Fifty Years Later: The Afterlives of Medium Cool

In the introduction to the anthology May ’68 and Its Afterlives, Kristin Ross clarifies that her use of the term ‘afterlife’ should not be taken to refer to the cascade of remembrances, regrets, and ruminations on mistakes made and opportunities seized in the wake of the famous student-worker uprisings in Paris. For Ross, the essential point is that the historical experience of May ’68 is at such a remove that it is inseparable from the discursive and material layers of “social memory and forgetting”. [1] She writes that the “management of May’s memory… is now… at the center of the historical problem of 1968 itself”. [2] In a similar vein the management of our collective memory of the protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago on 28th August 1968 is closely allied with the actions themselves. Reminiscences from those who were present that day in Grant Park were shared and disseminated around this event’s 50th anniversary as were more generalized reflections on the significance of all the other events of that year, including the Tet Offensive and the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. Through historical contemplation, the object of memorialization both fades and re-emerges as the very conflicts that constituted it are regenerated. An afterlife, then, both foregrounds the active mediation of ‘social memory’ as well as the way in which the work of making meaning shapes the original events themselves. As we traverse the 50th anniversary of Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool(1969), it seems foolish to not take this opportunity to reflect on how this New Hollywood classic gives cinematic expression to Ross’s historiographic assertions. As the historic chants of “the whole world is watching” at the ’68 Democratic National Convention insist, Medium Cool always compels audiences to reflect as much on the nature of the watching as we do on the worlds depicted. Following Piper French’s recent insights, Medium Cool‘s “true occupation” is not simply the social and political struggles presented, but rather the manner of their presentation and the “ethics of shooting film”. [3]

Brett Morgen’s film Chicago 10 (2007) sought to revisit the events of Chicago 1968, as well as their aftermath for a new generation, even hoping to fire up activist imaginations as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan raged. Yet the restaging of events and the use of motion-capture animation left the film’s representation of the historic protests in Grant Park somewhat hollowed out and distant. Writing for Film Comment, Paul Arthur insists that Morgen’s attempts to make history discernible and relatable for a younger generation yielded a “muddle of barely coherent pandering”. [4] But Medium Cool makes a brief appearance in Chicago 10, serving as a kind of archive from which Morgen could draw. This particular afterlife of Medium Cool accentuates the film’s proximity to the historical moment and demonstrates how our fascination with the film increases with the passing of time. Our digital means of accessing the film yields what Laura Mulvey has characterized in Death 24x a Second as “delayed cinema”, which implies, in part, the “actual act of slowing down the film”, or a “delay in time during which some detail has lain dormant, waiting to be noticed”. [5] Medium Cool over time invites such a slowing down in part because it straddles both ends of Ross’s notion of an historical afterlife by offering up both preserved moments as well as a reflection on their meaning. Indeed, an anniversary is an opportunity to slow down and reckon with how the passage of time has changed our perception of something, in this case both of a film and the socio-historical conflicts it registers. While ruminating on an historically proximate film that features Wexler’s cinematography – In the Heat of the Night (1967) – James Baldwin reminds us that “[t]he history which produces such a film cannot, after all, be swiftly understood, nor can the effects of this history be easily resolved”. [6] Returning to Medium Cool is a statement in itself that this indeed is “such a film” and the history that produced it resists swift comprehension.

This dossier, then, represents a collective insistence on the value of re-reading this film from a plurality of vantage points. To a significant degree all of the contributions here position Medium Cool in relation to historically adjacent film practices: transnational and domestic; narrative, documentary and art cinema. But the present-day positionality of the authors persists as the insights of feminist film historiography, critical race theory, urban studies, and a cultural history of cinematography are brought to bear on the film. These efforts thus yield a series of historically informed readings that shed light on underappreciated tensions and affirmations within Medium Cool. For instance, Lawrence Webb’s contribution, “The Woman in the Yellow Dress: Medium Cool, the Wandering Woman, and the Gendered Historiography of New Hollywood”, rejects a prevailing tendency on the part of critics and film historians to read the character of Eileen (played by Verna Bloom) as a mere instrument for the recording of the historic protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Verna Bloom’s situation within the landscape of social protest and the retaliation of the state produces neither a passive presence nor a utility for the registration of reality. Rather, Webb insists, Bloom’s Eileen emerges as a generative figure in the film’s concluding scenes, one whose very mobility authorizes the film’s entanglement of fiction and nonfiction. Casting the film in light of the flâneuse, the straying figure of Eileen affirms Medium Cool‘s entrenchment between modernist European cinema and New Hollywood. Far from marginal, then, the mobility of Eileen at the end of Medium Cool should be viewed, Webb argues, as playing a “central role in the film – a role that engages a wider cultural history of the female walker onscreen, with all its political possibilities and ambivalences”. This line of argument also propels Webb into a broader critique of New Hollywood historiography, which has often marginalized female creative labour. Critical reception of Medium Cool has, in this light, been fundamentally impaired by a masculinist, auteurist framework that occludes full recognition of the contributions of the women who worked on the film, including Verna Bloom as well as Verna Fields (editor), Marcia Griffin (assistant editor), and Kay Rose (sound editor).

In “The Uptown Hortons: Perceptions of Urban White Poverty in a Radical Chicago”, Devin Hunter similarly teases significance out of elements otherwise considered or presumed to be background or mere scaffolding for narrative information. Indeed, one of the most compelling aspects of Medium Cool is the way in which dimensions of narrative cinema that are classically positioned as utilitarian transition into features that overwhelm, disturb, and displace the characters and their concerns. Perhaps these aspects of the film become more prominent as time goes on as examples of the dormant details noted above by Mulvey. But of course Hunter makes a convincing case for reading the neighbourhood of Uptown and the “Uptown subplot” as more than a canvas for dormant details. By shedding light on the film’s incorporation of Uptown into its narrative, we see how Uptown’s presence makes other, more spectacular events possible. Uptown’s inclusion in the film is also indicative of the neighbourhood’s place in the Chicago imaginary. As the author notes, the film invites us to reflect on the “symbolic environment of Uptown” as an entry point for the working poor, among whom the white demographic were frequently upheld, studied, and featured in news reports, scholarship, and the work of community organisers. These cultural dimensions of the neighbourhood persist here leaving the role of Uptown, in the words of Hunter, caught “in-between a cameo or supporting role”.

Joshua Gleich’s essay, “Medium Cool: A Statement to Cinematographers”, labels Wexler’s film a historical “limit case” for the integration of documentary camerawork into a narrative film. The oft-cited hybridity of Medium Cool is tethered here to a particular paradigmatic shift in the perception of the camera’s role in narration. Through a review of the seminal trade journal of the American Society of Cinematographers, American Cinematography, Gleich identifies a pervasive and explicit tradition of narrative camerawork whose renewal and re-invention is enabled by Wexler’s entanglement of nonfictional and fictional camera techniques. From this point of view, Medium Cool‘s reflexive accentuation of the camera’s role in the narrative experience represents an important pivot in the history of American cinematography, one that foregrounds rather than conceals contingency and the camera’s presence in narrative cinema. One can sense the reverberations of Wexler’s cinematographic choices in James Laxton’s reflections on his own camerawork in Barry Jenkin’s masterful Moonlight (2016). In this commentary, Laxton insists on the value of affirming the camera’s presence in implicit and explicit ways through an admixture of handheld mobility, lens flares, and direct address. For Laxton, “this idea that the medium is always present when watching something … is a good thing”. [7] Gleich’s commentary on the cinematographic contours of Medium Cool speaks more broadly, then, to discursive shifts in how practitioners and critics perceive the increasingly hazy line between documentary and narrative camerawork.

My essay, “We Have a Visitor: Boundary Crossings and White Allyship in Haskell Wexler’s The Bus and Medium Cool“, similarly foregrounds shifts in cinematographic practice in the 1960s with a particular focus on the racial politics of observation and participation. It specifically draws inspiration from George Yancy’s postulation that white allyship is predicated on a double bind that necessitates a coinciding of activist solidarity with a critical awareness of how whiteness is always bound to structures of power. This perspective helps us understand the range of postures adopted by Wexler’s camera in his observational documentary The Bus, as well as Medium Cool where a continuum of white alligare is traversed, from problematic romantic observation to a critical reflexivity that looks ahead to contemporary activist media cultures. The inaugural insight that animates this piece focuses on the inverse rhyming between two scenes of (dis)invitation. The first features a warm solicitation from a white family of Civil Rights activists to Wexler and his crew in The Bus, cementing an alliance early on in the film that never wavers. This both resonates and conflicts with the famous scene in Medium Cool in which a television cameraperson, John Cassellis, and his sound recordist, Gus, visit a Black neighbourhood in their pursuit of a human interest story. Needless to say, the welcome issued by the white allies to the camera crew in The Bus is a far cry from the scepticism expressed by the Black radicals to the cynical white media producers. This simple contrast sets up a particular way of looking at Medium Cool as well as Wexler’s previous work in documentary in order to highlight a “specific structure of feeling within the North American documentary tradition that highlights a self-conscious politics of white allyship and solidarity”.

Paula Rabinowitz has argued elsewhere that feminist film practices of the 1960s and ’70s can be read within the broad contours of what she characterizes as the “long 1968,” a phrase that acknowledges that 1968 is “not so much a year as an era.” [8] It is difficult, if not impossible, to shake the sense that we are presently in the midst of a long 2020, a year that has seemingly assumed the status of an era. Attempts are already underway to tease out or resist comparisons between 1968 and 2020 [9], especially in the wake of widespread global uprisings over the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop. Resistance against the savage state oppression of African-Americans yielded marches in the streets that Jamil Smith characterized as “flowing bloodstreams through cities that had been lifeless during the pandemic”. [10] With chants and signs proclaiming, “Black Lives Matter”, the movement started by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi provided a mantra for confronting the historical entrenchment of anti-Blackness in militaristic police departments across the United States. As the protests arose, scenes of police in riot gear tear gassing peaceful protestors in Minneapolis, Oakland, and Atlanta commingled with footage of police attacking journalists in the course of doing their job, apparently anxious that the world is indeed watching. [11] How the afterlife of Medium Cool can be said to intersect or resonate with this historical moment, with the long 2020, is difficult to say at this juncture. As implied at the outset of this preface, to reflect on Medium Cool‘s significance many decades later is to consider the afterlife of an afterlife: it is both a product of the events of 1968 and a retroactive reflection on those same events. If anything, its failings as well as its achievements speak to the stakes of how we narrate, document, and remember pivotal historical events. As the four essays included here foreground the entanglements of the long afterlife of Wexler’s classic film, a critical claim here is that the limitations, excesses, and possibilities associated with this film grant it status as a unique artefact of its time, one that consolidates a multiplicity of aesthetic tensions while calling attention to their social and political stakes. By revisiting the film’s dense display of shifting cinematographic practices, the meaningfulness of place, as well as the perils encountered through the crossing of thresholds on many fronts, this issue seeks to sustain critical interest in a film that disturbs any desire for easy resolution.

[1] Kristin Ross, May ’68 and Its Afterlives (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002), p. 1.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Piper French, “High Visibility: Reexamining ‘Medium Cool’ on Its 50th Anniversary,” Los Angeles Review of Books, August 23, 2019,
[4] Paul Arthur, “Chicago 10,” Film Comment 44, no. 1 (Jan/Feb 2008): p. 73.
[5] Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion Books, 2006): p. 8.
[6] James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), p. 58.
[7] Qtd. in Paul Moakley, “Inside the Cinematography of Moonlight“, Time, February 22, 2017,
[8] Paula Rabinowitz, “Medium Uncool: Women Shoot Back; Feminism, Film and 1968 — A Curious Documentary,” Science and Society 65, no. 1 (Spring 2000): p.74
[9] See Michael A. Cohen, “Stop the Comparisons to 1968. America is Facing a Very Different Set of Risks Today”, The Boston Globe, June 2, 2020, (Accessed June 19, 2020); David Von Drehle, “The Differences between 1968 and Today”, The Washington Post, June 1, 2020, (Accessed June 19, 2020); James Fallows, “Is This the Worst Year in Modern American History?” The Atlantic, May 31, 2020, (Accessed June 19, 2020); Zachary Karabell, “No, This Isn’t as Bad as 1968 (So Far),” Politico, June 1, 2020, (Accessed June 19, 2020).
[10] Jamil Smith, “The Power of Black Lives Matter: How the Movement that’s Changing America Was Built and Where It Goes Next,” Rolling Stone, June 16, 2020, (Accessed June 17, 2020).
[11] Brian Hauss and Teresa Nelson, “Police are Attacking Journalists at Protests. We’re Suing”, American Civil Liberties Union, June 3, 2020, (Accessed 6/21/20).

About the Author

Stephen Charbonneau

About the Author

Stephen Charbonneau

Stephen Charbonneau is an Associate Professor of Film Studies and Graduate Director in the School of Communication and Multimedia Studies at Florida Atlantic University. His work on the intersection of participatory media, documentary film and everyday life has been published in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, Jump Cut, Framework, Spectator, Journal of Popular Culture, and numerous anthologies. He is also the author of Projecting Race: Postwar America, Civil Rights and Documentary Film (2016) and co-editor (with Chris Robé) of InsUrgent Media from the Front: A Media Activism Reader (2020).View all posts by Stephen Charbonneau →