Medium Cool Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
The year of 1968 was a tumultuous one: Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis; Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles; police incited riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. And the whole world was watching.
MEDIUM COOL is about many things: racial and social tensions, the zeitgeist of ‘60s America, the moral dilemmas and role of journalists…It’s a film that asks many questions, like, What does “human interest” really mean?, Is a reporter “out there to get blood and gusts” or are they simply there to record?, When is a journalist—if ever—supposed to interfere? At times, we get blurred answers: the first scene has John and his soundman, Gus (Peter Bonerz, who would later play Dr. Jerry Robinson on THE BOB NEWHART SHOW), at the scene of an accident capturing all of the video and audio they need for a news piece before they call for help.
The main character is John Cassellis (Robert Forster, THE STALKING MOON and later Quentin Tarantino’s JACKIE BROWN), a television cameraman at odds with the station he works for. One of the major plotlines is his involvement with a single woman named Ruth (Verna Bloom, who would later play Mary in Martin Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST), who has a young son named Harold (Harold Blankenship). It’s their bond that poses at least some sort of stability in the country.
We are surrounded by violence. When a woman suggests she and John take in a movie, they wind up at a roller derby game, which is as good of a place as any to have fun. But then a fight breaks out and the crowd starts to cheer it on. Hexler cuts to the two making love, perhaps to suggest that Americans get off on the violence they encounter and that, in a way, sex and violence coincide. There is another moment with the two, where they chase each other around an apartment naked, which ends on a shot of Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Nguyễn Văn Lém’s execution.
MEDIUM COOL is directed by Haskell Wexler, who is better known as a cinematographer, having photographed films for such men as Elia Kazan (AMERICA, AMERICA, 1963), Mike Nichols (WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, 1966), Hal Ashby (BOUND FOR FLORY, 1973), Milos Forman (ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, 1975), and Terrence Malick (DAYS OF HEAVEN, 1978). (He won Oscars for VIRGINIA WOOLF and BOUND FOR GLORY.)
Wexler captures the era, filled with what the credits list as “black militants,” “Kennedy students” and “media people,” in a way no other director has. By blending in actual footage of demonstration practices (which lends to the cinéma vérité style), Wexler goes into the heart, allowing the viewer, like the cast and crew, to both observe and become a part of the scene. At the time of its 1969 release, MEDIUM COOL was given an X rating from the MPAA, which Hexler called “political.” It was and is essential viewing, as relevant and thought-provoking today as it was nearly 45 years ago.
MEDIUM COOL BLU-RAY REVIEW
Video: 1.85:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. Approved by Haskell Wexler, this high-definition transfer was “created in 4K resolution” and presents MEDIUM COOL with complete authenticity, simultaneously sprucing up the video and maintaining the necessary grain. Those who have seen Paramount’s DVD from 2001 will immediately note that the picture has been cleaned up considerably and now boasts incredible detail and clarity throughout.
Audio: English Mono. The audio is also a major improvement from the DVD, with clean dialogue and appropriate balance in the more chaotic scenes.
Audio commentary featuring Haskell Wexler, Paul Golding and Marianna Hill: In this commentary from 2001, director Wexler, editor Golding and actress Hill sit down to discuss the making of MEDIUM COOL, touching on a variety of topics, including locations, filming in the midst of actual tension and more.
Audio commentary featuring Paul Cronin: In this new commentary, film historian Cronin, who directed LOOK OUT HASKELL, IT’S REAL!, offers an academic view of the context and content of MEDIUM COOL.
Haskell Wexler (14:52): In this interview, Wexler discusses MEDIUM COOL and the state of the nation at the time.
“LOOK OUT HASKELL, IT’S REAL!” (53:10): Here, extended excerpts from Cronin’s 2001 documentary paint a portrait of MEDIUM COOL’s production, style, influences, themes, and more. Interviewees include with Wexler, Verne Bloom, Peter Bonerz, Robert Forster, and writer Studs Terkel.
Harold Blankenship (15:50) includes excerpts from Cronin’s documentary SOONER OR LATER, which traced the life of Blankenship, who played Verna Bloom’s son in MEDIUM COOL.
MEDIUM COOL Revisited (33:16): Wexler returns to Chicago, this time to document the 2012 protests against the NATO summit.
Also included is a 16-page booklet featuring an essay by film critic and programmer Thomas Beard.