A TV film crew approaches a burning crashed car on a Chicago freeway. The cameraman films the wreck and the injured body of a female passenger while the soundman records her whimpers. The two men then hurry back to their TV. "We should call an ambulance," says the cameraman to his friend.
The opening scene of Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool leaves no ambiguity for the viewer: the film is going to deal with ethics and violence. A "typical" film of the parallel circuit of the late sixties, it pinpoints, along with such classics as Easy Rider, Soldier Blue or One flew over a cuckoo's nest, the growing malaise of American society and mythology.
John Cassellis, played by Robert Forster, a TV cameraman who loves his job, is the central and pivotal character of the film. We follow him in his daily life in Chicago, right before and during the famous 1968 Democratic Convention, which ended up in violent riots provoked, it seems, by the police. The film is very close to Godard's cinéma-vérité, with documentary footage mixed with the fictional storyline.
The plot can be easily summarized in a few lines: Cassellis is a TV cameraman working for a local television channel focused on sensational news. He has a loose affair with a nurse, Ruth (Marianna Hill) and has no problem doing his job, until two events crack his professional surface.
First, he films a black cab driver who has found 10,000 dollars in an unmarked envelope on the backseat of his cab. He has contacted the police, but got hassled instead of thanked. Sensing there is more to it than a local story, Cassellis wants to do a follow up, but is turned down by his boss and is fired under a false pretence.
Second, he meets Eileen (Verna Bloom), the mother of a street urchin named Harold (Harold Blankenship) who has tried to steal one of his hubcaps. A relationship begins between the two, the sweet and innocent God-fearing Eileen growing on him.
During the eve of the Democratic Convention, Harold disappears. After a fruitless night of searching, Ruth decides to try and find John at the Convention, as she knows he will be filming it. She becomes a witness of the riots, while John films from inside the amphitheater. They finally meet among the chaos, but on the drive home to Ruth's, a tire explodes and they die in the ensuing crash. The last scene shows a car driven by some hicks slowing down so that the son can take a picture of the burning car, before the camera zooms out to reveal Haskell Wexler himself filming the scene.
With the character of the cameraman John Cassellis, the notion of good guy/bad guy becomes suddenly an issue reaching beyond fiction, infiltrating multiple paradigms linked with what had become the post-JFK reality of America. News voyeurism, race issues, feminism, violence - all the 1968 problematics are presented in Medium Cool. But the central character is so complex that the film escapes manicheism and pushes the problematic beyond the usual acceptation of a good (or bad) character.
During almost the first half of the film, John Cassellis could be labelled as the typical "bad guy" in cinematographic fiction - cynical, distantiated, (voluntarily) de-humanized by his job, which he loves and seems ready to sacrifice everything for. We see him filming the National Guard doing anti-demonstration manoeuvres, as well as young Democrats getting ready for the convention - without any show of partisanship either way - Cassellis's neutrality in this case being suspicious in times of great political turmoil. What's more, after having filmed the car accident at the beginning of the movie, he meets his girlfriend, Ruth, at the hospital where she works and they decide to go to a Roller Derby competition, where they cheer players beating up each other, like at a Roman circus game. Violence seems at the core of John's character - he breathes it, he films it, he likes it. In a cocktail discussion where reporters are present and where ethics are discussed - more precisely, how much does the reporters' presence trigger violence and where should their moral commitment begin or end - John doesn't say a word, but passes on cocktails to the participants. Later on, watching a memorial report on Martin Luther King, who has been shot in April, he blankly states: "Jesus, I love to film."
John Cassellis is therefore an extension of his lens, just as his partner, sound-engineer Gus (Peter Bonerz), says he's an "extension of his recording-machine". The medias are here to relate objective facts and have no time, nor needs for human feelings. What paradoxically makes Cassellis a hateable character is precisely this neutrality, at a time where direct confrontation and political stance seem so important - blacks vs. whites, pacifists vs. the Vietnam war, women's rights movement surging, etc. John's attitude can be definitely assimilated to the big media corporations who use the term "neutrality" as a mask to influence and exploit the public for their own ends.
This aspect of the problematic is reinforced by Wexler's technique of blending real documentary footage with actors, on location. This is extremely efficient, because it places the spectator at an "impossible"angle, which is to see how reality is "filmed" within a work of "fiction". The moral problem that John Cassellis represents is therefore not a conceptualization of good an evil, but the incarnation of the moral debate itself. His self-distantiation from a moral judgement on the events he is filming lands the spectator on a larger esthetical/ethical intellectual battlefield. Is John's "badness" inherent to his job (or social determination), or is it inherent to his personality (i.e. to his attraction to violence, - we even learn later in the film that he has been an amateur boxing champion)? As we are tempted to say "a little of both,"we realize that the good guy/bad guy problematic has risen to another level - judgement becomes arduous.
All the more when John, learning that the footage he has filmed during previous demonstrations has been screened by the police and the FBI, becomes truly enraged. He feels betrayed and says he now understands why protesters attack TV film crews ("Because they know!" he yells at the female colleague who has broken the news to him). To complicate things even further, his desire to follow up on the Black cab driver harassed by the police suddenly turns him into a justice-seeking reporter, not a mere onlooker anymore. The fact that he is fired because of that only adds to his new nature.
John Cassellis should therefore, with our pre-set moral standards, suddenly appear to us like a saint, a predecessor of Woodward and Bernstein - but Haskell Wexler very cleverly avoids that easy Hollywoodian "redemption." Cassellis doesn't change character after these incidents - on the contrary, he remains the same. His humanity is shown with his (strange) love story with the God-fearing West-Virginian Ruth and his relationship to her son, but he still longs to film and is more than glad to accept the job of filming the Democratic Convention.
What John Cassellis is, in fact, is the moral ambiguity of journalism itself, or rather he asks himself the questions any real journalist should ask himself. His presence at the Democratic Convention, first, then in the midst of the riots places him on both sides of the same event - his personal life being somewhere at the very center of his professional life. The title of the movie itself becomes thus significant, inverting Mashall McLuhan's term on television, which he called "a cool medium." "Medium cool" becomes an ironic statement, to say the least.
Wexler's character is therefore quite an unusual character, more related to the two hippies of Easy Rider than to Dirty Harry in terms of ambiguity - although Cassellis's conservative look is closer to Dirty Harry's - , a bad guy who doesn't really turn good because he wasn't that bad at the start and doesn't even become that good in the end - and yet, the morals at stake (Civil Rights, Vietnam War, Democracy, etc.) seem to imply a clear moral standpoint. Cassellis is, in a way, a good guy who doesn't believe in "good-guyness" because the society in which he lives has blurred the notions. Ironically (or poetically), just as the only "good" people the Easy Rider characters encounter are a family of Deep-South farmers, the West-Virginian Ruth incarnates the possibility of simple love. But, just as in Easy Rider (once again), death lurks on the American roads and hicks have no respect for love, nor a different notion of freedom.
The tragic ending, however, does not solve our problem, as once again Haskell Wexler rejects the sanctification of his hero. John and Ruth die in a car accident, which is just that, an accident. There is no violence involved other than that of an exploding tire - no shots fired, no conspiracy, no human action. It is fate, just stupid fate. John Cassellis is thereby denied the final status of "Bad guy turned Saint" and remains locked forever in his ambiguity. When Haskell Wexler appears in the final sequence and turns his camera lens towards the audience, while the protesters chant "The whole world is watching you! The whole world is watching you!" in the background, the ambivalence is complete, letting the spectator be the only judge of himself, like Jean-Baptiste Clamence's interlocutor in Camus's The Fall.
Medium Cool, 1969
Director: Haskell Wexler
Running time: 110 minutes
Cast of characters:
John Cassellis: Robert Forster
Eileen: Verna Bloom
Harold: Harold Blankenship
Gus: Peter Bonerz
Ruth: Marianna Hill
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