REVIEWS

FILMS

Medium Cool is sound on the TV medium; but its tired message leaves me cold

LARRY ZOLF December 1 1969
REVIEWS

FILMS

Medium Cool is sound on the TV medium; but its tired message leaves me cold

LARRY ZOLF December 1 1969

FILMS

REVIEWS

Medium Cool is sound on the TV medium; but its tired message leaves me cold

LARRY ZOLF

A T SOME TIME in every person’s life a little conflict of interest must come. For this film reviewer the first opportunity to present itself is Paramount’s Medium Cool, as photographed, written, directed and produced by Academy Award-winner Haskell Wexler (cinematography, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?). My dilemma is a simple one. As a man whose basic income is derived from TV reportage, I find myself reviewing a film about a cynical TV reporter who is transformed by the brutality of Chicago and by an earthy schoolmarm into an engagé, radicalized Super Now Mensch (Super-nowman to all you Weltanschauung fans).

If that were not enough to disqualify me, the Medium Cool press book continues to pile up difficulties. Consider, for example, the blurb entitled “Panel Discussion” under the page marked “Exploitation.” “Since Medium Cool deals with television and censorship, you could set up a television panel discussion with TV personalities who have run into problems with the censor and discuss how they overcame these problems. A program of this sort could add plenty of controversial word - of - mouth for your engagement.”

Given the dearth of good programs in Canadian television today, such a groovy idea offered me gratis by the Medium Cool people is bound to increase my natural bias in favor of the film. Tendencies to bias are further increased by Wexler’s imaginative use of cinematic juxtaposition. Take, for example, the novel device of the band at the Democratic Convention playing Happy Days Are Here Again as we cut to pictures of Chicago cops beating dissenters over their heads with nightsticks.

CBC programming possibilities employing this hoary Wexler film cliché are endless. We could, for example, intercut the Friendly Giant with Mel Watkins and Walter Gordon discussing the American takeover of our economy, or use Chez Hélène as voiceover for Montreal’s St. Léonard riot footage. Granted that a TV personality by day and movie reviewer by night, presented with all these scintil-

lating program ideas at one film sitting, is bound to be a bit biased, let me say in my defense that I stood third in the CBC Objectivity class of ’69 (Mr. Dress Up and the CBC Color Butterfly were first and second). Having thus proved objectivity, I feel free to offer comments about Medium Cool.

The cinematography is excellent, as is a good deal of the acting, particularly Verna Bloom as the schoolmarm and Harold Blankenship as her little boy. The editing and much of the dialogue is realistic, particularly the cynical, bored chatter of the crews in the film while they travel or relax at cocktail parties. Some of the situations the film-within-a-film crew confront are totally authentic. Those of us in TV may feel a bit uncomfortable as we watch the staged Bobby Kennedy demonstration or hear the Chicago blacks tell John the reporter, “You shoot for 15 minutes of black sensibility that’s taken us 300 years to develop. You distort, emasculate, you ridicule and that ain’t cool.” (And, neither, I suppose, is the mandatory TV visit to the reservation or igloo on most Canadian TV programs every Yuletide season.)

But if Wexler knows his TV medium, his message leaves a lot to be desired. Once again the media is villain and yet the focus of the film dwells on the Chicago riots, the one news event the media covered fearlessly despite considerable risk. Moreover, John, the reporter, as the hard-boiled, cynical symbol of 20th-century amoral ity, is clearly a device borrowed from Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Equally derivative (from Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt) is the automobile-accident death of the film’s two main protagonists. John’s sudden conversion to radical involvement, by the realization that his TV station has been turning footage over to the FBI and CIA, seems contrived and melodramatic. So is the device of getting the West Virginia mom to the actuality scenes of the Chicago riot by having the boy suddenly and inexplicably run away from home.

Wexler has two of his very own devices, neither offering potential for future derivation. The use of the es-

caped homing pigeon to bring John and the West Virginia family together is a bit flighty, to say the least. Nor am I grateful to Wexler for dwelling on the white hillbilly slums of Chicago. This equal-time brand of liberalism does ignore the basic fact that the black poor do not quite possess the social mobility of their white counterparts.

Confucius say: “One good picture worth more than 10,000 words.” In writer Wexler’s case, make it 20,000. I’ve run across better writing than Medium Cool in most Chinese fortune cookies.

Medium Cool tries to blend documentary and drama and never quite carries either off. As cinema it’s clearly medium; as politics it’s clearly banal. “Medium Cool is dynamite,” says Time magazine. If that is the case, then Haskell Wexler as dynamiter has used a damp fuse. □

This war is a bore ...

Oh! What A Lovely War is unfortunately more like a lovely bore. Director Richard Attenborough has stuck too faithfully to the texture and style of Joan Littlewood’s 1963 Theatre Workshop production. The result is a stagy, slow-moving picture that is neither good theatre nor good film. There is also some confusion of purpose. At times, Oh! What A Lovely War, like Tony Richardson’s Charge Of The Light Brigade or Peter Cook’s stage revue Beyond The Fringe, does a brilliantly vicious job of satirizing the follies and foibles of the British class system. At other times it tries to make the film relevant and contemporary by not-too-subtle comparisons of Great Britain and the United States as clumsy empires that mistakenly stumbled into World War I and Vietnam, and never really quite knew how to get out. Still, the war songs are ribald and much of thé dialogue historically accurate and pungent, much of the time. “Wars cannot be won. No one can win a war,” says Vanessa Redgrave in her role as pacifist-suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst. In Oh! What A Lovely War, the audience is the real loser. □