Medium Cool on DVD and Blu-ray

Sunday, 30 August 2015 23:00 Written by 

Medium Cool - out now on dual format Blu-ray and DVDOscar-winning documentary director and cinematographer Haskell Wexler ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") presents a frightening look at the USA in a state of turmoil during the Vietnam War. We witness events unfold through the eyes of fictional TV cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster - "Jackie Brown", "Mulholland Drive") during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

John and his soundman Gus (Peter Bonerz - Home Improvement) are given strict instructions on where to go and what to cover, but John develops a keen independent streak and goes off the reservation. At the same time he encounters Eileen (Verna Bloom - "High Plains Drifter"), a war-widow with a young son who keeps homing pigeons. They strike up a friendship against an increasingly edgy backdrop of civil unrest.

"Medium Cool" is a fascinating piece of cinema that blurs the lines between reality and fiction to great effect. Much of the footage on display was shot during the peace protests and riots of the late 1960s, with Wexler's scripted narrative seamlessly blended in. The sight of row upon row of baton-wielding police and rifle-brandishing military police, with heavily armoured vehicles in support menacingly bearing down on often unarmed protestors is disturbing and frightening.

John starts out as a cold-hearted cog in the media machine, his sole goal being to capture sensational footage of violence, strife and road traffic accidents. As the friction with his bosses grows he starts to realise that important stories are being buried and events wilfully distorted.

Forster is very good if often unlikable in the central role; thankfully his character develops some warmth and personality once he encounters Eileen and her teenager called Harold (played with natural mischievousness by Harold Blankenship). An ex-boxer, John has a driven nature and a relatively calm exterior that you sense is hiding an explosive inner anger.

The movie comes to a rather shocking, sudden climax that nicely comes full circle with the opening scene. It accentuates the sense of chaos and troubling disorder, and leaves an indelible mark.

I recommend the film to anyone with an interest in civil unrest stoked by anti-war sentiment, racial inequality and economic hardship, and the media's presentation and packaging of real-life footage. As discussed in one of the disc's bonus features, news programmes and documentaries can subjectively fictionalise reality thanks to editing and the choice of camera angles. Wexler makes us think about what we are watching and on that basis this bold film is a success.

Special features include:

  • New 1080p presentation of the film on Blu-ray from the 4K digital film transfer approved by director Haskell Wexler
  • Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
  • Audio commentary with writer and director Haskell Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actress Marianna Hill
  • “Look Out Haskell, It s Real!” - extended excerpts from Paul Cronin's documentary (53 mins approx)
  • Excerpts from “Sooner or Later” - Harold Blankenship is interviewed almost 40 years after appearing in the film (16 mins approx)
  • “Haskell and the Cameras” - Wexler demonstrates the cameras used to make "Medium Cool" (10 mins approx)
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • 28-page booklet featuring a summary of the government-commissioned report on the Democratic National Convention riot of 1968 illustrated with archival imagery

There is some superb material amongst these features, including insight into Wexler's views on documentary versus fictional movie-making. The camera-related piece is an interesting overview of the cutting-edge, portable tech that the director used to obtain the freedom and flexibility required to make his film.  The other featurette reveals that 40 years on, actor Blankenship is one strange character!

"Medium Cool" (1969) is out now on dual-format DVD and Blu-ray (two discs), courtesy of Eureka. The main feature has a running time of 110 minutes approx, carries an '18' certificate and retails for £17.99, or less from www.culttvstore.com

 

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