The great cinematographer Haskell Wexler died yesterday at age 93. There will be a million appreciations of him today; I just thought I’d tip my hat to him about something quite small and personal.
Wexler shot dozens of classic and award-winning films, of course, but he may be best admired for the fictional film he directed in 1968, Medium Cool. Like most other film students, I was introduced to this sui generis artifact as part of my school curriculum at NYU. There are many ways to slice it up, many ways to admire it — aesthetically, politically, philosophically, culturally, technologically, historically. The latter aspect is one I especially love to sink my teeth into. Most people probably remember the film’s most obvious story element: the Chicago news reporter (Robert Forster) and the actual riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention. But then there’s a sub-plot…a young lady from West Virginia, played by Verna Bloom (today best remembered as Dean Wormer’s sexy wife in Animal House) and her little boy. The sophisticated big city reporter meets and romances this hillbilly lady and her semi-feral son, who later get entangled in all the chaos in the streets. It’s eloquent: the old America drowning in the new reality. But what I’ve always cherished about it is that the experience is very close to my family’s, and various scenes in the film ring familiar to me. My dad’s family were from the hills of Tennessee and came north with the post-war Great Migration. That huge movement of humans is normally written about in terms of the black experience — so many of our great musicians, for example, were part of the northern migration. But poor whites went north looking for work as well (they were to have been included in Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign) , and this might be the only time I’ve seen that aspect represented in a major film. The boy and her son are fish out of water in the north (much as my dad’s family were), and Medium Cool shows the awkwardness of the transplantation in many subtle little ways. It’s an odd thing to have chosen to have put in his film — I’d like to know what inspired it. But it’s always caused me to form a strong personal bond with a film that would have dazzled me anyway.