Oscar Award-Winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler confronts the ethics of journalism in his hybrid documentary-fiction film Medium Cool (1969) by questioning the responsibilities of journalists and the problematic participation of complicit consumers of the ugly truth shown on the tube. In 1968, violence, classism, and police brutality were realities flashing in the homes of millions of Americans nationwide. Over 50 years later, not much has changed, but in addition to our television sets, our smartphones and other portable screens have multiplied the reach and accessibility to the horrific images that never seem to wane. As we anxiously approach closer and closer to election season, media is heavily relied upon to guide the American public, shaping how they will ultimately feel about what is happening in our nation. Journalists have a responsibility to their viewers to deliver a story that provides digestible information and context to mold their world view for one way or another. However, journalists are also agents of a larger and self-interested business, leaving them with a responsibility to get views and attention in order to turn a profit. This leaves all news media platforms, no matter how they lean politically, dedicated to a sensational bias that favors conflict, partisanship, and scandal.
The concept of Medium Cool has roots in the philosophy and ideas of media scholar Marshal McLuhan. McLuhan developed the term “cool medium” to define low-definition media that provides less sensory data, demanding the interaction of the viewer to fill in the blanks. As the film’s title is “cool medium” backward (“medium cool”), it reflects a narrative that eventually topples the suggested responsibility of journalists on its head.
The story follows John Cassellis (Robert Forster), a cameraman for a local news station in Chicago, and his career during the highly eventful and political summer of 1968. We meet him and his sound guy, Gus (Peter Bonerz), getting footage of a presumably fatal car accident off a busy highway. Peaking in and out of the shattered windshield and mangled doors, Cassellis hovers his camera over a woman’s body spilling out of the passenger’s side door. The two head back to their news car when Cassellis says “better call an ambulance,” demonstrating a clear exploitation of a tragic accident where the salvation of human life is not a first priority.
While the skeleton of the plot in Medium Cool is fictional, it is contextualized upon major events that were occurring in real-time during the film’s production which can be seen in the very background of most scenes. However, with respect to McLuhan’s definition of a cool medium, in order to understand that context, the viewer must fill in the blanks in order to fully grasp what is happening. Of the major events to occur in the film, the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy is never explicitly referenced, rather it is alluded by a short sequence. Beginning with shots of the kitchen at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, we overhear the end of his final speech moments before he was to be shot. This is abruptly met with a sharp cut to Casselis and Gus in DC for the Senator’s funeral that is only ambiguously discussed.
In DC, Cassellis gets footage of a bourgeois-looking woman and asks what her plans are for this “very political summer” to which she says she doesn’t want to get into politics yet continues on to discuss her summer getaway residence in Ontario, Canda. This is juxtaposed with a shot in the ghettos of Chicago, where an Appalachian refugee family lives in search of a better life, escaping from rural poverty. Without getting into politics, the woman doesn’t realize that what she said is in fact political when it is juxtaposed to an alternate reality that doesn’t affect her at all. The relationship between the two contrasting situations, however, is political, which acknowledges the clear and indisputable classism that exists in this nation.
Cassellis picks up a story about a black cab driver named Frank Baker (Sid McCoy) who found $10 000 in the backseat of his cab and brought it to the police in hopes of finding who it belonged to. Cassellis goes to Frank’s house to convince him to go through with the story. He pitches it as a “human interest story,” while for Frank, it’s a much deeper issue. Since the story aired, he tells Casselis that he got his “butt kicked by everybody.” Cassellis sees this is an opportunity, but for Frank, this is his reputation and his life. On the topic of this “human interest story,” a black man breaks the fourth wall making eye contact with the viewer condemning the exploitative nature of the vessels of “mass communications media.” He argues that it is “you,” suggesting not only the journalist but the complicit viewer too, “who distort, ridicule, and emasculate.” “The tube is life, man,” another man says, and because television is supposed to represent life there is a suggestion of a responsibility to “make [Frank] the TV star of the hour,” instead of waiting around until somebody, another black man in particular, gets killed in order for people to care about him.
The film concludes with the violent riots at the Democratic National Convention. While the fictional plot reaches its climax, the characters get stuck in the middle of the actual riots and police violence that was happening outside the convention doors. Footage of people being treated for bloody wounds, police officers in herds beating people to the ground, and the chants of protesters shouting “the whole world is watching” can’t go ignored by the viewer. In the final moment of the film, Cassellis and his girlfriend Eileen (Verna Bloom) drive off in search of her missing son but get stopped in a sudden car accident, crashing into a tree. People go by taking photos, the story is overheard in a news voiceover, and a large camera shooting the scene slowly pans over to look straight at you, the viewer.
The ending of Medium Cool leaves the exploiter exploited. The slow pan to the viewer dares the viewer to question the role they play in being complicit in the consumption of this film. As a witness to the violent injustice that was shown on their very own screen, despite the façade of the loose and frankly trivial fictional narrative, the viewer is forced to acknowledge their own passivity and detachment as a symptom of desensitization that helps the viewer cope with the horrors of the American every-day. Violence and television exist interchangeably, but their seemingly constant exhibition puts journalists and consumers alike in a position that leaves everyone with a putrid aftertaste.