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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

Medium Cool (1969)
(DVD & Blu-ray)


Starring: Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, Peter Bonerz and Marianna Hill
Distributor: Eureka Entertainment
RRP: £17.99
Certificate: 15
Release Date: 31 August 2015

Around the focal point of the 1969 Democratic Convention societal tensions of freedom, violence and race start to boil over watch by the ever present eye of the news camera...

Medium Cool (1969. 1 hr, 50 min, 20 sec) is a part-fiction, part-critical documentary of the state of America, by film maker Haskell Wexler and starring Robert Foster.

Wexler uses a cinema verite style to interweave real event from 1968 with fictional elements to give the film structure. The movie is overall critical of the role of mass media. The opening sequence sees John Cassellis, a camera man, filming the result of a grisly road traffic accident. What is shocking about the sequence is that he and his sound man film the crash, containing the dead or dying driver before even thinking of calling an ambulance. They do nothing to help, even calling the ambulance feels like an afterthought.

Wexler then shows us the actor pontificating about objectivity and not being involved as if the characters had resigned their basic humanity in pursuit of the next exciting story to feed their audiences need for spectacle. This is a modern version of the lions and Christians, violence as entertainment.

The film is resplendent with surreal and disturbing imagery, which is not staged. Wexler filmed preparations by the military troops to confront what they see as civil disturbance with fixed bayonets. Wexler was honest enough to admit that he planned to shoot the documentary elements of the film in and around the Democratic Convention, pretty sure that there would be a riot, which in fact happened.

In between this his main character gets fired when he discovers that his television station has been providing the FBI with information, he subsequently gets a job filming the conference. I couldn’t go as far as calling Cassellis an everyman who takes us through the film as the opening sequence shows that he is, for all his protestations, morally and emotionally divorced from those around him. He is redeemed somewhat when he meets Eileen, a single mother and her son Harold, who provides the film's ending. Having disappeared at the convention with its growing violence, the two go looking for him only to crash their car, thus becoming just another passing story devoid of true humanity.

The film is even more disturbing for the fact that apart from inserting his characters into events, little of the film is staged and the confrontation at the end of the film feels more like a military takeover than any attempt to maintain democracy or order.

The disc provides subtitles for the hard of hearing as well as a full length commentary featuring director/writer Haskell Wexler, Editor, Paul Golding and actor Marianna Hill. If you seriously interested in film making then the commentary is a goldmine of information.

You also get ‘Look Out Haskell, It’s Real (53 min, 14 sec) which consists of portions of Paul Cronin’s documentary which details the film and its impact. Once again this is a very intelligent piece which examines both film making and the turbulent political background in America at the time. Sooner or Later (15 min, 57 sec) once again takes portions from a Paul Cronin documentary, this time to interview Harold Blankenship, who played Harold in the film, which has less to do with the film than it does Harold’s life as an adult. The last major extra, Haskell and the Camera (10 min, 13 sec) has the director/writer discussing the cameras used in making the film, which is more interesting that it sounds, especially if you’re interested in the technical side of film making. Lastly you have the film's Trailer (3 min, 26 sec).

This is not an easy film to watch, not just because of the violence shown, but the lack of basic humanity displayed by many of the characters shown. As a film it would be fair to say that it is more important as a cultural artefact than it is as an entertainment.


Charles Packer

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