Friday, March 24, 2017

Short Take: Medium Cool

Haskell Wexler, perhaps the greatest cinematographer in American movies, made his directorial debut in 1969 with Medium Cool. It's impossible not to respect the film. Wexler probably went further than any prior U. S. filmmaker in presenting fictional material in documentary terms. At times, as with the National Guard training drills near the beginning, or the famous scenes at the 1968 Democratic Convention near the end, it's hard to tell where the documentary aspects end and the fictional material begins. The verité surface is fresh (and Wexler's cinematography is characteristically terrific), but the film isn't very engaging as narrative. The screenplay, credited to Wexler, follows a Chicago news videographer (Robert Forster) and his assorted travails. A major emphasis is the tension between idealism and opportunism that are a daily part of his profession, especially the conflict between maintaining objective journalistic distance and involving oneself out of basic moral decency. But the film doesn't effectively render these issues in dramatic terms; one understands them intellectually far more than one feels anything is at stake. The French director Jean-Luc Godard, whose work the film superficially resembles, has generally avoided these pitfalls of an objective tone. He did so through a poetic use of irony and absurdism. The treatment here doesn't reflect that level of imagination. Wexler seems only fitfully interested in the issues he raises in any case. A good deal of the picture is taken up with the videographer's relationship with a young widow (Verna Bloom) and her son. This material is somewhat more immersive, partly due to melodramatic contrivance, and partly because of Bloom's expressiveness. She takes the viewer inside her character's reserve and her deep commitment to her child. As is typical of American filmmaking, emotional issues have far more impact and resonance than ethical ones. The soundtrack features music from Mike Bloomfield, Love, and the Mothers of Invention.