Medium Cool (1969)

X | 110 mins | Drama | 27 August 1969

Director:

Haskell Wexler

Writer:

Haskell Wexler

Cinematographer:

Haskell Wexler

Production Designer:

Leon Ericksen

Production Company:

H & J Pictures
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HISTORY

Documentary filmmaker and cinematographer Haskell Wexler initially set out to make Medium Cool as a screen adaptation of Jack Couffer’s as-yet-unpublished novel, The Concrete Wilderness. Wexler used his own money to finance the production, which marked his narrative motion picture writing and directing debut, as part of a “negative pickup deal” with Paramount Pictures, under which Paramount promised to pay him $600,000 for the finished film, as noted in a 6 Dec 1968 DV article. A 22 Mar 1967 DV item had previously stated that Buzz Kulik would produce and direct, from a screenplay written by Jack Couffer. Wexler’s script, which centered around a television news cameraman, strayed significantly from the source material and anticipated the incorporation of real-life events, including the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, IL. An article in the 10 Jul 2013 Chicago Reader noted of the adaptation, “The only vestige of Couffer’s novel was a subplot in which the cameraman, John Cassellis, gets involved with an Appalachian boy and his mother in Uptown.” In an interview published in the 28 Oct 1968 LAT, actor Peter Bonerz explained, “We had a script when we started and our intention was to fill the portions involving news events with actual news occasions.” Fortuitously, the filmmakers were present for the history-making demonstrations and ensuing riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Although Wexler claimed in a 7 Sep 1969 NYT interview that the script was completed four months before the convention was scheduled to take place, and that the violence could not have been predicted, there were plenty of indicators that a confrontation might ... More Less

Documentary filmmaker and cinematographer Haskell Wexler initially set out to make Medium Cool as a screen adaptation of Jack Couffer’s as-yet-unpublished novel, The Concrete Wilderness. Wexler used his own money to finance the production, which marked his narrative motion picture writing and directing debut, as part of a “negative pickup deal” with Paramount Pictures, under which Paramount promised to pay him $600,000 for the finished film, as noted in a 6 Dec 1968 DV article. A 22 Mar 1967 DV item had previously stated that Buzz Kulik would produce and direct, from a screenplay written by Jack Couffer. Wexler’s script, which centered around a television news cameraman, strayed significantly from the source material and anticipated the incorporation of real-life events, including the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, IL. An article in the 10 Jul 2013 Chicago Reader noted of the adaptation, “The only vestige of Couffer’s novel was a subplot in which the cameraman, John Cassellis, gets involved with an Appalachian boy and his mother in Uptown.” In an interview published in the 28 Oct 1968 LAT, actor Peter Bonerz explained, “We had a script when we started and our intention was to fill the portions involving news events with actual news occasions.” Fortuitously, the filmmakers were present for the history-making demonstrations and ensuing riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Although Wexler claimed in a 7 Sep 1969 NYT interview that the script was completed four months before the convention was scheduled to take place, and that the violence could not have been predicted, there were plenty of indicators that a confrontation might erupt between police and antiwar demonstrators. Wexler also alleged that he and his crew were surveilled by Chicago police, the U.S. Army, and the Secret Service for the seven-week period in which they shot there.
       Thirteen-year-old Harold Blankenship, who made his motion picture debut in Medium Cool, was discovered by Wexler in an Uptown neighborhood populated by poor Appalachian transplants. Blankenship’s parents had moved the family there in 1966 and were subsisting on welfare when the boy was cast, according to the Chicago Reader, which also noted that, a few years after filming, Blankenship was orphaned and subsequently moved back to his home state of West Virginia. An entire supblot based in Blankenship’s Uptown neighborhood was shot, but editorial consultant Paul Golding reportedly excised most of it. Deleted scenes were said to include a trip to Washington, D.C., in which real-life activist Peggy Terry and Verna Bloom’s character, “Eileen Horton,” visited “Resurrection City, a muddy tent camp erected on the National Mall by the Poor People’s Campaign.” Terry and Bloom also filmed a scene at an “Operation Breadbasket” gathering, where activist Jesse Jackson gave a speech.
       Principal photography began in Chicago on 29 Jul 1968, according to a Var production chart published on 18 Sep 1968. Mid-way through filming, the 26 Aug 1968 DV announced a title change from The Concrete Wilderness to Medium Cool, a term that echoed media theorist Marshall McLuhan’s description of television as a “cool medium,” as indicated in the 31 Aug 1969 NYT. In late Aug 1968, when riots erupted in Grant Park outside the Democratic National Convention, Wexler’s cast and crew blended in with the crowd as much as possible so that people around them were not aware that a movie was being filmed. Wexler, himself, was tear-gassed by National Guardsmen, as noted in the 6 Dec 1968 DV. Ironically, the filmmaker had made an agreement with the National Guard’s training division to provide them with roughly 1,000 feet of film for training purposes, according to the 13 Aug 1969 Var. Throughout production, Wexler claimed he was “constantly harassed by Chicago police and Mayor [Richard J.] Daley’s office.” Other than Grant Park and the International Amphitheatre, where the convention took place, Chicago locations included “a psychedelic discotheque, a roller derby, Chicago’s uptown Appalachian ghetto, Chi[cago]’s fast Expressway, and a gun clinic,” as stated in the 24 Jul 1969 DV review. Location shooting was also done in Kentucky and Minnesota.
       Wexler estimated his final expenditures on the production would amount to $800,000, which was $200,000 over the acquisition fee Paramount had promised, according to the 6 Dec 1968 DV. However, Wexler was also set to receive fifty-percent of the profits. According to the deal, Paramount retained the right to “re-edit and add or delete from Wexler’s cut” before releasing the picture.
       A 2 Jul 1969 Var brief announced that Medium Cool had received an X-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), due to vulgar language and a love scene showing male and female frontal nudity. An article in the 16 Jul 1969 Var noted that the film contained “liberal use of the most common fourletter word for fornication, as well as the common fiveletter word for the male sexual organ.” The words alluded to were said to “represent the last language barrier” for major studio films, after the recent normalization of “the common euphemisms for urine and defecation” that had been taboo only eighteen months before when heard in the film version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1967, see entry). The article also pointed out that Medium Cool was “the first major-company American film to contain below-the-waist nudity.”
       Critical reception was mixed. However, the picture came to be known as one of the “new American statement films,” as noted in the 21 Sep 1969 LAT review, which deemed it more provocative and important than recent releases like Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider (1969, see entries). The 28 Aug 1969 NYT review likened it to “a kind of cinematic ‘Guernica,’ a picture of America in the process of exploding into fragmented bits of hostility, suspicion, fear and violence.” It fared well commercially, grossing $1 million in film rentals in the first four months of release, the 7 Jan 1970 Var reported.
       As announced in the 15 Jan 1970 LAT, Wexler was one of ten nominees for a Directors Guild of America (DGA) award for Best Direction of Motion Pictures for the year 1969. In 2003, the historical significance of Medium Cool was acknowledged when it was added to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

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SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Chicago Reader
10 Jul 2013.
---
Daily Variety
22 Mar 1967
p. 1.
Daily Variety
19 Jun 1968
p. 1.
Daily Variety
7 Aug 1968
p. 3.
Daily Variety
26 Aug 1968
p. 3.
Daily Variety
6 Dec 1968
p. 1, 6.
Daily Variety
24 Jul 1969
p. 3, 5.
Los Angeles Times
28 Oct 1968
Section F, p. 21.
Los Angeles Times
6 Sep 1969
Section A, p. 7.
Los Angeles Times
18 Sep 1969
Section D, p. 16.
Los Angeles Times
21 Sep 1969
Section U, p. 1, 22, 26.
Los Angeles Times
15 Jan 1970
Section E, p. 8.
New York Times
28 Aug 1969
p. 46.
New York Times
31 Aug 1969
Section D, p. 1, 35.
New York Times
7 Sep 1969
Section D, p. 19.
Variety
18 Sep 1968
p. 24.
Variety
2 Jul 1969
p. 15.
Variety
16 Jul 1969
p. 1, 75.
Variety
13 Aug 1969
p. 6.
Variety
7 Jan 1970
p. 15.
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Exec prod
Assoc prod
WRITER
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
Cam asst
Asst cam
ART DIRECTOR
Art dir
FILM EDITORS
Film ed
Film ed
Ed consultant
MUSIC
Mus score
Incidental mus
SOUND
Sd mix
Sd ed
PRODUCTION MISC
Prod asst
Asst to the prod
Scr supv
Chicago cons
Gaffer
Titles
SOURCES
LITERARY
Suggested by the novel The Concrete Wilderness by Jack Couffer (New York, 1967).
AUTHOR
SONGS
"Merry-Go-Round," words and music by Wild Man Fisher.
COMPOSER
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
The Concrete Wilderness
Release Date:
27 August 1969
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 27 August 1969
Los Angeles opening: 24 September 1969
Production Date:
began 29 July 1968
Copyright Claimant:
H & J Pictures
Copyright Date:
4 August 1969
Copyright Number:
LP37075
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Technicolor
Duration(in mins):
110
MPAA Rating:
X
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
22150
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

John Cassellis, a news cameraman for a Chicago television station, and his soundman, Gus, cover a wide spectrum of events, including the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Resurrection City in Washington, D. C. John's attitude is cool and dispassionate; he films the victim of a car crash before calling an ambulance and encounters hostility and accusations of social irresponsibility when covering a human interest story in a black neighborhood. He has a run-in with thirteen-year-old Harold Horton, whom he suspects of breaking into his car. Fleeing the parking lot, Harold drops a carrying case containing a pet pigeon. Once John realizes that the boy was not trying to rob him, he returns the case to the slum tenement where Harold lives with his mother, Eileen, a welfare recipient who moved from her West Virginia home when her husband was sent to Vietnam. Meanwhile, tension mounts in the city: war protestors plan to demonstrate during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and Chicago's police force and the Illinois National Guard prepare for a confrontation. Criticized by his superiors for shooting too much film and outraged at his television station's surrender of his footage to the FBI, John creates a row and is fired. During this period of inactivity, he devotes most of his time to Eileen and Harold, thereby ending his long affair with Ruth, a nurse. As the political convention begins, John gets a freelance assignment to cover the event. On the eve of the first session at the International Amphitheatre, Harold becomes so upset at seeing his mother and John embracing that he runs away from home. Eileen searches for him in Grant Park and is caught in a ... +


John Cassellis, a news cameraman for a Chicago television station, and his soundman, Gus, cover a wide spectrum of events, including the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Resurrection City in Washington, D. C. John's attitude is cool and dispassionate; he films the victim of a car crash before calling an ambulance and encounters hostility and accusations of social irresponsibility when covering a human interest story in a black neighborhood. He has a run-in with thirteen-year-old Harold Horton, whom he suspects of breaking into his car. Fleeing the parking lot, Harold drops a carrying case containing a pet pigeon. Once John realizes that the boy was not trying to rob him, he returns the case to the slum tenement where Harold lives with his mother, Eileen, a welfare recipient who moved from her West Virginia home when her husband was sent to Vietnam. Meanwhile, tension mounts in the city: war protestors plan to demonstrate during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and Chicago's police force and the Illinois National Guard prepare for a confrontation. Criticized by his superiors for shooting too much film and outraged at his television station's surrender of his footage to the FBI, John creates a row and is fired. During this period of inactivity, he devotes most of his time to Eileen and Harold, thereby ending his long affair with Ruth, a nurse. As the political convention begins, John gets a freelance assignment to cover the event. On the eve of the first session at the International Amphitheatre, Harold becomes so upset at seeing his mother and John embracing that he runs away from home. Eileen searches for him in Grant Park and is caught in a violent clash between demonstrators and police. Finding her in the midst of armed National Guardsmen and exploding tear gas bombs, John takes her to his car and drives her around the city, unaware that Harold has returned home. Distracted by the day's events, John loses control of the car and smashes into a tree, killing Eileen and seriously injuring himself. A passing motorist stops for a moment to photograph the accident and then drives on. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.