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NEWSMEN, especially press photographers, have this absurd fascination with being on the scene of a great news event. They begin to be interested in only those things that fit the press's arbitrary formula for "news." They can't help themselves. If anything is going to happen, they want to be there to record it; but it has to be something they expect, or have seen before. so they know its importance when it starts happening.
I met this girl in San Francisco this summer who was a free-lance news photographer. I had been a free-lance photog in Boston one summer and had even made money off of it. We compared notes on edging out the other photographers at the secne of the news and beating them out in getting your pictures down to AP first. We went to the big demonstration downtown when Nixon was there and ran into a lot of Secret Service men. and photographers who all came smiling up to her and joked and stood around for hours. She later explained why they were all creeps and how you could always find them at these scenes.
That is what kind of a man the cameraman in Medium Cool is supposed to be. A man whose mind is completely in the hands of the film he shoots-a man who lives the values of the medium. If anything, the cameraman, Robert Forster, isn't an entirely believable character. He's not enough of a creep and too much of an existential hero. His truthful search to break free from the illusions of his medium don't seem natural to him, and he's also an unbelievable stud. Your real-life cameraman is an amazing turkey.
Forster gets three beautiful girls in the course of the film, including one long run-around-the-apartment. hand-held-camera, both-of-them-completely-nude ("This picture is rated X") scenc. Haskell Wexler's (the producer and director) point must be that Forster's life is all highlights the way his work is. But that isn't very belivable either.
On the other hand, Wexler wanted his movie to be a statement about media rather than personalities. And he does maintain throughout the film an impressive feeling for the kind of electric coldness that media fascination always leaves with us.
The movie's title refers to McLuhan's theory that television is a cool medium. or one in which the viewer participates with the picture and fills in, on his own, much of what he experiences. This kind of filling-in is supposed to give the viewer a false sense of what really happened at the so-called news event. Therefore television reporting is largely a lie. But because Wexler never goes into the viewer end of media (McLuhan's work). his point isn't particularly profound. We all know that TV newsmen fudge reality to the point where every night's news looks the same no matter what's happening.
Some of Wexler's techniques are a drag for his own medium of film. In one of the opening scenes he has his ideas about news coverage batted around in a cocktail party. A real bad gimmick. When the characters speak, they are making statements to the audience of the movie not to each other. A film should always make sense within itself.
In fact, throughout the whole movie the cameraman is dropping these little scene-ending. one-line bombs. There's a scene in Washington at Bobby Kennedy's funeral. Cameraman says it was really easy for all them to set up and get ready for this one because they had practice in '63.
The characters seem to wander through the scenes to allow Wexler to use them nearly as the agents that tie together everything that he really wants to say. And he gets all the big news in there like a true news photographer creep. Kennedy's assassination, King's assassination, Tent City, the Black revolutionaries, the Appalachian ghetto, and finally the police riots in Chicago at the convention. Wexler wants his message to be not just a theortical fiction, but a fiction for a specific reality that we all know about and recognize. And his own documentary footage of Chicago Police brutality and his shots of the girl that were actually taken in the midst of the tanks and the rioting are quite fantastic.
Ultimately the film is weak because of the very faults of the cool medium that Wexler wants to criticize. Film is supposed to be a hot medium. McLuhan tells us; that is it's a total experience. Medium Cool is less than a total experience: we can really feel the editing, the presence of the director, and the techniques he's using. It's full of dialogue hanging over from a just finished scene or anticipating one to come, and overly arty shots of the boots in the mud of Tent City-all used without much purpose. And, like the TV news, we feel we're seeing snipets of possibly limitless footage about what the cameraman's whole life is like.
The main trouble is that Wexler expects the events to tell us that media lie rather than expressing it through the humanity of his characters. To have a boy love pigeons and dream of the old golden fields of West Virginia is a filmmaker's cliche of true human value. Wexler is clearly less at home with people than with the news events, himself. With this in mind, it's easy to understand why he arbitrarily ended the story of his characters with violence, and then turned the camera on his own movie crew before he cut out.
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