With Paramountís DVD long out of print (and fetching high prices on auction sites) Criterion releases Haskell Wexlerís Medium Cool on Blu-ray in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The transfer, taken from a new 4k scan of the film, is presented in 1080p/24hz.
Though I was aware the transfer was a 4k scan of the original camera negative I still figured the presentation would problematic simply because of how the film was shot. Though technically a fiction film it was actually shot on location during the actual events depicted within the film, the most famous of which is during the demonstration at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Since these moments were hectic, to say the least (a tear gas canister was actually shot at the crew during filming) and there would have been a lot of improvisation on the part of the crew, I was expecting some rough imagery and a fair amount of damage.
These expectations have of course proven to be false. Despite the filmís unusual shooting style the film is in first-rate condition. Thereís some minor damage but itís minimal and barely registers. The image is clear and crisp, with an extraordinary amount of detail and beautifully rendered film grain during 35mm sequence and a sequence shot in 16mm. Colours are especially bold and leap off of the screen, Verna Bloomís yellow dress coming off particularly striking during the final moments of the film.
As far as I could see the digital transfer itself is flawless. It doesnít present any anomalies of any sort and it looks as much like a projected film as it can on the format. Another gorgeous looking transfer. 9/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Paramountís DVD provided a commentary as its sole feature. Criterion has carried that commentary over but has also stacked on a number of new features.
The first commentary track, taken from the Paramount disc, features director Haskell Wexler, editorial consultant Paul Golding, and actor Marianna Hill, which was recorded after a screening of the film in 2001. With Golding acting as the moderator the three talk about the unconventional style of the film and recall how they were able to do what were able to do. The most important element was that Wexler was informed there was going to be a demonstration during the Democratic National Convention, and from that he was able to form a story to base around it, though feared he would have to add other elements to add more drama. This of course turned out not to be the case. While expanding on the ideas presented in the film about the duties of a cameraman they also talk about the locations and events, talk about sequences deleted (which do appear elsewhere on the disc,) talk about the political atmosphere of the time, and offer little trivia bits.
The second track presents historian Paul Cronin (who also directed a couple of the features that appear on this release) who offers a more scholarly look at the film. He opens by stating he aims to reveal the nuances in the film, in its themes, in its breaking of the fourth wall, its technique, and more. He references documents directly from Wexlerís archive of material on the film, even finding items that more than likely influenced some of the various plot threads that appear in the film, and recalls interviews he did while making his documentary Look Out Haskell, Itís Real!.
Ultimately I probably prefer the first track, which has a better rhythm, but they both offer some wonderful insight into the film from both an analytical and technical point of view.
Criterion has then recorded a new 15-minute interview with director Haskell Wexler, where he expands a little bit on things discussed in the commentary. Here he talks more about his background and then goes into more detail about how the film originally started as an adaptation of the novel ďConcrete Wilderness.Ē He then touches on a few story points and goes over some of the sequences in the film. The commentary makes this feature a tad redundant but for those that arenít going to get around to the track itís a decent enough substitute.
Criterion then includes excerpts from Croninís Look Out Haskell, Itís Real! , his 2001 documentary on the making of the film, which features interviews with Wexler, Verna Bloom, Robert Forster, and more. It offers recollections and insights from its participants on the filmís construction, development, and they all provide plenty of interesting stories, but what may prove most fascinating and interesting is the collection of outtakes/deleted scenes scattered about, along with the recollections of some of the unwitting participants of the film, like General Richard T. Dunn, who thought Wexler was making a documentary (as mentioned throughout the supplements many thought Forster was a cameraman himself, so it was never lead on that a film was being made where the main character was a a cameraman.) My understanding is the length of the film is 55-minutes and we only get 53-minutes here. Iím not sure what has been cut or why, though Iím assuming it may have something to do with Paramountís handling of the film.
We also get another set of excerpts from another of Croninís films, this time 16-minuteís worth from Sooner or Later, where he goes in search of Harold Blankenship, who played the boy Harold in the film. Throughout the features heís mentioned of course (he pulled off of the streets to star in the film) but no one seems to be sure what became of him. Here Cronin has tracked him down, now living in a trailer in the boonies. He fondly recalls the time making the film, but talks about his regrets and the poor decisions he made through life. His one real regret was not finishing school, stopping at grade 8. He and his brother also talk about their mother and the rough life that followed. Itís a rather intriguing feature, especially since Iíve always been curious as to what happened to him, but the selection of excerpts oddly includes many clips from the film, which seems a little unnecessary.
ĒMedium CoolĒ Revisited is a 2012 short by Wexler, covering the Occupy movement as it was in Chicago. Here he gathers interviews with participants, who talk about what the movement means, and in what I guess is an attempt to link it to Medium Cool he looks at how the media presents the events. He edits in clips from the film, though for me this never really seemed to work in the context of this film, even when he questions the narrative the media goes with. But itís a decent document of the moment, even if itís not entirely objective in its view. It runs 33-minutes.
The disc then closes with the original theatrical trailer and the enclosed booklet includes a lengthy essay by Thomas Beard that basically summarizes everything found in the supplements.
Itís a unique film with a great history and Criterion covers all of the material rather beautifully and thoroughly, exactly what I would expect from the company. 9/10