The Whole World Is Watching: Medium Cool and the 1968 Chicago Convention

Luckey, Alexis Dayton, Department of English, University of Virginia
Howard, Alan, Department of English, University of Virginia
Sullivan, John, Department of English, University of Virginia

"The whole world is watching!" protesters chanted when brutal clashes broke out between Chicago policemen and demonstrators outside the National Democratic Convention in 1968. The week’s events, broadcast to living rooms across the nation, would be recalled by many as a defining moment of the turbulent 1960s—when the divide between hawks and doves, blacks and whites, old and young, seemed an irreparable schism. In Medium Cool, shot against the backdrop of the Chicago riots, filmmaker Haskell Wexler weaves a fictional narrative around the dramatic historic events, examining issues of violence, media responsibility, and viewer accountability through the experiences of protagonist John Cassellis, a television cameraman. The film calls attention to the way in which media shapes experience in American society, enabling the development of what historian Daniel Boorstin terms the “pseudo-event”—a mediated representation of reality substituted for the real thing. As the film unfolds, Cassellis begins to question his role behind the camera, and the media’s function in supporting the institutional structure that some Americans (particularly those who sympathized with the youth countercultural movements in the late 1960s) blamed for perpetuating political and social injustice. By wedding his story with real events in Chicago, Wexler invokes the urgency of reality. The film addresses problems of actual and immediate import that, through self-reflexive cinematic techniques, entreat viewers to probe their own consciousness as media consumers. This website places Medium Cool within its historical context and presents examples of the convention week’s media coverage in order to show how the violent events in Chicago proved to be an especially prescient demonstration of Wexler’s arguments about media in American society.

How To Read This Site

This site is for students or others interested in examining how media works in American society. It does not claim to be a comprehensive history of what happened in Chicago in 1968; rather, it presents multimedia coverage of the events in order to understand the film text of Medium Cool and the nature of Wexler's criticism of media. It is important to acknowledge that Wexler's film, and by extension much of the media coverage provided here to contextualize his film, identifies with the perspective of his subjects, the countercultural demonstrators in Chicago. Readers are advised to remember that this site, Wexler's film, and the other forms of media described herein, all are mediated. Those unfamiliar with the film or the time period in which it occurs should begin by reading the film synopsis and historical context sections. The next two sections look at how Wexler's film illustrates the development of the pseudo-event and invites viewers to recognize their own role in its creation. The conclusion provides some closing thoughts on Wexler's film and the message of the medium. Finally, the site provides a list of resources for readers interested in learning more about the film Medium Cool and issues of media in American culture during the 1960s.

MA (Master of Arts)

Originally published on the XRoads site for the UVA American Studies program. Years range from 1995-2005. Content is captured at the level of functionality available on the date of capture.

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