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Medium Cool is a critically acclaimed and highly obscure film from the 60's about the unhealthy interaction between a corporate media in search of Spectacle and violence and a restless and angry populace. It predated the film Network by about ten years.
It's also famous for a simple reason: it's just about the only Mockumentary fictional film ever to be deliberately shot and filmed during the course of a historical event: The 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention and police riot, during and after the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy which preceded it.
That's right: they filmed all the scenes "in real", with the scripted actors and cameramen wandering through historical events. Aluminum Christmas Trees abound for contemporary viewers, since as we all know, Reality Is Unrealistic.
The film stars a young cameraman who is basically The Last DJ within his news organization, struggling to get the word out about what's actually going on in the streets. Fans of media criticism will note that the subsequent whitewashing of his reports is largely accurate. When we meet him, he's apolitical and driven, with his own code, seeing the role of the journalist as a quest to "capture" the moment on film as it really happened. As he accidentally gets to know some of his subjects, Character Development ensues.
Interestingly, when the film was first scripted, it wasn't intended to be about the Movement versus The Man at all. The director wanted to shoot a piece in docu-cam about the indifference of the media towards the problems of the poor in inner-city Chicago, focusing on an Appalachian family. After all, Martin Luther King was promising a major march on poverty in lieu of racism that Long Hot Summer, similar to his March on Washington in '63, to urge the next administration (which he hoped would be RFK) to take the money from The Vietnam War and use it to re-fund Great Society programs.
However, after both MLK and RFK got shot during the course of initial filming, director Haskell Wesker had made friends in Fred Hampton's Chicago Black Panther Party during the course of making the film (one of the scenes is an interview with the Panthers basically playing themselves). They informed him that a massive demonstration was underway for the summer of '68 and Wesker decided to center the climax of his film around that.
The title is from a famous Post Modern thesis by media critic Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Message: namely the idea that there are "hot" mediums such as theater that are highly interactive, and then there are more "cold" mediums, like television, which
lull the audience into a stupor require little interaction from the audience.
The film was rated "X" by the Moral Guardians for political content on its release (the film contains little sexual content or swearing), the first film to do so (swiftly followed by Midnight Cowboy); thus making the title reference all the more meaningful.
- Aluminum Christmas Trees:
- The popularity of Roller Derby.
- The journey of the Cowboy-like motorcyclist in the opening scene to deliver reels of film to the studio (this was before TV cameramen had satellite hookup) chronicling some random car crash. Film at 11.
- The fact that most poverty in America at the time, including inner-city poverty, was (and still is, in many places) white.
- The depiction of the DNC protestors, being footage of the actual protest, features few New Age Retro Hippies; the crowd is mostly clean-shaven radicals and college students.
- Anarchy Is Chaos: The protestors.
- As Himself: The crew were somewhat nervous shooting the "Black Panther interview" scene, since the Panthers were basically playing themselves doing a TV interview and accusing the media of indifference to the problems of the inner city.
- Cameo/Actor Allusion: The guitarist who is the "Indian of the group" in the rave scene is Mike Nesmith of The Monkees.
- Color Coded for Your Convenience: In the climax of the film, the female protagonist is shown wandering through the midst of the actual police riot (with the real camera-men in tow behind her). To avoid losing her in the crowd, she is dressed in a bright yellow dress.
- Deadpan Snarker: The TV reporter.
- Decoy Protagonist: The hero's Love Interest, an impoverished Appalachian woman and her child, who he meets during the course of reporting on a story.
- Do Not Do This Cool Thing: As mentioned, the message is about media exploitation of real life violence for entertainment. The medium is... a film that uses a police riot as a stage for actors to walk around in.
- Enforced Method Acting: "Look out, Haskell. It's real!!"
- Fridge Brilliance: The ending seems to come out of nowhere. Until you remember how the film began.
- Hey, It's That Guy!: Arthur Petrelli looks so young!
- Hipsters: The protagonists visit a (real, of course) psychedelic rave,
very dry-ly scored to Frank Zappa's Who Needs The Peace Corps:
What's there to live for...? Who needs the peace corps?
America Is Wonderful! Wonderful wonderful wonderful...
Hi, I'm Jimmy Carl Black and I'm the Indian of the group!
Every town must have a place where phony hippies meet!
Psychedelic dungeons popping up on every street!
- Keep Circulating the Tapes: The film is hard-to-find, except online of course.
- The Last DJ: Our journalist hero, who is an up-and-coming correspondent in his monolithic media organization.
- The Man: The cops and TV reporters.
- Mockumentary: Filmed documentary-style during the course of actual events, with Real Life passerby.
- Mood Dissonance: Goes with the territory of being shot live on-location.
- New Age Retro Hippie: Unbuilt Trope and thus, surprisingly averted. Discussed Trope, however, by Frank Zappa on the soundtrack:
[...] First I'll buy some beads,
And then perhaps a leather band to go around my head.
Some feathers and bells, and a book of Indian lore.
I will ask the Chamber of Commerce how to get to Haight street,
And smoke an awful lotta' dope.
I will wander around barefoot.
I will have a psychedelic gleam in my eye at all times.
I will love everyone. I will love the police as they kick the shit out of me on the street...
- Most of the demonstrators in Chicago '68 were members of the New Left and not hippies, although Abbie Hoffman got all the attention in his famous "incitement to riot" trial. Hippies were there, however.
- Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The police turn on journalists filming them and some DNC delegates.
- Parental Substitute: The protagonist softens up when he becomes a surrogate father figure to the kid.
- Pinball Protagonist: Taken to a literal extreme.
- Real Life Writes the Plot
- Reality Subtext: The director considered ending the film at MLK's planned Poverty March on Washington in 1968 and have it be how the media will only cover violence. Then MLK got shot. Then the director was told about the Chicago demonstration by the people the actors were interviewing for the film. Then RFK got shot...
- The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized
- Romance Ensues: Between the protagonists.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog
- Spiritual Successor: Network. For a similar film in the same year, but more farcical, see Putney Swope.
- You Bastard: The film's message.
- Look out, Haskell. It's real!
- ↑ as James Cameron might incredulously put it
- ↑ Chicago and Baltimore once had large Appalachian slums.
- ↑ The Internet, which has room for huge amounts of interactivity but mostly confined to correspondence with ill-informed people, would thus be an example of a populace that prefers its Medium Cool. With lukewarm spots such as wikis, like the one you may be editing now. The Situationists like Guy Debord would probably ask why you are in here on the computer when you could be out forming a flash-mob or impromptu theater, of course.