Welcome to “Back-Filling,” a (semi) regular feature in which I see movies that, by any reasonable measure, I totally should have seen by now.
Occasionally, a film accumulates a reputation that it doesn’t quite deserve, and that appears to be the case with Medium Cool. Haskell Wexler’s 1969 drama with a dash of documentary is primarily remembered for its climactic scenes, shot in the midst of the riots at the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago; the film has since become synonymous with the mixture of fiction and on-the-fly fact, and its format has been frequently duplicated over the ensuing years, most recently with Bush-era protest films like This Revolution, Conventioneers, and The F-Word. But viewed from top to bottom, Medium Cool is a bit of a mess, its frequent missteps glossed over as the years pass.
Its message of media heartlessness and complicity is less than subtle—if the opening scene is right on the nose, the ending is too easy, a cheap shot. The script (also credited to director Wexler) is pretty aimless; the narrative looseness gives it a doc-style authenticity, but doesn’t do much to focus the viewer. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the terrible side plot of the single mom and her kid that newsman John Casselllis (Robert Forster) falls in with. In fact, when it first cuts to the mother and son twenty minutes in, a sharp jump from its street-level urban POV to some sort of mildly depressing, poverty-stricken, and strangely Southern home, we’re jarred—what is this, some kind of flashback?
Medium Cool is good in all the ways you’ve heard about—namely, the media commentary and the convention footage (which is, admittedly, quite extraordinary). And there are a few offhand visual jokes in the Godard mode (like the business about four and a half women) that are pretty clever. But it is mucked up by all the other junk—the quaintly, homespun relationship, the drama with the missing kid, etc. And really, putting the worried mother into the crowd feels like a cop-out—like we have to follow an innocent who has just happened to wander into the events, as though we couldn’t muster up the sympathy or interest in an actual, full-on protestor. It’s the kind of safe, bourgeoisie move that would make its protagonist furious.