Click television image to play "turtles"

Consumer Culpability:
The Responsibility of the Witness

In his book, Dispatches, about covering the war in Vietnam in the 1960s, correspondent Michael Herr describes his reasons for visiting and writing about that country: "I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did" (21). Filmmaker Haskell Wexler takes up this question of the responsibility of the witness in Medium Cool. He argues that the cameraman and the viewer both are liable; that they must not hide from reality behind the camera lens and the television screen, rather they must acknowledge it, un-obscured, and act. Wexler uses self-reflexive camera techniques to call attention to his own function behind the camera, and uses direct address to speak to the film viewer's role as well.

Here are a few clips that address these issues. In the first, Cassellis's lover asks him whether the cameramen of the Italian movie, Mondo Cane, helped a group of radiated turtles, or simply shot footage of the creatures and abandoned them. Cassellis, in this early scene, brushes off her concern with a joke.

Click television image to play "jive interview"

Later in the film, the cameraman visits a black Chicago neighborhood looking for a human-interest assignment. In this clip, three black characters articulate their frustration with the media, addressing first Cassellis, and then the camera directly. "The tube is life," one says—a claim worth re-evaluating in the context of Wexler's film.

The film's final sequence, and the soundtrack during the credits that follow further illustrate Wexler's argument about the responsibility of the witness. The film's fictional thread is literally obliterated in this last scene, when Eileen and John drive away from the demonstrations, listening to radio coverage in dumbstruck silence—the narrative dialogue having dissolved rapidly after the film's transition to scenes of "reality." As the pair listens to shocked radio witnesses testify about the demonstrations, Eileen and John's faces are washed white, effaced by the sky's reflection in the windshield. Their death in a car accident seconds later is preceded by a news announcement of the event—re-asserting the strange nature of instantaneous mass media, which sometimes shapes events even as it reports them. A car drives past the scene of the wreck, slowing only enough for a young boy to snap a photograph, a moment that parallels and inverts the film's first sequence when John calmly and callously filmed a car wreck before calling for an ambulance.

Click television image to play "final sequence"
In these final shots, Wexler returns to the issue of media responsibility: is the cameraman accountable for what he witnesses, or, as John's soundman argues in an earlier scene, is he merely the elongation of the machine, a cold and inhumane recorder of images? Now, John—like other journalists in the week's events—has become an unwilling participant observer and, subsequently a victim of, the violence he before refused to notice in front of his camera. The notion of his culpability is underscored by a final tracking shot that zooms back and far above the accident scene to Wexler himself who swivels his large camera to face the screen in a self-reflexive acknowledgement of the film's accountability as a witness, and by implication, the film viewer's responsibility for what he has seen, too.