Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Thomas Beard -- Medium Cool: Preserving Disorder; Haskel Wexler on Medium Cool

Medium Cool: Preserving Disorder
By Thomas Beard

“For me, as an ethnographer and filmmaker,” Jean Rouch once remarked, “there is almost no boundary between documentary film and films of fiction. The cinema, the art of the double, is already the transition from the real world to the imaginary world, and ethnography, the science of the thought systems of others, is a permanent crossing point from one conceptual universe to another; acrobatic gymnastics, where losing one’s footing is the least of the risks.” Through works like Jaguar (1967), which concerns the migration of three young men from rural Niger to the urban centers of Ghana, Rouch advanced a hybrid form by foregrounding the elements of self-dramatization inherent in ethnography. His predecessor Robert Flaherty put the paradox more bluntly: “Sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.” It’s notable that one of documentary cinema’s most iconic sequences, when the hero of Nanook of the North (1922) hunts a walrus, was an entirely staged affair, the protagonist armed with a harpoon even though the Inuit had by then replaced such weapons with rifles. Indeed, one could trace a compelling history of documentary film form by focusing on its relationship to fiction.

The beginnings of this genre, such as it is, can be found even in cinema’s earli­est moments, long before the current usage of documentary was intro­duced by John Grierson in the 1920s. Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 Life of an American Fireman, for instance, signaled new possibilities in film narrative with its shrewd, relatively seamless intercutting of documentary “topicals” with scripted scenes. In the 1930s, Luis Buñuel would derange the still-nascent conven­tions of nonfiction filmmaking with Land Without Bread, a surrealist riff on ethnography that imaginatively distorts the film’s supposed object of inquiry, the impoverished Las Hurdes region of Spain. Much later, Lionel Rogosin achieved the flophouse realism of On the Bowery (1956) by engaging his subjects in loosely improvised scenarios and combining that material with footage recorded on hidden cameras. But it would be the advent of portable sync sound for 16 mm shortly thereafter that ushered in the most significant strains of this richly variegated tendency within independent cinema. The new tech­nology granted an unprecedented agility to the observational style of nonfiction filmmakers, forever altering the popular understanding of documentary’s look, its feel, its claims to truth. And just as cinema verité became ascendant as a technique, figures like Jim McBride, Peter Watkins, and many others would cannily deploy its style in the service of fiction.

A crucial entry in this peculiar canon is Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), a quasi-scripted narrative played out against the backdrop of the actual 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the tumult surrounding that event. The film revolves around John (Robert Forster), a television news cameraman who has become disenchanted with his profession, and Eileen (Verna Bloom), a young war widow from West Virginia who has just moved to the city with her son. Both, to their surprise, become embroiled in the political swirl of the moment—he is furious to discover that the film he shoots for work is regularly handed over to the police and FBI for inspection, and she finds herself suddenly in the midst of a very real protest that’s met with a very violent response from the Chicago police. Medium Cool is a film remarkable for its insistence that no one exists outside of politics, whether one experiences it as a backdrop to daily life (a wrinkled Bobby Kennedy poster in a cramped apartment) or as a nightstick to the gut.

The unusual strategies of Medium Cool can be partially explained by a perusal of Wexler’s expansive filmography. On the one hand, he’s regarded as among the most influential cinematographers of his generation, having lensed the dinner-party-as-blood-sport theatrics of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), the Vietnam vet love triangle of Hal Ashby’s Coming Home (1978), and the miner strike saga of John Sayles’s Matewan (1987), to name only a few. On the other hand, he has a long-standing commitment to political documentary. Before making Medium Cool, Wexler traveled with a San Francisco delegation to the March on Washington for his first nonfiction feature, The Bus (1965), and his next documentary project was the powerful witnessing of Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971), one of several films he codirected with Saul Landau. He was also responsible for filming the interviews with soldiers in Interviews with My Lai Veterans (1971) and the interviews with Weather Underground radicals in Underground (1976). Wexler has had a kind of double life as an artist, known both for his poetic reportage and for his role as a studio craftsman, and his bifurcated career is mirrored in the dual nature of Medium Cool. The collision of Hollywood and global politics would also be particularly dramatic in Introduction to the Enemy (1974), a film he made with Tom Hayden and movie star turned activist Jane Fonda that documented their trip to Hanoi and the liberated Qung Tr province.

“When I was in Vietnam with Jane Fonda,” Wexler has recalled, “I was filming a farmer walking through a field when, all of a sudden, he stepped on a land mine. Two Vietnamese guys ran out there to help him, and I ran after them to shoot the scene of them bringing this guy in, his legs all bloody. The whole time, I had two overwhelming feelings. One was ‘I got a great shot!’ and the other was to put my camera down and help the farmer. In the end, I carried on filming, even though I couldn’t even see what I was shooting because I was crying so hard. I have thought about that moment many times, about the question of when you have to put the camera down, when to stop observing and get involved.” These issues were already on Wexler’s mind during the production of Medium Cool, and they resonate deeply with the film’s central questions: When one is tasked with representing a subject, what kinds of obligations does one have to that subject? When is intervention appropriate, even necessary? Such ethical prompts are immediately apparent in the film’s opening scene, which features John hunched over the body of a barely living car crash victim, filming her for the evening news. His soundman, frustrated by the horn blaring from the wrecked vehicle, cuts it so as to better record the woman’s last gasps. Money shot in the can, the two men walk away and pack up their equipment. John makes a blithe suggestion: “Better call an ambulance.”

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