Writer-director-cameraman Haskell Wexler’s groundbreaking quasi-documentary captures the mood of a nation at high anxiety — a nation increasingly ruptured over an unpopular war and a seemingly radical counter culture that was bleeding into the mainstream. It’s hard to envision, 44 years after its release, the impact Medium Cool had on its audience; a live performance from Frank Zappa’s largely unknown Mothers of Invention is but one of its subversive qualities. Initially given an X rating for its language and nudity, the MPAA was probably more troubled by the film’s portrait of a city on the edge of political and social chaos and of a mainstream television news culture that was often happy to align itself with the powers that be.
Shot verite-style on location in Chicago, Medium Cool is an uneasy meld of documentary and fiction, a viscerally illuminating document of its day
Echoes of Godard abound in Medium Cool, but its picturesque beauty is pure Wexler, who was then already an accomplished cinematographer. Criterion’s Blu-ray edition includes a pair of context-enhancing audio commentaries; excerpts from a documentary about the making of Medium Cool; excerpts from a documentary about Blankenship, a non-actor Wexler found in a real Chicago slum; and, fittingly, Wexler’s new half-hour doc about the Occupy movement’s protests against the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago. Grade: A-