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Haskell Wexler: "See, nothing is 'real.'"

Haskell Wexler and his wife, actress Rita Taggart, at Sundance 2006.

NEW YORK -- At 47, Haskell Wexler was one of the nation's most successful cameramen. He'd won an Academy Award in 1966 for his work on Mike Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" He had been the cinematographer on films by Elia Kazan ("America, America"), Joseph Strick ("The Savage Eye"), Tony Richardson ("The Loved One") and Norman Jewison ("In the Heat of the Night," "The Thomas Crown Affair"). But he wanted to direct his own movie. And last summer he came to Chicago to do that. The result is "Medium Cool," a movie unlike anything you have seen and possibly unlike anything you want to see. It is likely to be this autumn's most controversial film.

Wexler's characters (a TV newsreel cameraman, a soundman, an Uptown poor white widow, and her young son) were drawn from his imagination. But he plugged them into actual events, filming scenes during the Democratic National Convention at Lincoln Park, Grant Park and the International Amphitheater. And he included a wealth of other Chicago locations: Uptown, the Roller Derby, the pool at Outer Drive East, the South Side, all over the city. Wexler's technical consultant (listed in the credits as "our man in Chicago") was Studs Terkel.

Many Chicagoans turn up as actors in the film: former Hull House director Bob Sickinger, Second City and Peter Boyle, a 13-year-old kid from Uptown named Harold Blankenship, lots of others.

In addition to being several other things, "Medium Cool" is the best film ever made in Chicago except possibly, Arthur Penn's neglected masterpiece "Mickey One." But it is not a "Chicago film" any more than it's a film about politics, hippies, cops, violence, sex, poverty, black militants or its other subjects. It is a film about the nature of communication, about the shades of meaning that can be superimposed on the face of "reality."

Wexler was born in Chicago. His brother Jerrold, who produced "Medium Cool," heads the giant Jupiter Corp., a major holder of air rights over the Illinois Central RR tracks.

But Haskell was always more interested in movies than finance; he once had his own makeshift studio in Des Plaines, where he made a Chicago documentary called "The Living City" which got an Academy Award nomination. He made other, documentaries, about the packinghouse workers strike, about the Highlander Folk School, before going to Hollywood to break into feature films as the cameraman on "Stakeout on Dope Street."

Within a decade, he had established himself as one of the best cameraman in the business. As Hollywood goes, 10 years is a short time.

"Medium Cool" will open in New York during the first week of September. It is being distributed by Paramount, which gave Wexler complete artistic freedom and has promised not to cut or edit the final version. But Paramount had a small failure of nerve at the last minute and dropped plans to hold a world premiere in Chicago; they feared the political repercussions and the gangbusters of the police vice squad.

When "Medium Cool" does come to Chicago, in late September or early October, It is hoped there will be a sheaf of favorable, "respectable" reviews to show the gumshoes. Last week Wexler talked about his movie.

Q. Why was "Medium Cool" filmed in such total secrecy last summer?

A. I don't know if secrecy is the word. I don't believe in publicity before a film is completed. It costs you money and wastes your energy, and you're inflating your balloon before you have a balloon.

Q. Were you also keeping the project quiet because you didn't want the crowds - the police and the demonstrators - to know a movie was being made?

A. At that time, nobody could have cared less. There was total confusion and everybody had a camera. There were newsreel and TV cameras everywhere. We just added one more. We waded into the crowds and nobody even noticed.

I gave my lead actor (Robert Forster, who plays the TV cameraman) an inoperative camera - just a housing without a motor. Then he went in as a "real" cameraman and we photographed him.

Q. You knew you'd be making the film during the Democratic convention, but you couldn't have known there'd be the riots. When things broke loose, did you decide on the spot to include that in your film?

A. Not at all. It may appear that way, but in fact the film we made was very close to the script we took to Chicago. Of course the script didn't specify long shots in Grant Park, or anything like that, because we couldn't know where the trouble would happen. But there were riots in the script. We anticipated them. We knew something would happen somewhere, and we knew that our TV reporter would naturally be involved in them.

Q. By using a TV reporter as your central character, you had an excuse to put him almost anywhere. And that also gave you your subject of communication, instead of doing a scene about how the riots were perceived...

A. Thats right. See, nothing is "real." When you take a camera down to Michigan Ave. and point it at what's happening, you're still not showing "reality." You're showing that highly seductive area that's in front of your camera. But there's another element in the film. It has something to do with the professional, "just doing his job." The film opens with that shot of the accident on the Outer Drive, and the two TV guys photograph it first and then report it to the police. Their job comes before their involvement. That business of "just doing my job" almost became a joke at the Nuremberg trials. But it's very much a part of our lives now. There are people with nice suits, air-conditioned offices, grammatical English, who use their education to plan the end of the world, the destruction of people. I mean literally. One of the things we have to deal with, I think, is whether "professionalism" comes before individual social responsibility.

Q. The film ends with another "accident" - a car ramming into a tree - and then the camera pans up and zooms in on another camera. So the last shot of the movie is of two cameras photographing each other.

A. Yeah. That accident a lot of people won't like it. Richard Schickel, the movie critic at Life, said he liked the movie but not the ending. Then a couple of days later, he told me he'd thought it over and the ending made sense. See, the ending runs against what you want to happen. Accidents always do. When you're prepared for some horrible situation it never happens. And then just when you're walking away, bang! You slip on a step and break your ass. And accidents can also happen like that, right in the middle of everything, on a large scale, on a world scale. And then that final shot showing the other camera. During that shot, you hear the chant "the whole world is watching." But watching what? Perhaps it's cameras watching other cameras. Perhaps TV was not showing what happened, but showing what happened on TV.

Q. Do you anticipate any sort of official trouble in opening the film in Chicago? Parts of it are critical of the police, of the Daley administration...

A. No, I don't. Listen, I think Daley would like to forget the whole thing. I don't want to sound like I'm getting mellow, but I think Daley was sort of a victim of last summer. The real enemy was the war in Vietnam. I don't consider Daley to be an ogre or a bad guy. Personally, I anticipate no trouble opening the film in Chicago.

Q. Harold Blankenship is very good as the young Uptown boy. How did you direct him? Were there lines for him to learn, or did you improvise?

A. I always told him generally what to do and what to say. I gave him things to say that seemed to come from his own personality. We were in Uptown and we had a station wagon with Cokes and potato chips, to attract kids, hoping to find the right kid for this role. And we saw Harold across the street with a six-pack of RC and we liked his looks. So we went to his parents and asked if we could put him in a movie, and they said sure, go ahead, take him, he's doing no good around here...

Q. In one of the most explicit scenes in the film, you show the cameraman (Forster) romping around his bedroom in the altogether with his girlfriend (Marianna Hill). This is sure to inspire a great deal of interest...

A. I like that scene; I think it came out rather well. All the pseudo-protections against showing the human body only make nudity seem dirty. In a short time, people will be saying, yes, that's the human body, that's a man and that's a woman, that's how they've looked for millions of years. In most films, sex is presented as ponderous and super-important. Sex is a great thing, a lot of fun, and movies should show it that way.

Q. Another dramatic scene occurs when the two TV newsmen go to the apartment of the black militants. And they get very up tight, with good reason, when the blacks put down whitey's preconceived notions of what does, and doesn't, constitute a "news story" about the black community.

A. Most of those people were not actors. A couple, Jeff Donaldson and Val Grey, were actors, but the rest were just people with very strong feelings on the subject. They were acting the way they usually act with white people. I met some of them at that famous conference at Columbia College in Chicago, the one on the arts in the inner city. That conference was the first time I realized what's been happening since integration days. I left off with SNCC and Martin Luther King and black and white together. Now it's "get out of the way, whitey." We filmed that scene much the way it happened. There was tension in the air you could cut with a knife. The blacks didn't want to "act." They would only agree to be in the scene if they could say what they believed about the way the media treat black people. So we were honest with each other. At one point, the two guys talk directly into the camera. I thought, hell, why not? Have them say it right out to everybody. And I showed them those scenes on the moveola, so they could see that we had filmed it just as it developed.

Q. You are joining Francis Ford Coppola and John Korty in establishing an independent film studio in San Francisco. Do you intend to direct from now on - no more cinematography?

A. Yeah, if I can make a living from it. A lot of the people in my crew were also in Coppola's crew on "The Rain People." We both believe in working with small crews, with learning from the documentary form. My next movie will be called "A Really Great Movie" and will be about two student filmmakers who win an award from a major studio. A comedy, naturally. The big thing I'm fascinated by right now is the relationship between real time and movie time, between illusion and reality. I steal a lot from Godard. He gives you courage. He tries everything. He's a fearless, gutsy son of a bitch. He tries to get into that area between "movie" and "life" by having his actors speak directly to the camera, things like that. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the rehearsed, controlled thing seems more "real" than the real thing. I honestly don't know what "real" is. The summer of 1968 in Chicago was the most unreal thing that ever happened. People say they make movies to show what "really happens." But they only show what they choose to show. In "Medium Cool" I'm not trying to say this is the 100 per-cent honest truth. That's why my face is up there on the screen at the end - I'm the guy behind the second camera. I'm saying this is my statement and if you like it, fine, and if you don't, fine. I just wish the damn thing was open in Chicago...

Q. Did you always want to direct your first film in Chicago?

A, Always. I am a Chicagoan. I feel like I've simply been on vacation for 10 years in Los Angeles. But Chicago is a real place and LA is a motel. I always knew I'd make my first film in Chicago. I remember Arthur Penn was going to make "Mickey One" in New York. I was originally going to be the cameraman, I convinced him to make it in Chicago, that Chicago is more interesting than New York. As things turned out, I didn't photograph the film but Penn made it in Chicago anyway. See, New York is over the hill. It's swallowed up in its own garbage. And the people - I can't stand the people. Maybe Chicago will grow up to be like New York, but I hope not. And I hope people won't think "Medium Cool" is against Chicago, I feel romantic about the place. And I wanted to make the movie in Chicago, I guess, mostly because I know the place and I know the feel of it. I didn't have to ask anyone where Fullerton was, or Diversey.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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