CHAMPAIGN - Although one of the most volatile years in modern American history, 1968, is long gone, it is startling in some respects how little has changed.
In 1968, Vietnam War protesters were called un-American, unpatriotic and beaten by police.
In 2003, Iraqi War protesters are called un-American, unpatriotic and beaten by police (in Oakland, Calif., and elsewhere).
And so in that respect, Haskell Wexler's movie, "Medium Cool," which culminates with the August 1968 riot at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, is as timely as ever. The movie, which was released in 1969, was shown Friday at Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival.
"Medium Cool," which takes its name from media theorist Marshall McLuhan's characterization of TV as a "cool" medium, follows a TV cameraman who at first is so cold and calculating about getting footage that he and a sound man film a car wreck and its victim before calling an ambulance.
But later, John Cassellis is intrigued by the story behind the story when a black cabby finds $10,000 in his backseat and turns it in.
Little does Cassellis know, however, that the TV station he works for has been handing over for the past year all the footage he shoots to Chicago police and the FBI, who study the film for possible criminal elements.
Then, Cassellis gets fired for trying to do a story on the cabby when his boss has already nixed the idea.
In between, viewers see Cassellis dump a gorgeous, but apparently shallow, nurse for a pretty widow from West Virginia who is living in a Chicago slum with her son, Harold. The story comes to a messy full circle when Harold takes off and Ruth, his mother, heads downtown - in the midst of the real-life battle between police and protesters at Grant Park - to find her son. She finally tracks down Cassellis to help her, but the couple don't find what they're looking for.
"This film is one of the great treasures of American moviemaking," Ebert said afterward. "It captures a time that altered history. ... There were times that I thought this movie could have been made today when you look at the role of the media and its objectivity, the role of government spying, about reporters becoming cheerleaders instead of reporters."
Added Wexler, who was a guest with Ebert onstage: "The system has learned how to control us and deceive us with fiction. I believe Noam Chomsky calls it, 'manufactured consent.'
"Movies are given to all of us all the time. Movies and television and news, they are somebody's fiction. Someone is trying to sell you something. You can't stop or change that, but what we can change is whether these stories and ideas fit in with what we believe and what we want," Wexler said.
America has a history of freedom of speech, but it also has a long history of trying to silence an outspoken minority. In that vein, Ebert told the story of a recent appearance on a radio talk show in Fargo, N.D., when the host asked him how to shut up actress Susan Sarandon and her very public anti-war views.
"To argue with someone or to disagree with someone is American," Ebert said. "To tell someone to shut up is NOT American."
Schedule of events
11 a.m., 'Golden Age of Silent Comedy,' presented by the Silent Movie Theatre Co. This free family matinee includes short silent films by Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and more. Guests: Charlie Lustman and Dena Mora, who own the only movie theater in the country dedicated entirely to silent films.
2 p.m., 'Shall We Dance?' (1996, Japan). Shohei Sugiyama has pretty much all he ever wanted out of life - but he is still depressed and unhappy. Then he decides to sign up for dance lessons and breaks out of his rut. Guest: David Bordwell, Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
6 p.m., 'Charlotte Sometimes' (2002). Michael, a young mechanic, is forced to choose between an alluring stranger and the habitual comfort of his bittersweet obsession: his beautiful young roommate. Guests: Eric Byler, screenwriter and director; actors Jacqueline Kim and Michael Idemoto; John Manutis of Visionbox Media Group.
9:30 p.m., '13 Conversations About One Thing' (2001). The lives of a lawyer, an actuary, a housecleaner, a professor, and the people around them intersect as they ponder order and happiness. Guests: Jill Sprecher, director and screenwriter, and Karen Sprecher, screenwriter.
1 p.m., 'Singin' in the Rain' (1952). This Hollywood musical starring Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor tells of the transition from silent to talkie films. Ebert calls this the best Hollywood musical ever made. A new 35mm print will be shown. Guest: Donald O'Connor.
You can reach Kirby Pringle at (217) 351-5222 or via e-mail at email@example.com.