Thursday, August 28, 2008

King: A Cinematic Recollection

[Jonathan from Cinema Styles] 45 years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. It was delivered as the culmination of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Five years later King would be assassinated just one day after delivering his "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speech in Memphis, Tennessee.

In 1969 Haskell Wexler, the noted cinematographer, directed the film Medium Cool. It takes place in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Convention and is justifiably famous for combining real footage with the actors in the film to such an extent that the line is blurred between what is real and what is not. Not by the usual methods of interlacing documentary footage into a fiction film. No. In Medium Cool Wexler and his crew were in Chicago in 1968 and filmed their actors amidst riots and clashes with police. Since the fiction footage and the real footage were both shot by Wexler, the blend is seamless and makes for an extraordinary historical record.

Late in the movie John Cassellis (a television cameraman played by Robert Forster) is watching a news documentary on Martin Luther King with Eileen (Verna Bloom). As they watch King's "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speech Wexler closes his camera in on Eileen, a school teacher transplanted from West Virginia to Chicago, and observes the effects on both characters.

We watch Eileen who is emotionally connected to what she is seeing until we hear John who sees only media technique. His words, listening to this heart wrenching speech by King? "Jesus, I love to shoot film." Eileen's visual response is bewilderment. As he goes on about tv, asking rhetorical questions about where it gets its power, Eileen says, "I don't know what to think. Seems like no man's life's worth anything anymore."

Watching Medium Cool today is like exploring a time capsule of Chicago, 1968. As we watch the chaos and witness the despair of many characters we remember that despite all of it, it is the hope of the sixties, the hope of men like King that lives on today. Movies like Medium Cool remind us of the chaos, but King's "I Have a Dream" and "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speeches remind us of the courage, and the principles, of this great man during that turbulent period in American history.


Anonymous said...

I love that scene. Lovely post, Jonathan.

spartickes said...

I think you meant 45 years ago? Although zombie MLK does have some possibilities, I doubt speechifying would be his strong suit.

Do I get 5 bucks too?

Anonymous said...

Too bad the daughter of great thinkers like Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King is a bigot.

Greg said...

Thanks Rick. It's a movie that made such an impact upon release but seems to have been lost to time now. Glad to know someone else knows and likes it.

Greg said...

Spartickes - Oops. Thanks, I made the correction. And the five bucks is just for Fox (inside Cinema Styles joke everybody).

Greg said...

Mariposa - I'm not aware of what you're talking about. Details?

Anonymous said...

Cool an actual post about MLK on this blog. I knew it wasn't Nathaniel. It had to be someone else. MLK day came and went. Nothing. Black History Month? Nothing. And to think I actually gave money to this blog? Yet, there were a post about Halloween.WTF