Has anybody seen Medium Cool (1969) lately, directed by the amazing cinematographer, Haskell Wexler? Does anybody remember it? More important, has anybody given it the consideration it deserves? It’s certainly not the greatest movie ever made but it sure is an interesting one. Rather than appear as a snapshot of its time, it’s more of a look in the mirror of 2020…and a frightening one at that. Consider the following scene.
At the 71-minute mark Robert Forster (playing TV-news cameraman John Cassellis) delivers a rant that’s as relevant now as it was when it was shot during another volatile time in our history, the summer of 1968. Played against intermittent off screen snippets of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, it begins with a self-referential twist in the form of Cassellis’ line, “Jesus, I love to shoot film.” From there however, things get serious in an eerily familiar way. He reminds us that fake news, false narratives and outright lies from mainstream media outlets are nothing new, that people are self-involved and apathetic – and there’s very little we can do about it. Cassellis’ angst is genuine, his disenchantment as contemporary as your last breath. It’s an amazing piece of filmmaking, compact and brutal. Fifty two years later it’s hard to believe no one has yet captured present times in such a succinct way. It makes you wonder what Haskell would’ve done had he kept his attention solely on directing.
And what a guy he was! An iconoclast, an occasional grouch, a magnificent cinematographer, a documentarian, a guy who knew how to enjoy life…but most of all, a passionate fighter for what he believed in.
Though he and I often found ourselves on opposite sides of any number of issues, he always supported me during my time as president of the ASC – and we were friends. Proof of that came after every argument we ever had. Without exception he’d always get the last word, and I was happy to let him have it. “Richard, I think you’re wrong as far as the day is long…but that we can disagree so vehemently and still be friends is what makes this country great!” We would then shake hands and go off to Billy’s Bar at the ASC Clubhouse for a drink and some laughs.
Haskell was a political radical for most of his life but if anyone would question his patriotism, remember this: as a member of the Merchant Marine during the Second World War he had three ships torpedoed out from under him. Maybe those close calls had some influence on his low-BS threshold (which I always admired).
One instance in particular will always stay with me. During the 1990’s I invited him to a screening of a feature I’d recently shot. Afterwards, I asked him what he thought. With the directness I had come to expect, he replied, “Why did you do it? The movie was a pile of shit.” I didn’t mind that he said that, but of course held a different opinion. As you can imagine, a spirited discussion ensued.
We slugged it out for awhile and as so often was the case came to no conclusion. But we were both OK with that. And once again, I followed his lead and we parted that evening as friends. When he passed away in 2015 I knew that we had lost a special man.
Today, in the most polarized of social and political environments – a world that John Cassellis would instantly recognize – it would do every one of us a great deal of good to take a page from Haskell’s book…before it’s too late.