“The Concrete Wilderness” by Paul Cullum (Arthur, 2004)

Originally published in Arthur No. 13 (November 2004)

The Concrete Wilderness
A “Camera Obscura” column by Paul Cullum

CAMERA OBSCURA is a regular column examining the world and its lesser trafficked tributaries, recesses and psychic fallout through the filters of film, video and DVD.

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Discussed herein:

Medium Cool (1969)
Directed by Haskell Wexler
(Paramount Home Video)

Look Out, Haskell, It’s Real (2001)
Directed by Paul Cronin

Tell Them Who You Are (2004)
Directed by Mark Wexler
(currently awaiting distribution)

Soldiers Pay (2004)
Directed by David O. Russell, Tricia Regan and Juan Carlos Zaldivar
(DVD extra with Uncovered: The War on Iraq, directed by Robert Greenwald, available through http://www.cinemalibrestudio.com).

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“This is a potential throw of the dice that could bring the media on our heads and cut the Democratic Party in half; my view is that we would have by far the larger half.” —Speechwriter Pat Buchanan in an internal 1972 White House memo advocating confrontation as policy

In these last dark days before November, as we count down to occupation or deliverance, rage or terror, the mind reclaimed or compulsory reeducation from the soles of the feet up, one film lights our way clear. In 1968, John Wayne directed The Green Berets, which famously ends on the beach at Da Nang with the sun setting in the east—a special effect of such audacity that it rivals the scripted ways we’ve choreographed combat ever since. Superman could sooner circle the earth and turn back time.

But that’s not the film I’m thinking of. I am thinking of its polar opposite.

In 1968, Haskell Wexler took his reputation as A-list cinematographer, respected documentarian, verité pathfinder, his Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and his good-faith line of credit at the studios and rolled them all on one admitted act of madness. Hired to direct a film version of the novel The Concrete Wilderness by the inmates running the institution at Paramount—Peter Bart, Robert Evans and Charlie Bluhdorn—Wexler wrote a script, drew up a budget, hired a cast and then, without telling anybody, junked it all to make the movie he wanted. So instead of a young boy cultivating pigeons in Central Park, we have Robert Forster playing a news cameraman oblivious to his role in the news around him, documenting the pigeons drawn to Lincoln Park in Chicago in August, 1968—the ones who would justify the police state being advocated inside the Democratic Convention hall to clamp down the era. In the process, Wexler managed to capture the one battle royale at the crest of the culture war on 35mm film. With the Clinton brain trust (Carville, Begala) now steering Kerry to port, highlighting the war hero-turned-agitator, and with the Reagan brain trust (Peggy Noonan, Michael Deaver, possibly Lyn Nofziger) reportedly guiding Bush to starboard, with its “Swift Boat Veterans” and “Hanoi Jane” alarmism, that war is still being fought today.

What paralyzes film as a medium of topicality is that it is automatically at least three years past its sell-by date by the time you see it—the time it takes a script to gestate and gel, executives to deliberate, actors to commit, the big trucks to roll, months of editorial synthesis and the media to be alerted. You’d have to look to Soderbergh and Erin Brockovich or Traffic, or before that David O. Russell’s still underrated Three Kings, nominally about the first Gulf War, to find studio directors willing to engage the topical issues of the day. If conflict is the crux of character, and the world today stoked with conflict to burn, no wonder so many four-wheel-drive studio vehicles wind up rusted and abandoned, axle-deep in mud.

Medium Cool remains the one narrative feature which proves the exception: Conceived in January during the Tet Offensive, it was constantly deflecting off the times throughout production. As such, it marks a kind of travelogue of the ‘60s: Lyndon Johnson declined the nomination in March, throwing the August convention into free-for-all. Martin Luther King is shot in April, the ghettoes burn and Forster and soundman Peter Bonerz (later of The Bob Newhart Show) are sent to “Resurrection City,” the tent city on the Washington Mall housing the remnants of King’s Poor People’s March, or to debrief black activists in their Chicago apartment. Campaign workers are interviewed outside Kennedy headquarters; when Robert Kennedy is assassinated a month later, the film recreates the interior of the Ambassador Hotel kitchen where he was shot (off the line, “So it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there”) and sends its fake news crew to the actual funeral. We get probably the first discussion of the Kennedy assassination (the first one) in a Hollywood film, and certainly the first mention of the dangers of artificial sweeteners.

Much of this context is to be found in a fine companion piece inexplicably left off the DVD—Paul Cronin’s Look Out Haskell, It’s Real: The Making of ‘Medium Cool’, a 55-minute documentary currently screening on the Sundance Channel. Cronin has contributed to books on Cassavetes and Herzog and made films on Alexander Mackendrick, the director of The Sweet Smell of Success, and Amos Vogel, founder of New York’s Cinema 16. Here, a cavalcade of ’60s action figures sit for interviews—Studs Terkel (listed in Medium Cool’s credits as “Our Man in Chicago”), SDS activist-turned-author Todd Gitlin, Chicago 7 lawyer Leonard Weinglass—or are visible in outtakes: Allen Ginsberg wanders through the frame in Lincoln Park; Jesse Jackson stands atop a car in D.C., fist raised.

Buried beneath Medium Cool’s breakneck speed and ruthless experimentalism are any number of lean-to set pieces that could have been—and sometimes were—movies in themselves Buried beneath Medium Cool’s breakneck speed and ruthless experimentalism are any number of lean-to set pieces that could have been—and sometimes were—movies in themselves (last-minute floor passes to the convention hall were arranged by Warren Beatty, and similar shots found their way into The Parallax View; a subplot of a TV station forwarding demonstration footage to the police and FBI is basically the dramatic engine of Under Fire, relocated to El Salvador).

But it was the Chicago riots that earn the film its purple heart. In the face of Mayor Daley’s mandate to police to “Clear the fuckers out of the city,” and armed with hipster recon from producer Jonathan Haze (Seymour in the original Little Shop of Horrors), who was partying with the future Chicago 7 every night, Wexler put his first-time actress, Verna Bloom (Dean Wormer’s wife in Animal House), literally in harm’s way—in a manner that makes Herzog seem restrained. At the very moment that Russian tanks were rolling through Prague, we can experience U.S. armored personnel carriers and Jeeps mounted with fully-loaded 50-caliber machine guns subjugating the Windy City and hippies in football helmets piling up park benches, medics at the ready. Chants of “Pigs eat shit” and “Pigs are whores” are intercut with a cop clubbing a protester, shouting, “You stinking commie!” (giving a whole new cluster of meanings to Carl Sandburg’s “hog butcher of the world”). And through it all snakes Bloom in a bright yellow dress, as incongruous in her surroundings as the little girl in red in the otherwise black-and-white Schindler’s List. In the aftermath, we see the carnage in real time, while a disembodied woman’s voice wails on the soundtrack, “You motherfuckers!” Among the victims are Wexler himself, his eyes being flushed out with water, debilitated by a tear gas canister fired point blank at the camera.

Yet for all its celebrated verité, the film is awash in Godard. A poster of Belmondo from Breathless hangs over Forster’s fireplace; the bookended car crashes are airlifted straight out of Weekend; and the final shot is Wexler himself, who turns the camera on the audience—the tracking shot that closes Contempt, superimposed over the old Paramount newsreels—to a chant of “The whole world is watching.” Forster’s character is named John Cassolaris as a concession to John Cassavetes, who was originally slated to play the part under his own name, and Bloom’s character can be glimpsed in the opening cocktail party scene, an hour before she is introduced (she precedes the line “beaten to death by a mob”). And a death is foretold on the radio minutes before it occurs.

This extends to the line that gives the documentary its title—“Look out, Haskell—it’s real!”—which appears before the CS canister goes off in their face. It was, by Wexler’s own admission, added in post-production, since war zone conditions prevented them from shooting synch sound. And the speaker of that line? Haskell’s son Mark Wexler, who has just directed a reportedly irascible portrait of his father called Tell Them Who You Are, in the fashion of Aiyana Elliott’s The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack, so new that it has only shown twice at the Toronto Film Festival (where Roger Ebert raved about it). This is the Haskell Wexler who was fired from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Conversation, who famously clashed with Michael Moore on Canadian Bacon and who risked industry condemnation by interviewing the Weathermen in Underground, which was subpoenaed by the FBI, and following Jane Fonda to North Vietnam to shoot Introduction to the Enemy (he also joined her for both Coming Home and Klute, for which he won his second Oscar). Can’t wait to see it.

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And where are the cinematic rabblerousers of our own day? Well, on the verge of releasing I Heart Huckabee’s, his first film in five years, Three Kings director David O. Russell has taken the occasion of Warner’s planned re-release of his 1999 film to make a half-hour documentary on Iraq, The Sequel.

Soldiers Pay (declarative, not possessive), co-directed with Tricia Regan and Juan Carlos Zaldivar, catches up with Three Kings bit players, real-life Kelly’s Heroes, armchair Ottomans and fruit-salad generals who somehow got sucked into Operation Desert Nam. Between the water-rationed Marines describing Haliburton mercenaries who pull down $300K, or supply sergeants out “requisitioning” computers to play videogames on, we get the occasional 1,000-word picture, like a khaki-clad warrior squatting next to graffiti that reads: “Ha Ha—Our God’s Better Than Your God.”

When Warner’s caved to political pressure and scrapped the whole thing, microdistributor Cinema Libre stepped in and offered to piggyback the featurette onto Part 3 of Robert Greenwald’s Anti-Bush Tetralogy, Uncovered: The War in Iraq (Unprecedented and Outfoxed are on DVD; next up is Unconstitutional, on the Patriot Act). Meanwhile, as a land bridge linking the two (films and wars), consider this scene from a New York Times profile that ran September 12, 1999, two years before you know what:

“After listening to Mr. Bush’s remarks to the Hollywood crowd, Mr. Russell decided to tell him that Three Kings would be coming out just before the primaries and did not reflect favorably on his father’s leadership in the Gulf War. ‘You could see this look of uncomprehending concern and panic wash over his face,’ Mr. Russell recalls. Mr. Bush again seemed to be studying Mr. Russell’s clothes. ‘And then he immediately snapped into Presidential mode, and said, ‘Well, am I going to have to go finish the job?’”

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DVDs/videos courtesy of Cinefile, the official video store of Arthur. Contact Cinefile at (310) 312-8836 or http://www.cinefilevideo.com.