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The medium is the movie

By PETER KEOUGH  |  March 5, 2008

A decade and a half later, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966) provided another cinematic conceit for ontological futility. A photographer spots an anomaly in one of his prints. Like Kennedy-assassination conspiracy theorists probing a shot of the Grassy Knoll, he enlarges it again and again until the grains of light and darkness seem to form the figure of a corpse. He tries to confirm the evidence of his medium with proof from the real world, but human treachery, and perhaps the nature of existence itself, conspires to foil him and leave him in the state of quasi-hallucination — the post-modern human condition.

The dilemma in Blowup was solipsistic; reality can’t be perceived, not because the medium failed, but because all experience is fundamentally subjective. In Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), the dilemma appears to be systemic; we don’t get the truth because the Man is fucking us over. At first, the protagonist, a TV cameraman, seems to be the model of objective journalism demanded by the then-vital cinema verité movement practiced, to a fault, by Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker. The film opens as he and his soundman coldly record a still-breathing accident victim and then, almost as an afterthought, call for an ambulance.

Human feelings and insidious politics, however, complicate the cameraman’s ideals. He learns that the station he works for has handed over his film to an FBI investigation. But his outrage over this palls before the collective anger surging from the 1968 Democratic National Convention, which he is covering. The real Democratic National Convention, that is — Wexler shot his film in the midst of the actual events. The bloody clashes between police and demonstrators in the streets — broadcast live across the country on TV — cooperated with Wexler’s script to create one of the more amazing achievements in American cinema.

Medium Cool explores such issues as the conflicts between power and truth, responsibility and exploitation in the TV-news medium. (The title refers to McLuhan’s categorization of television as a “cool” medium, that is, one that is “high in participation . . . by the audience” — a notion that might puzzle the parents of children hypnotized in front of the tube.) It can serve on one level as a rallying cry against the monopoly of media by the establishment.

But in the end, Medium Cool falls into the same navel-gazing trap that ensnared Blowup. What most people remember about the film is the line “Look out, Haskell, it’s real!” overheard as Wexler films a National Guardsman discharging a tear-gas canister in his direction. (Ironically, the line was added to the film during editing, compounding the murky interrelation of fiction and reality.) People also remember the concluding sequence, an inversion of its opening, and the infamous final shot that holds a mirror, or rather a camera, up to the artifice.

As the credits roll, the demonstrators chant on the soundtrack, “The whole world is watching!” But watching what?

Rashomon to judgment
Medium Cool left documentarians with a mixed legacy: is the camera a tool for liberation or a mirror of the filmmaker’s subjectivity? But some of what Wexler left behind proved to be of great practical value for at least one filmmaker. Cinema verité filmmaker that he was, Wexler shot reels of footage of the chaotic events in Chicago, an archival boon 40 years later to Brett Morgen when he made Chicago 10 (2008), his documentary about the 1968 demonstrations and the equally dramatic show trial of the activist leaders that followed.

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  Topics: Features , Entertainment, Michael Haneke, Marshall McLuhan,  More more >
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