A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 634 – Medium Cool

Medium Cool – November 24th, 2011

I first saw this movie as part of a film class in high school. It was the same class I watched The Rules of the Game for. The Deerhunter too, though we don’t own that one. This movie is the one that’s probably stuck with me the most. Enough that there are bits and pieces of it I still remember over a decade after last seeing it. And it’s a weird one, but well worth watching. The trouble is, it’s kind of hard to find. We had to buy it on VHS as the DVD copies were well out of our price range. We did get a mint-in-shrinkwrap copy (still sealed with its stickers and everything), but a VHS nonetheless. If you’re at all interested in the work of Marshall McLuhan, violence in media or protest culture in the 1960s in the US, you should see this.

One of the most disorienting things for me when I watch this movie now is the soundtrack. The vast majority of it is exactly as I remember from my first viewing. There is one notable exception, however, and it is so incredibly jarring that I think it bears mention. Violence and how people respond to it is a major theme of the movie. There’s a scene towards the beginning of the movie where the main character takes a date to a roller derby game where violence is a spectacle. In the original version of the movie, Merry Go Round by Wild Man Fischer plays over this scene. The bizarre nature of the song makes the scene feel like it’s part of a strange alternate world. It’s a slightly aggressive song in that it’s mostly shouted, but also repetitive (which is emphasized by its subject: the merry go round). In the home release? Paramount didn’t have the distribution rights for the song. So it’s replaced with the Harlem Globetrotters theme. Which, as one might think, changes the tone entirely. If you do watch this, and you find a version that doesn’t have Merry Go Round? Pull up this video and mute the damn whistling during the roller derby and play that instead.

The story is a little disjointed and I’d always wondered why, but doing a little reading up on the movie explained it. Originally Haskell Wexler went to Paramount proposing to make a movie about a boy moving to the city from Appalachia. Then the Chicago Democratic National Convention was going to be in town and Wexler shifted gears, morphing his original concept into a piece of cinema verite about media and violence and observation versus involvement and the time and place the movie was filmed in. So while we do still have a young boy – Harold – in Chicago, the story is more focused on a television cameraman named John who prides himself on never getting involved in what he films. Through the course of the film he becomes more involved in the world around him and finds out that the footage he’s been filming has been given to the FBI. After that he ends up involved with Harold’s mother, Eileen, and the movie concludes with John and Eileen in the midst of the riots during the convention, looking for Harold, who’s gone missing.

While Harold, Eileen, John and several other characters were played by actors and spoke scripted lines, they were often filmed in undressed streets and sets and the movie is chock full of documentary footage of various events and places. Wexler had a suspicion that something would happen at the convention and so did the US Army. Some of the footage in the movie was filmed during training drills for soldiers, practicing what to do in a protest riot situation, with the actor playing John present in that footage. John is a character, pretending to film, while Wexler films him, but he’s also being filmed with a bunch of soldiers who are not actors, going through training exercises that aren’t fictionalized. There’s a lot of improvisation and a lot of real people not playing roles. The movie doesn’t just follow the linear story but also goes off on tangents, bringing in bits and pieces about race, violence, class, etc. It’s very much a two hourish snapshot of Chicago in 1968.

I recently got a copy of the DVD from work and got to listen to the commentary. One actress is asked if they got along on set and she said yes, because they felt they were “there for a higher purpose” to show some sort of truth about what was going on in the world at the time, even if they themselves didn’t fully understand it. They trusted that Wexler had a view for the movie and for what he wanted to say with it. I find that to be a fascinating statement. It seems to be a sign of the times, of a sort. They all knew there was something big going on. Something important and something worth talking about and presenting to the world. But they couldn’t quite articulate it on their own, for the most part. Not that I think it’s unique to the 1960s in the US. I think it’s something that happens in every generation, whenever there is upheaval. But it also says something about this movie. It puts its time and place out there for you to see, in a combination of documentary and staged scenes, to tell what Haskell Wexler saw as the truth of it all, in its messy glory. It’s a collection of bits and pieces that form a portrait of the times. Wexler keeps the pauses and awkward moments because they provide a sort of meta filmmaking. An acknowledgement that this is fiction while at the same time pointing out just how real so much of it is.

The commentary also talks about how the movie was originally rated X, ostensibly because of nudity and language, but truly it was a “political X.” The language and the nudity (the latter of which Wexler offered to take out and the former of which they tried to compromise on) weren’t really the issue. The politics were the issue. Given that the movie not only showcased racial tension, class struggle and the riots around the convention, I’m honestly not shocked. I mean, the scene where John goes to talk to a cab driver and ends up being confronted by a group of African American men and women who want to talk about race? That scene makes me uncomfortable. And it should. It’s not meant to be a comfortable scene and it’s not meant to be a comfortable situation. That is the point. In the commentary they mention how the impassioned speech made at the end of that scene was written by Wexler, but it came through as genuine enough that other people on set, who had been improvising many of their own lines, congratulated the actor who gave the speech, thinking it was his own. It felt true to them. It felt real. And given how uncomfortable it makes me in the here and now, I would guess that the people in charge of film ratings at the time were positively terrified by its implications. And that’s not even the most dangerous of things this movie does.

This movie doesn’t shy away from showcasing the uglier sides of things. Not just the dramatic, like the riots, but the everyday ugly of poverty and prejudice and violence and sexism. The things that grind people down or put neverending pressure that ends up causing explosions. Presenting those things, putting them out there as things that exist, things that affect us, instead of ignoring them or covering them up or pretending they don’t exist? That’s dangerous. Acknowledging that things are not perfect? That’s dangerous. Of course this movie was rated X to start with. It’s not that it showed a woman’s breasts or a man’s butt or taught people any new obscenities. It’s that it showed flaws in the world we live in. Hell, that still gets people worried now. And as the movie ends we hear the crowd chanting “The whole world is watching.” And we still are.

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November 24, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , ,

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