Medium Cool (1968) from Tuna

Medium Cool (1968) is a docudrama filmed in 1968 with the backdrop of the Democratic National Convention. I must have missed this when it was released, probably because I was on a merchant ship. I certainly remember the events depicted in the film. 1968 was a dramatic year for the USA. It started with the Tet Offensive, which was followed by the assassination of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. Lyndon Johnson, who couldn't make a personal appearance anywhere in the US without being drowned out by protestors, decided not to seek reelection. Of all the memorable occurrences of that year, my most vivid memory was seeing democracy in action Richard Daley-style. The counter-culture had decided to inundate the Democratic convention, which had a strong peace candidate in McCarthy, with non-violent demonstrations. The National Guard went into intensive training to cope with the expected disruptions, and Daley turned the Guard and the local police loose on the demonstrators. The police and guardsmen went berserk, and brutalized everyone in sight.

The famous cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who also wrote and directed this film, chose to tell the story as a pseudo-documentary, incorporating some real footage of the time, and seen through the eyes of a fictional TV photojournalist (Robert Forster). The fictional overlay adds a minor theme about journalistic integrity, since the journalist is a totally dispassionate observer of what he is filming. The photographer also had a love interest, played by Verna Bloom, whom he chose over former girlfriend Marianna Hill, a nurse. Bloom plays a single mother of a young boy from Appalachia. As the love story develops, Forster is fired for turning over some outtakes to kids doing light shows, and filming material uncomplimentary to the FBI, which had been reviewing 100% of the film shot by newsmen. Finding out that the blacks he had interviewed were correct about him being a "fink" began to involve him in what he was seeing, as did Verna Bloom and her son.

According to Wexler, the MPAA was told not to like it. They gave an X rating for language and nudity, but when Wexler offered to take out the language and nudity, they said that wouldn't help. The administration and Hoover's FBI were not about to let young people watch this film in 1969.

The ending was chillingly real, the cast was superb, and there was a great deal of bravery involved in shooting this film in the middle of what was going on. Wexler had some insight into what was going to happen in Chicago, and chose to send his actors right into the thick of ground zero, achieving a remarkable blend of fiction and reality. The entire idea was avant garde, and the film is an excellent example of what independent cinema can accomplish.

For me, this was an amazing piece of celluloid, bringing back all of the outrage and disbelief I experienced watching these events unfold over national television, even though the news was heavily censored. There is no way for me to rate this film impartially. Certainly my reaction speaks to its effectiveness. For those who, like me, lived through this, so many of the plot points will bring back memories. For those who don't know what I am talking about, this would be an excellent film to learn what happened there.



  • The DVD includes a feature length commentary.



Marianna Hill does full frontal and rear nudity in a playful scene with Forster early in the film.

For anyone interested in further reading on the 1968 Democratic Convention and its Republican counterpart, there is a great coffee table book of photography from David Douglas Duncan called Self-Portrait USA that is available used and reasonably priced at Amazon. (See above.)  This is a brilliant photo essay contrasting the Democratic Convention in Chicago to the Republican Convention on Miami Beach. If you are the sort of person who visits used book stores, you might watch for it there as well. Since it is oversized, it may well be affordable.



Scoop's notes:

Wexler is either being totally disingenuous or has created his own personal urban legend with that story about the MPAA being instructed to assign an X. The X rating for Medium Cool was completely consistent with the MPAA's then-current policies. In fact, the X was an absolute  no-brainer.

  • The rating system was new at the time, having made its debut on November 1, 1968. The first film to receive an X was Brian De Palma's Greetings, which came out just a few months earlier than Medium Cool, and actually incorporated rather less explicit nudity (i.e., no pubic hair). At the time Medium Cool was released, EVERY film which had ever been submitted to the MPAA with displays of female pubic hair had received an X, and the rating had even been assigned to films without pubic hair. The X for Medium Cool was automatic on that basis alone. Wexler presumably knew that.
  • But Medium Cool went beyond that! Robert Forster was the first man ever to wave his tallywhacker in an American film from a major studio. If you've been keeping score at home, you know that also makes it the first studio film to show male and female frontal nudity. Quite a groundbreaker! It included, by any reasonable definition, the most explicit nudity in an American film since the X rating had been born, so of course it was going to get an X. If any film merited an X, this was it! The MPAA would have presumably assigned the film an X rating on the basis of the male full-frontal nudity alone, even if the film had been a love-poem to LBJ.
  • As you will recall, Midnight Cowboy, which won 1969's Best Picture Oscar, was also rated X, with cleaner language and less explicit nudity than Medium Cool, and no particularly strong political positions. Certainly if Midnight Cowboy was an X, then so was Medium Cool.
  • Who is Wexler kidding? The X rating for this film wasn't some far-right radical position. Frankly, about 99% of American parents would have supported the X for Medium Cool at the time. At the time, middle class parents didn't want their 16 year olds to be seeing movies with frontal nudity. My parents agreed with the decision, although my mom was a liberal Democrat and my dad belonged to the Socialist Worker's Party.
  • The American government wasn't taking a unique position. Medium Cool also received an X certificate in the UK, meaning that it could only be seen by those 16 or older.
  • Finally, the rating had no substantial political value in the first place! An X rating in 1968 simply meant that nobody under 17 could be admitted to the movie. Unlike later times, 17 year olds could go to X-rated films by themselves without any problem in 1968-69. Therefore, high school seniors and all college students could see the movie.
  • Medium Cool, Midnight Cowboy and several others were subsequently re-rated as R movies when the MPAA had had a chance to reflect upon some kind of appropriate cultural standards for the X. In 1968-69, the members of the ratings board had been flying by the seats of their pants. The rating system was brand new, filmmakers were raising the sexual content bar at a rapid rate, and the MPAA was really struggling to keep pace with the changes in society and filmmaking.


The Critics Vote ...


The People Vote ...

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

Our own guideline:

  • A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre.
  • B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. In order to rate at least a B-, a film should be both a critical and commercial success. Exceptions: (1) We will occasionally rate a film B- with good popular acceptance and bad reviews, if we believe the critics have severely underrated a film. (2) We may also assign a B- or better to a well-reviewed film which did not do well at the box office if we feel that the fault lay in the marketing of the film, and that the film might have been a hit if people had known about it. (Like, for example, The Waterdance.)
  • C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by people who enjoy this kind of movie. If this is your kind of movie, a C+ and an A are indistinguishable to you.
  • C means it is competent, but uninspired genre fare. People who like this kind of movie will think it satisfactory. Others probably will not.
  • C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie, but genre addicts find it watchable. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film, but films with this rating should be approached with caution by mainstream audiences, who may find them incompetent or repulsive or both. If this is NOT your kind of movie, a C- and an E are indistinguishable to you.
  • D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-. Films rated below C- generally have both bad reviews and poor popular acceptance.
  • E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre.
  • F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.


Based on this description, this is a B-, perhaps higher than when it was released, since it takes place within significant historical events, thus making it important both in the history of film and in the history of the country.

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