be as valuable as what he actually shot back in 1968, scenes that gave voice to marginalized Chicagoans long before the so-called democratization of media. As the saying goes, all politics is local.