Writer-director-cameraman Haskell Wexler’s groundbreaking quasi-documentary captures the mood of a nation at high anxiety — a nation increasingly ruptured over an unpopular war and a seemingly radical counter culture that was bleeding into the mainstream. It’s hard to envision, 44 years after its release, the impact Medium Cool had on its audience; a live performance from Frank Zappa’s largely unknown Mothers of Invention is but one of its subversive qualities. Initially given an X rating for its language and nudity, the MPAA was probably more troubled by the film’s portrait of a city on the edge of political and social chaos and of a mainstream television news culture that was often happy to align itself with the powers that be.
Shot verite-style on location in Chicago, Medium Cool is an uneasy meld of documentary and fiction, a viscerally illuminating document of its day. Originally conceived as a narrative film about a mother (Verna Bloom) and son (Howard Blankenship) who move to a big-city slum from rural West Virginia, Wexler changed course when he realized he could use the now-infamous, violence-riddled 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago as a backdrop. He would add a jaded television news cameraman (Robert Forster) whose life becomes unexpectedly intertwined with the mother and son, as well as multiple sequences borne via Wexler’s own experiences as a dedicated political rabble-rouser and documentary cameraman — instances of “real” life intruding on the creative process.
Echoes of Godard abound in Medium Cool, but its picturesque beauty is pure Wexler, who was then already an accomplished cinematographer. Criterion’s Blu-ray edition includes a pair of context-enhancing audio commentaries; excerpts from a documentary about the making of Medium Cool; excerpts from a documentary about Blankenship, a non-actor Wexler found in a real Chicago slum; and, fittingly, Wexler’s new half-hour doc about the Occupy movement’s protests against the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago.