Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Medium Cool


As I write this, the second day of the RNC (the Republican National Clusterfuck) is getting under way in Cleveland. No one has been killed so far, at least not on the convention floor, but stick around. Ohio is an open carry state, and with so many angry, armed nuts about, things could get real interesting.

TCM was running a series of movies set at political conventions. We had seen The Best Man recently, but I don’t think I had seen this one since the year of its release. (Tonight, maybe we will watch the original The Manchurian Candidate.)

I think 1968 has a good claim to being the worst year of my lifetime, domestically. First there was Martin, then there was Bobby, who might have rescued us from cheerful, bland, LBJ’s butt boy Hubert Humphrey. Not that I am a fan of Bobby, but back then we didn’t know much about the scummier things he did.

The country was devastated. We went into August sorrowful, confused, and angry. What the hell had happened to America?

I was never tempted to go to Chicago and protest, not even for a minute. Not that I anticipated the police riot that ensued, but it sure seemed possible that things would go tits up. I mean, Dan Rather, Mike Wallace, and Edwin Newman were assaulted by Chicago’s Porkiest on the fucking convention floor! Walter Cronkite, the most trusted man in America, said, on live TV, “I think we have a bunch of thugs here, Dan.” And that, of course, was nothing compared to what was going down outside in the street and in Grant Park, where Mayor Daley’s storm troopers, CPD and National Guard, went bugfuck and started wailing on anyone they could reach with their billy clubs.

In the midst of all this mayhem was Haskell Wexler, Robert Forster, Verna Bloom, and a few other cameramen who had been there to make a film with the DNC as a backdrop. There was no way they could have known what was about to come down, though the possibility of some sort of police action had been anticipated. But the cops literally went berserk. The demonstrators were overwhelmingly peaceful, and they got their heads split open.

Wexler was known mostly as a cameraman, having shot some really great films. This was his debut as a writer-director. And he made up a whole new style there in Chicago. The film has the look of a documentary, using mostly hand-held cameras. That wasn’t easy in 1968. Much of the dialogue was improvised. And then came the convention. Bloom was filmed wandering around among the real demonstrators and real police as they organized and then stormed through the park. She, and Wexler’s crew, were in real danger of serious injury. At one point, as the line of pigs (BTW, I never called cops pigs unless they deserved it, and they never deserved it more than that bloody day) advanced on them, one of his crew called out “Watch out, Haskell, it’s real!”

The film has its flaws. The story of the news cameraman meeting and falling for the working class mom newly arrived from West Virginia is pretty standard. Some of it is a bit preachy. And I really hate the ending, when Forster and Bloom are killed in a car crash. It’s like ending a story with the words “And then a big rock fell on them, and they were dead!”

I know why he did it. The opening scene was of Forster and his sound man dispassionately walking around a crashed car, getting the film of a woman who was thrown out and not moving. After they have the shot, Forster suggests they should call for an ambulance. Wexler’s point was clear. We have become too detached, and are not really engaged in the real world. We are just observers.

Talk about prophetic! Only today there would be dozens of people with their cell phones just standing around, doing nothing to help. And the last shot of the film is of a car driving by the wreck and the corpses of Forster and Bloom, taking some pictures, and not even stopping. That was how the picture was going to go, and then the Convention violence intervened and he knew he had something completely different in the can. So he changed it, and it doesn’t really fit together.

Nevertheless, it is a great film, a seminal one, a film that changed what films could be. If you were too young to experience Chicago in all its ugliness, I ask you to imagine the impact this film had on us in 1969. We were shocked, devastated, and even more determined to put an end to the Vietnam War, and to business as usual.

And what did we get? Richard Nixon. Sigh.