Today’s popular culture is addled with hastily shifting imagery across all media, which has fostered vast quantities of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in younger people. Though MTV has bore most of the blame, the recent trend towards quick-cutting in modern film and video can be traced back twenty years prior to the downfall of that once-musical network. In Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool (1969), hasty sequencing is employed throughout, though not to pander to an ADD mentality.
Medium Cool casts the fictionalized shenanigans of TV cameraman John Cassellis (Robert Forster) into the very real events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Viewers have long debated the spontaneity and candidness of the scenes in which Cassellis is plunged into the true-life firestorms of racial tension and rioting; the end results resembling not so much a suspense thriller as a reality TV docudrama. Wexler was striving to capture the blunt effects of real-time social malaise on celluloid, and he succeeded at the expense of cinematic symmetry.
Upon its initial release, columnist Roger Ebert stated that the power of Medium Cool is in the character’s refusal to “[stop] at B on their way from A to C.” He insisted that audiences had become so familiar with the conventions of storytelling that they had overcome their need for slow and linear plotlines. From a few telling snapshots in time, audiences could now piece stories together through situational citations. Ebert further pointed to Steve McQueen’s Bullitt as an example of modern cinema dispensing with finer detail in order to “[move] at our speed.”
His assessment is fair enough, for when taken as isolated works, both movies stand as gripping examples of outré filmmaking. But when viewed as the new tradition of storytelling in an age where audiences have lost their patience for detail, Ebert’s forecasts ring ominous. A parallel could be drawn between the precedents Ebert outlined and a similar development which occurred earlier during the 20th century in the realm of literature. Much like cinema of the 1930s and 40s had been lavish and story driven, novels and short stories of the 19th century had been broad and colorful in their literary scope. One might think of Charlie Chaplin as a cinematic Washington Irving.
But then emerged the icons of the Lost Generation, who spurned literary whimsy to forge a minimalist brand of storytelling. The brash narrative to An Alcoholic Case by F. Scott Fitzgerald forecast the modern TV medical drama in much the same way that Medium Cool presaged COPS. Which is where this viewer draws the line, for while wreckage can make for a useful cautionary tale, it’s not something I want to see made into an art form.