Haskel Wexler Blurs Fact and Fiction in 'Medium Cool'

First of all, greatest title ever. "Medium cool" doesn't come from anything that happens in the film, per se, or a line of dialogue, but rather tweaks a Marshall McLuhan observation about the level of individual involvement in media. Yet not only does it beguile as a stand-alone phrase (not too cool, nor not cool enough, though maybe just middling), it also bullseyes the passion/detachment of both Robert Forster's TV-news cameraman and of legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler's film. Intermittently out of circulation since its 1969 debut, Medium Cool returns in a typically luxe new Criterion DVD/Blu-ray edition, and, despite some of its dated aspects, it retains a provocativeness as bright and pungent as a fresh coat of paint.

We first meet Forster's John Cassellis when he and his ever-present soundman, Gus (Peter Bonerz), happen across a traffic fatality—which they capture on film before calling the police. That distance from humanity, afforded by the camera's lens and a reporter's objectivity, contrasts with Cassellis' impetuous personal politics. He's young, and it's 1968, after all. Mid-film he chases down a "human interest" story—a black cab driver who finds $10,000 is his taxi and turns it in—while clearly having only a certain level of interest in the human he's trying to put on TV. This results in a straight-to-camera lecture by various background characters on mainstream media's presumptions about parachuting into the black community for nightly news fodder, a talking-to many reporters could still stand to hear.

That permeable fourth-wall is one of the primary conceits that writer/director Wexler uses to animate what passes for a plot. Cassellis runs afoul of his employers for political reasons, and he finds himself drawn away from his glamorpuss girlfriend (Marianna Hart) and toward a poor young mother (Verna Bloom) and her young son (Harold Blankenship). But, perhaps more critical, Wexler, an angry young-ish man with a camera himself, arranged to film his story on the streets of Chicago with the 1968 Democratic National Convention looming. He captures troops training for riot duty—and captures Forster filming it in character. He shoots Forster debating journalistic ethics with real journalists, and walking the real convention floor, credentialed. And, ultimately, he films Bloom's character—popping, thanks to her bright yellow dress—mingling in the fractious throngs as Chicago police clear out protesters, cracking heads inches away. When a tear-gas shell goes off a few feet from the lens, someone off-camera shouts, "Watch out, Haskell, it's real"—a warning the director left in the final sound mix, no doubt for its delicious layered irony.

Some of the boundary-pushing antics seem a bit pretentious now, and some of the politics a bit inchoate, but Wexler's mix of docudrama and musings over media and society still retains a charge. And it helps that Wexler the director had Wexler the cinematographer to lean on. An early POV shot from what seems to be the pillion position of a motorcycle zooming through the streets of Chicago still astonishes. And Wexler's agitating documentary-film roots poke through, too: Seeing actual urban poverty onscreen here reminds you of how little you see the real thing onscreen to this day. Of its time, perhaps, but with more than you might expect to offer to ours.

A different type of political filmmaking takes shape in Neighboring Sounds (Cinema Guild DVD and Blu-ray), the recent feature debut from Brazilian director Kleber Mendonça Filho. Joao (Gustavo Jahn) doesn't seem to have a civically engaged bone in his body. He wakes from a one-night stand that went very well, banters with his housekeeper, and goes about his business as a property agent in the Brazilian city of Recife. Street crime is a concern, as it is in many Brazilian cities, but his job is made easier by the fact that his grandfather (W.J. Solha), a hale patriarch, owns most of the property around.

Mendonça Filho soon zooms out from the more narrow focus on Joao. A woman (Maeve Jinkings) in a building nearby lives out dull days distracted from her middle-class-homemaker existence by a neighbor's barking dog. And a young man (Irandhir Santos) arrives on the street peddling the services of his security firm—an offer that seems alternately ominous and tempting to neighbors. All the while, the relationships between the more affluent residents of the street and the people who cook their food, deal their dope, and watch their backs becomes more detailed and more disturbing.

Mendoça Filho's film is remarkably subtle in sketching out the undercurrents of fear that manifest themselves in Brazilian society: cops casually accepting a broad-daylight payoff in the middle distance, say, or a quick close-up of an affluent woman's ear showing signs that it has perhaps been reattached—severed ears are common tokens in the Brazilian kidnapping industry. Once his somewhat formless collection of scenes starts to move toward the denouement that makes it all make sense, he makes a few far less subtle gambits—yes, that is a shower of blood. But the scenes are finely observed, and the overall accretion of detail and nuance in this study of these people and the inequities on which their very lives are based is deceptively powerful. A filmmaker to watch, for sure.