Watch: RIP Haskell Wexler, 1922-2015
‘Medium Cool’ is probably my favorite Chicago movie. I remember learning about it in college and then frantically seeking it out on DVD; at the time it was a hard film to find. (This was before it got the Criterion release.) I eventually got my hands on a burned DVD copy and watched it several times. For those unfamiliar with the film, it tells the story of a TV news cameraman (Robert Forster) who gets swept up in the melting hot summer of 1968 in Chicago, climaxing with the riots at the Democratic National Convention. The film had a cinéma vérité-style look to it, with many handheld shots that punch in on the action and moments of high drama. It’s an immersive experience, that is documentary-like at times, with the success owed directly to the film’s writer, director and cinematographer, Haskell Wexler. It’s amazing that Wexler pulled this all off, too, considering that he actually filmed it in the summer of 1968, placing his lead actors right in the middle of the riots as they were happening. When I learned of Wexler’s passing on Sunday
afternoon, I was visiting some friends just down the street from Grant Park, where the climactic and stirring riot footage of ‘Medium Cool
‘ was filmed. I couldn’t stop thinking about the film as I took the "L" (our elevated transit train in Chicago) home that night, looking out the windows, seeing all the city landmarks that Wexler shot with his camera. I then remembered a special evening back in 2010, when I attended a small screening of ‘Medium Cool’ at the University of Chicago’s Film Studies Center. Wexler was in attendance, and afterwards he discussed the film in front of the cozily seated audience. I leaned forward in my seat for most of that discussion, studying this accomplished cinematographer, who wore a baseball hat and leather jacket. He spoke with an insight devoid of cynicism. It was just plain, simple diction, but still full of depth and takeaways. I later learned that he was also a two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer (for ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’
and ‘Bound For Glory’), who, in addition to working on big Hollywood films, also made a laundry list of commercials and documentary short films. This was in addition to his passion projects (like ‘Medium Cool’) which he funded by working on those bigger feature films. He even photographed what looks to be at least half of Terrence Malick’s ‘Days of Heaven’—but bizarrely only received an "additional photography" credit (the Oscar for that film would go to director of photography Néstor Almendros). Even today I’m still learning more about the endlessly fascinating and unquestionably prolific Wexler. Revisiting just a fraction of his filmography in my video tribute to him, I can only begin to scratch at the surface of how great his eye for images was. And now that he’s gone, his films will continue to live on, and Wexler should find peace in knowing that "the whole world is watching."
Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.