At a time when social and political upheaval were grappling with the American Dream and its people, Medium Cool lingers on topics that, even now, are red with controversy. It is not the direction, writing or photography from Haskell Wexler that will stick in the mind of audience members, but his generalised topics and how he wishes to showcase them. A fictional grappling of cinéma vérité, journalists are shown talking over one another, under the guise of coming to an agreement. They say the same as one another, but the louder voice attempts to prevail. “All good people deplore problems at a distance” says one, but the men and women who speak of this are those that get up close to the horrors the average, functional member of society shies away from.
They give horrid examples that could easily slot into the fabric of reality. Their point is not to be wound up in the specifics, but to engage with the ethics of reporting riots, murders and death. Morbid topics that dominate broadsheets. At what point does a journalist themself become a part of cinéma vérité? “Look out Haskell, it’s real” a disembodied voice warns the director as he captures footage of tear gas and protestors. It is hard to discern whether its inclusion is an intentional relay of danger or an accidental cut that the director thought provided that vérité realism.
Where does the line between observation and reporting fall? Crucially, though, where in society today does Medium Cool found itself in relevancy? A scene where a crowd can be heard chanting “We want Bobby”, relating to Bobby Kennedy, the camera scanning a back room filled with those such social change could help. It is their silence that notes not their defeat, but their lack of care, for they know it will change nothing. Take a look at the politics of today, and how little has changed.
Opening shots depict reporters simply doing their job, one of them the hardened John Cassellis (Robert Forster). To someone with a background in journalism or an understanding of how these stories work, Medium Cool presents the distant, unaffected professionalism reporters have. Sidestepping a deceased woman, looking for the best angle for their coverage, rather than encountering any moral twinge or desire to notify help. Nightcrawler explores this in looming detail, but the cold efforts of the reporters looking to crack a story are far more striking and interesting. They barely say a word to one another, they find themselves at home with procedure. Many journalists do, and that may be why the public find their presence off-putting or hard to understand as genuine. When they show no emotion to sights they often see, it is hard to engage with the horror. They are numbed to it because they encounter it so often. Their interest in the events they cover are inconsequential. To be emotionally involved is to show bias to the news, and to do that would be seen as an act of shifting morality in the eyes of both opposition and allies.
“We shall overcome / someday” the protestors sing. Their cries and the harassment they receive from a group distinctly similar to the national guard still fall upon deaf ears. Medium Cool will often have modern-day parallels, not because of how broad its scope is, but because of Wexler’s perception of the social state of America. Wexler paints with comprehensive, wide strokes. His stories and characters are not solidified or connected to the protests or journalism that opens the story, and the just desserts Cassellis eventually receives is of minimal impact. He is depicted as a ghoul, the man that goes to scenes of tragic accidents and does nothing more than coldly examine the scene for his story. How would he like it if he were the examined, rather than the examiner, Medium Cool asks? It does not deliver a fulfilling answer.