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A Cool Medium

The headlines have all been similar: Haskell Wexler, Cinematographer, Dies at 93. That much is pretty straightforward. He was 93 years of age, a Hollywood film cinematographer, and his name was Haskell. But I know him as a guest (in multiple years) of Ebertfest, and a man who radiated life and energy. I never spoke a word to him, but saw him around inside and out of the Virginia Theatre in downtown Champaign, and now he's gone -- another member of the Ebertfest family no longer with us.

Born in Chicago during Prohibition, Wexler cut a curious figure. Having (sadly, on my part) never heard of him before, I first clapped eyes on him upon his 2003 visit to the Roger Ebert Film Festival when his directorial feature debut, Medium Cool, was screened. First released in the late sixties, the movie was part fiction, part documentary, centered around characters attempting to navigate the city of Chicago during the tumultuous protests surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

There was Haskell, on stage after Medium Cool screened at the Virginia for a Q&A, in his trademark baseball cap and bringing a sharp, joyous, down-to-earth electricity to his presence. Watching and listening to him on stage, it was obvious that the movie conveyed much of who he was. At the time, Wexler was in his early eighties, and I was blown away by how someone of that age could be so vital and alive. Watching him mingle with folks at the festival that year, and then ten years later when he returned for the Q&A of the festival's first screening for that year -- Days of Heaven -- I knew I was in the presence of an authentic human being.

As the headlines and obituaries have stated, Haskell was a cinematographer. He was director of photography for such memorable films as Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night, the original Thomas Crown Affair, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Coming Home, and Mulholland Falls. The man knew his craft. It was wonderful listening to him talk about. Even more so, it was fascinating listening to him discuss life and politics (topics that he covered on his web site). Quite a bit more to the left than myself, I nevertheless respected his views and the passion with which he held them.

It seems odd to feel astonishment at the news that a 93-year-old has died, yet, that was my reaction upon hearing of Wexler's passing. It's unusual to barely know someone yet understand all at once that they're the real deal. That was Haskell Wexler. During his Q&A back in 2003, he recounted how the title Medium Cool came about. He said someone working on the film, referring to Haskell's work environment, remarked, "Man, that's a cool medium!"

And Wexler, may he rest in peace, was a cool dude.


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