The Film (4/5)
It's cliche at this point to say that the 60's were a time of great social upheaval, but it's a statement that simply cannot be argued. Great art has always reflected the social climate of the times in which it was created, and cinema has probably become the greatest art form of our time to reflect modern social concerns to a mass audience. The filmmakers in the 60’s and 70’s seemed to pride themselves with infusing their work political and social subtext, probably more so than any other era in filming history. Medium Cool, the debut feature from cinematographer turned director Haskell Wexler could possibly be one of the most powerful American cinematic statements of the late 60’s.
Haskell Wexler until making Medium Cool was primarily known as a cinematographer, and documentary filmmaker. He continued primarily working as both after Medium Cool, but with this feature he seamlessly blends the documentaries he was primarily known for with a feature film premise to create a truly unique film experience that manages to entertain, yet manages to convey a strong social message in it's running time.
The political and visual influence of the film appears to come straight from the French New Wave specifically from the later 60's work of Jean-Luc Godard who after his initial foray into genre busting film making took a quasi-political turn in the late 60's with films like Weekend and La Chinoise. However, while the influence in Medium Cool certainly is apparent it is certainly tempered down from Godard's more extreme work.
Wexler in Medium Cool, for example allows the films scenario and atmosphere enough time and space to gradually allow it’s message out, and let the viewer decide if he/she wants to read into it or not. This is in contrast to Godard's films where Godard is almost using the medium to directly speak to the viewer. In those Godard pictures there is not much in the way of subtext, as the political message is about as blunt as a sledgehammer to the face. I will state that the latter portions of Medium Cool burn with an intensity so strongly, that any shot of missing Wexler’s subtext is nil, but it never does feel like preaching.
Medium Cool follows John Cassellis a TV cameraman who believes in the power of his medium to help invoke social change. He works during the day in and around the streets of Chicago shooting footage for a local TV station capturing footage of the changing world around him.
In his downtime he pursues women, and one of these ladies is Eileen a recent transplant to Chicago from West Virginia. She is a single mom with a son, Harold. John takes to this Mother and Son, but while Eileen takes to John, Harold rejects John so much so that when he catches John kissing his Mother the first time he runs away for a full night into the streets of Chicago, and into the riots surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Wexler creates a film with a near perfect balance of intense moments such as those at the DNC, and quieter moments like those between John and Eileen. It would be a hard balance for any filmmaker to maintain, but Wexler does so with style, and neither side to the story ever feels forced. It certainly helps that the performances from Robert Forster as John and Verna Bloom as Eileen are so multi-faceted and deep, and allows the pair to create characters that are truly three dimensional to fit into a film that and a world that is changing around them.
Medium Cool comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Criterion in a near impeccable 1:85:1 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer preversing the films original aspect ratio. This is an exciting and beautiful transfer from those awesome cats at Criterion. Medium Cool has a very natural, organic looking transfer with plenty of nice textures, film grain, and fine detail. The colors are extremely strong, blacks are solid, and flesh tones are accurate.
Criterion have provided Medium Cool with a very solid LPCM 1.0 Mono track. The dialogue, music, and FX all come through clean and clear. I did not detect any instances of pops, cracks, or hissing on the track.
Criterion have loaded up their release of Medium Cool with a whole slew of extras. The disc kicks off with a 54 minute documentary called Look Out Haskell It's Real that interviews the cast and crew of Medium Cool about various aspects of the production. There is also a 15 minute interview with Haskell Wexler pertaining to Medium Cool. This is followed up with a 2007 interview with Harold Blankenship who played Harold in Medium Cool, this runs about 16 minutes in length. There is also the 34 minute documentary Medium Cool: Revisited where Wexler revisits the Chicago of Medium Cool in 2012 and interviews members of the Occupy movement. There are 2 commentary tracks one with Haskell Wexler, Paul Golding, and Marianna Hill, and another with film historian Paul Cronin. The disc is rounded off by the films theatrical trailer. There is a booklet of liner notes included.
Medium Cool is a very exiting film that blends the cinema verite documentary style with narrative feature film devices. The result is something unique, intense, and political. The A/V restoration from Criterion is amazing, and the extras are elaborate and engaging. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.