Haskell Wexler on the Criterion Collection release of 'Medium Cool'
Haskell Wexler had already won the first of two cinematography Oscars (1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and '76's Bound for Glory) when he decided to return to the place of his birth, Chicago, and direct his first fiction feature, Medium Cool (1969). Written by Wexler, then 46, the counterculture classic remains a vibrant hybrid: characters (many of them non-actors) are put in the midst of real events, most famously the chaos of the '68 Democratic National Convention riots in Grant Park. Wexler himself was tear-gassed during filming.
Against that backdrop of social and political unrest, a hard-bitten television news cameraman pursues an Uptown Appalachian woman and awakens to a number of insights about the media, namely that the electronic eye dehumanizes its subjects, keeping TV producers and viewers at a dispassionate arm's length from the impact of the events captured. Speaking directly into Wexler's lens, an African-American activist schools the movie's cameraman, John Cassellis (Robert Forster)—and, in turn, the audience: "When you come in here and you say you've come to do something of human interest, it makes one wonder whether you're going to do something of interest to other humans or whether you consider the person human in whom you're interested."
Yesterday, the Criterion Collection released a restored 4K digital transfer of Medium Cool, along with extras including a commentary track from Wexler, excerpts from the documentary “Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real!” by historian Paul Cronin and "Medium Cool Revisited," a short film essay by Wexler comparing what he saw in '68 to the demonstrations during last year's NATO summit in Chicago.
We phoned the 91-year-old—whose cinematography résumé includes In the Heat of the Night and Days of Heaven—at his Los Angeles office to talk about the making of Medium Cool, his beloved hometown and how Studs Terkel became "Our Man in Chicago."