My review of The Double Life of Veronique from oldkid's Top 100 month: https://benefitsofaclassicaleducation.wordpress.com/2018/03/01/back-catalog-review-the-double-life-of-veronique/
Medium Cool (review with pics and links here: https://benefitsofaclassicaleducation.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/back-catalog-review-medium-cool/
Those of you who have read more than one thing I’ve written or talked to me for over an hour probably know that Fanny and Alexander is my favorite movie of all time. You may also know that last year I wrote my Master’s Thesis on it (you can read the whole thing here, if you’ve got the time and the inclination), in which I talked about how Bergman sets up storytelling as a way to counter fascist (or authoritarian) narratives. I’m pretty proud of it, and it served as my launching point for my soon-to-begin Ph.D. studies in oppositional storytelling. I began to seek out other works (books, movies, essays) that could potentially become subjects of my dissertation. Medium Cool was one such film. My instincts, in this case, were pretty good too. When I watched Haskell Wexler’s half-drama half-documentary last night, I was stunned at not only how interesting it was in terms of the oppositional storytelling I was exploring, but also how beautiful and moving the film was.
In a supplement included on the Criterion Blu Ray of Medium Cool, Wexler complains that he doesn’t really know what the title of the movie means. He knows that it’s related to Marshall McLuhan’s seminal work of media studies where he outlines the difference between hot media (immersive, kinda) and cool media (those that require a little more audience interaction to put together), but Wexler confesses that he doesn’t quite understand what it’s all supposed to mean in relationship to his film. Movies are generally considered “hot” media because one usually needs only what the film gives you to understand what’s happening, and it often doesn’t take much to put together the meaning(s) of a film. Perhaps, then, Medium Cool is Wexler’s attempt to make movies a little more interactive, to bring the audience (and the people who make the films) a little closer to the subjects of those films, and to obscure, ever so slightly, the full ideas in his film so that audiences can find meanings of their own.
That isn’t to say, though, that Medium Cool is an abstract bit of filmmaking. In fact, you could find in it a very conventional story or two, one about a man and his job, the other about a boy’s summer experiences. However, as all good movie watchers know, it’s not what the story is but how it’s told that counts. Here Wexler uses these basic plots to create a movie about violence, the media, social upheaval, poverty, and police. If the movie wasn’t so clearly set in 1968 (the amazing conclusion takes place during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the resultant demonstrations that rocked the city and the country), you might think it was a movie that came out last year. Robert Forster is a news cameraman and he eventually falls for Verna Bloom’s West Virginian woman who used to be a teacher and now works for the phone company. Her son, played by Harold Blankenship, is constantly dirty, and he’s got a certain fascination with pigeons. The pigeons come from Blankenship’s real-life interest in the birds, but it also ties the movie to a history of progressive films via On The Waterfront. You get the feeling that Harold (both the actor and the character’s name) frees his pigeons because he can’t free himself from the living conditions and educational mire that he’s stuck in. When Forster lets Harold take a shower in his apartment, the look on the young boy’s face is one of joy and discovery.
Forster, too, discovers much in the course of the film. The movie starts with him jumping out of a news station wagon to film a car crash on the highway. After he gets his footage, he calls the accident in to the police. Forster, at the beginning of the movie, is a few steps away from what we see in something like Nightcrawler. But soon his eye turns towards things that don’t get much air-time, what he calls “human interest” stories but are really investigations into good people within the poor black neighborhoods of Chicago, including one man who returns ten thousand dollars and is interrogated by the police for his good deed. When Forster goes into the man’s apartment, he finds a group of black men and women who question his intentions and then deliver monologues to the camera about their experiences and grievances against his profession. It’s a powerful bit of oppositional storytelling, and it shakes Forster out of his placidity. But he soon finds that his bosses still don’t care about what’s happening unless it falls within several categories.
Medium Cool is an indictment of the news media and the traditional power structures that ignored the discontent that was roiling under the surface of a typical election cycle. It asks us to consider who gets to control the stories that the country focuses on, and what they get out of ignoring certain populations (Harold and his mom could be called “economically anxious” in today’s parlance, but the movie views them with compassion and understanding that a thousand New York Times sit-downs with Trump voters never could). It involves its audience in this pattern of neglect and then shows what happens when the neglected do something to change the conversation. Medium Cool is a movie so connected to its historical moment that it works both as a document of that time and as a reminder that our modern problems aren’t so new. Now, where’s today’s Medium Cool?