Haskell Wexler had already won the first of two cinematography Oscars (1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and '76's Bound for Glory) when he decided to return to the place of his birth, Chicago, and direct his first fiction feature, Medium Cool (1969). Written by Wexler, then 46, the counterculture classic remains a vibrant hybrid: characters (many of them non-actors) are put in the midst of real events, most famously the chaos of the '68 Democratic National Convention riots in Grant Park. Wexler himself was tear-gassed during filming.
Against that backdrop of social and political unrest, a hard-bitten television news cameraman pursues an Uptown Appalachian woman and awakens to a number of insights about the media, namely that the electronic eye dehumanizes its subjects, keeping TV producers and viewers at a dispassionate arm's length from the impact of the events captured. Speaking directly into Wexler's lens, an African-American activist schools the movie's cameraman, John Cassellis (Robert Forster)—and, in turn, the audience: "When you come in here and you say you've come to do something of human interest, it makes one wonder whether you're going to do something of interest to other humans or whether you consider the person human in whom you're interested."
Yesterday, the Criterion Collection released a restored 4K digital transfer of Medium Cool, along with extras including a commentary track from Wexler, excerpts from the documentary “Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real!” by historian Paul Cronin and "Medium Cool Revisited," a short film essay by Wexler comparing what he saw in '68 to the demonstrations during last year's NATO summit in Chicago.
We phoned the 91-year-old—whose cinematography résumé includes In the Heat of the Night and Days of Heaven—at his Los Angeles office to talk about the making of Medium Cool, his beloved hometown and how Studs Terkel became "Our Man in Chicago."
Before you made Medium Cool, you had established yourself as an in-demand Hollywood cinematographer. What made you want to break away and make an aggressively noncommercial film?
The reason I wrote the script for Medium Cool is because I was engaged with what was happening in the country that was not being reported in the regular media. Essentially, that centered around the Vietnam War and the fact that hippies and the so-called younger generation did not accept the status quo as what America should be all about.
In an interview before the film opened, you told Roger Ebert that you always wanted to make your first film in Chicago.
Yes. I had been away from my hometown for some time before we started shooting, so I spent a lot of time with Studs Terkel.
He is credited in Medium Cool as "Our Man in Chicago," a technical consultant. What did his role entail?
I couldn't have made the film without Studs Terkel. I had known him as a friend way back from high school. I acted in the Chicago Repertory Group that he was a director on. Through him, I was taken on an adventure into my own city that many Chicagoans didn't see being insulated by communities and money and suburbs. Studs's intimate knowledge of people and places in Chicago were people and places that were not necessarily in the Chicago Tribune, not on WGN—music and all the live arts that were part of Chicago. I also talked to Mayor Richard J. Daley, who knew my brother Jerrold, and he was able to offer us police force on our fist day of shooting. The police were there and nobody in the street would come out and talk to us. From then on, I said, "Look, I don't want cops around when I'm shooting."
Studs also brought you to Uptown and introduced you to the Appalachian residents. What intrigued you about that community?
I was interested in the Appalachian community because they were somewhat a forgotten people. As a documentarian, I had worked in the South during the Civil Rights movement and in Monteagle, Tennessee, with the Appalachian people. Casting one of the leads as an Appalachian woman came from understanding the Chicago educational system. She had been a teacher in the South, but her credentials were not acceptable in Chicago. When I interviewed the young boy in the film, he explained how Chicago schools would turn on a TV set and wouldn't spend hardly any time teaching, and I verified that fact. When we shot the film, I had Cassellis, the cameraman, ask the boy about school and about violence, so what he says is from his own experience. But the cameraman also knows about food stamps and so forth from being in the South. The relationship between the gathering of media and the reality of the Appalachians is integral in the script.
You scheduled filming around the '68 Democratic National Convention expecting drama.
I knew there would be demonstrations and that the police would suppress them. But I didn't build the story or the script around that. It just sort of unfolded before me. For example, the camera crew in the film capturing the National Guard training scenes featuring guardsmen with fake long hair pretending they're hippies and their National Guard colleagues launching pretend tear gas. You begin to see the ideas of theater are not just on my part but on the part of the government. And the media doesn't feed on content, they feed on the show. That's part of the story of Medium Cool.
You had riots written into the script. What made you sure there would be police-protester clashes?
I read a leaflet that the police had put out a month or so before the convention. In it, there was a list of new crowd-control weapons. One of the them was a gas that when fired at demonstrators caused them to lose control of their bowels. There was an asterisk in the book that said, "Use with caution as directional capabilities are not certain." [Laughs] I had written into the end of the script a bunch of cops shitting.
Medium Cool is often praised for its mix of fictional and nonfiction elements. Were you aware you were doing something out of the ordinary?
I was just doing what I knew how to do; I've made documentaries my whole life. Other people have done it: Peter Watkins' The War Game is a mixture of what is theatrical and what is real in exposing ideas of atomic war. I don't do things on the basis of "I'll be remembered as," because whatever I do I got it from other people. I have stuff from Jean-Luc Godard in Medium Cool; three or four places where we do what's called breaking the proscenium and having characters speaking directly to the camera.
During the DNC riot scene, someone in your crew yells the famous line, "Look out, Haskell; it's real!" Did you leave that in because it further blurs the line between the story and the real context?
I actually put that in [during post-production]. When all that super action was going on, we were shooting 35mm and there was no sound man there. I always felt impervious when looking through the camera, but all of us were in great physical danger. When my assistant, Jonathan Haze, saw the National Guard shooting tear gas at me, he gave me that warning. I'm not positive those were his exact words, but I remembered the feeling.
Do you still feel like a Chicagoan?
Absolutely. I feel like I'm on vacation out here! My parents were born in Chicago. I was born and grew up there. It gives me comfort to know that Elston and Milwaukee are diagonal streets. That sort of useless knowledge gives you some psychic security.