Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, a grab-bag of social and political ideology which forms the backdrop against which a relatively mundane fictional story of ordinary individuals caught up in a maelstrom over which they have no control, is one of the most unique films made during the period of not only societal anarchy in our country (the late 1960s) but the beginnings of a revolution in filmmaking as gritty, guerrilla-style cinema began to make inroads into America’s movie diet. Seen in hindsight, the film is an utterly remarkable achievement: being able to shoot its characters in the midst of one of the most notorious incidents in American politics: the demonstrations and subsequent riots surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Run Time: 1 Hr. 50 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-raykeep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 05/21/2013
During his job as a television journalist shooting news stories in and around Chicago, John Katselas (Robert Forster) meets a transplanted West Virginia Appalachian widow Eileen (Verna Bloom) and her son Harold (Harold Blankenship) and takes an interest in them both. But Eileen is a sweet, simple soul not used to the faster lifestyle that John enjoys, so their relationship is somewhat rocky even though Harold seems to take to John especially when he shows an interest in Harold’s hobby of pigeon raising. Watching John try to make love to his mother upsets Harold enough to make him run away, and unluckily he chooses the moment when the face-off between demonstrators and the police and National Guard reaches its apex at the Democratic National Convention. John, inside the convention center, is too preoccupied with his work to be available to help Eileen frantically search for her son.
The Production Rating: 4/5
The central story that director Haskell Wexler has fashioned for the film is rather tame and thin, so he fleshes out the narrative with other politically motivated incidents: John and his sound man Gus (Peter Bonerz) confronting angry black men and women who object to their being used only as fodder for his camera (and stating their objections sometimes right into the camera), John and Gus traveling to see the Guard training to handle brutally the mob mentality, and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. He also includes several flashbacks showing us something of the life Eileen and Harold lived in West Virginia: her baptism in a river, Harold’s father (Charles Geary) showing him how to shoot and later discussing with him the masculine imperative of ruling the roost (admittedly one of the most astonishing scenes in the movie as it’s filmed in a field of buttercups in full bloom) along with some additional footage of John watching roller derby, nude cavorting with a co-worker after they’ve made love, John at his boxing gym showing off some fancy footwork and pounding the heavy bag, and John and Eileen at a rock club where drug-fueled music and dance are not much to her liking. Many of these scenes feel like padding though they're always inventively staged and shot (writer-director Wexler is also an Oscar-winning cinematographer serving in that capacity on this film, too).
But the fortuitousness of Wexler’s having the amazing worldwide notoriety of the Democratic Convention riots to use for backdrop as his characters get swept up in the events as they’re transpiring still never ceases to amaze, and it gives the film the most eerie sense of time and place that none of the other “youth revolution movement” movies of the 1960s and 1970s possess. While the ending seems a bit tacked on and anticlimactic (also rather badly staged even if the action does come somewhat full circle from the movie's initial scene), some of the political topics that get raised are never touched on again or are woefully underdeveloped (John finds out the police and FBI have been studying footage he shot of black protestors in order to assemble an enemies list; his protests get him fired from the station) leaving the movie with a sense of raggedness and unsatisfying incompleteness.
Though Robert Forster had only been in films for a couple of years, he does a wonderful job convincing us here that he’s a news journalist with a camera. He’s also totally down to earth and convincing as a young man who enjoys his life both professional and personal and always has presence even when he’s not the most important character in the frame. Verna Bloom isn’t quite as commanding though she gives a lovely interpretation of a rather timid woman still tied to her Appalachian roots and not much for big city life. Harold Blankenship is adequate basically playing himself, a rather uneducated young boy trying to adjust to a city which he finds harsh and unforgiving. Peter Bonerz is solid as the sound man who doesn’t have quite the same amount of moxie as his partner. You’ll find Peter Boyle in a one scene role as the owner of a gun range who has a very entertaining sequence as he demonstrates proper gun safety while espousing his ideas about the rights of gun owners.
The film is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and features 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Mostly the film looks very sharp with strong color saturation and realistic flesh tones. There are only a few long shots where softness is noticeable, and black levels are solid throughout. The film has been divided into 23 chapters.
Video Rating: 4.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix is very much of its era. Dialogue is usually discernible, but there are instances where either poor recording or mumbling by the actors results in some difficulty with understanding what’s being said. The low budget nature of the enterprise is also made clear with the limited fidelity of the various music and tunes of the era and the limited sound effects with which to bring the horrors of those street confrontations more vividly to life.
Audio Rating: 3.5/5
Two Audio Commentaries: the first features film consultant Paul Golding moderating discussion with director-writer Haskell Wexler and actress Marianna Hill (who plays Ruth in the movie); the second (and more interesting from a critical sense) is by film historian Paul Cronin.
Special Features Rating: 5/5
Haskell Wexler Interview (14:52, HD): conducted in 2013, the director describes the genesis of the story and his pride in having made such an unusual movie.
“Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real!” (53:10, HD): a making of documentary for the film directed by Paul Cronin featuring interviews with the cast and crew and background on the political climate of the era as well as some background on Wexler’s own career.
Harold Blankenship Interview (15:50, HD): tracked down in 2007 in West Virginia, this presents a melancholy look at the life of the young man chosen from the Chicago slums for the role now living in poverty.
Medium Cool Revisited (33:16, HD): Director Haskell Wexler’s documentary comparing the unrest in Chicago in 1968 with the Occupy protest against the NATO summit held in Chicago in 2012.
Theatrical Trailer (3:27, HD)
18-Page Booklet: contains the chapter listing, cast and crew lists, numerous color stills from the movie, and film festival programmer Thomas Beard’s celebratory essay on the film and its significance to the modern day.
Timeline: can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentaries that go along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
Still a gripping piece of historical fiction, Medium Cool stands out today as an astonishing offshoot of cinema verité featuring the sensational visual sense of its writer-director Haskell Wexler in a compelling if not always completely satisfying drama. Criterion’s excellent picture and sound transfer along with the expected treasure trove of great bonus material make this release highly recommended.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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