I’ve only seen renowned Hollywood cinematographer Haskell Wexler in assorted documentaries over the years and his thin body, delicate lips, and wry, strained voice always gave me the impression he might’ve been the James Stewart of cinematographers; a mild-mannered professional whose craft shines in films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Days of Heaven, and Matewan. But if his son Mark’s new documentary Tell Them Who You Are is any indication, he’s a highly irritable and difficult, sharped-tongued curmudgeon.
Mark Wexler’s film is the latest success in the blooming genre of therapeutic, first-person, digital essay films exploring the filmmaker’s personal life in the hopes of resolving, or at least documenting, some inner conflict. Seemingly a naturally quiet and sensitive child, Mark was the product of his father’s second marriage who became a cinematographer in his own right (specializing in educational films and commercials) who seems to have struggled under the shadow of his father’s legend; to make matters worse, their relationship has continually been one defined by harsh tensions and emotional distance. Like Carl-Gustav Nykvist’s recent documentary (Light Keeps Me Company) about his own father, Sven, Wexler’s film is a touching and paradoxical portrait of a talented but personally difficult artist.
Tell Them Who You Are was one of the films my friend Darren Hughes most enjoyed at TIFF last September (to this day his review is the only one listed at IMDb.com), but last night the film played to a packed and appreciative audience at UCLA, and Mark Wexler (now in his late-40s) even led a Q&A after the screening.
The film opens with Haskell berating his son for supposedly making lousy creative decisions while shooting, and despite his tentative agreement to be filmed and interviewed, he clearly isn’t comfortable allowing his son to order him around or light a scene or even choose a camera angle without attempting to critique or one-up him. Haskell tells his son that he doesn’t want a traditional career-overview type of documentary and suggests they might address their emotional relationship instead. And Mark Wexler basically adopts that approach throughout, offering a glimpse of his father’s career, but more as a personal history than an aesthetic analysis. For the most part, the slew of famous talking heads discuss Haskell’s personality and working methods rather than his artistic signature.
In the excellent 1992 documentary, Visions of Light, Haskell describes his implementation of cinÈma vÈritÈ documentary techniques to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and his decision to use “degrees of darkness and degrees of fill light so that whenever the early morning light came we would have some subliminal sense of the change in time.” But Mark Wexler’s film focuses on Haskell’s professional squabbles, his replacement on films like The Conversation and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (producer Michael Douglas claims it was the most difficult job of his life); to this day, Haskell believes director Milos Forman secretly bowed to government pressure to fire him after he photographed Emile de Antonio’s Underground, which defended the activities of the Weather Underground group of political activists.
In fact, one of Tell Them Who You Are‘s best cultural contributions is its recounting of Haskell’s anti-establishment activism (an aspect of his life he repeatedly insists Mark emphasize, which simply becomes one more source of tension when Mark, a favored documentarian of previous presidents, is personally enlisted by George W. Bush for a video project). As they drive together to San Francisco in 2003 to participate in anti-war demonstrations, Mark ironically asks his father not to discuss politics along the way.
Haskell Wexler is famous for having directed Medium Cool, a film that is equal parts fiction and documentary and was filmed during the Chicago riots at the Democratic Convention of 1968. Haskell continued to make political films over the years, including documentaries such as Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971) and Introduction to the Enemy, a 1974 look at the North Vietnamese with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. In 1985, George Lucas–of all people–produced Haskell’s pro-Sandinista drama Latino which was so strenuously demonized by the Reagan administration that it was never released theatrically.
Throughout the film, Haskell continually chides and criticizes Mark, but nevertheless cooperates to a degree that suggests a hidden desire to forge a healthier bond. A moment of true solidarity occurs when Mark helps Haskell interview Julia Roberts, but that success is undermined in another scene when Haskell flies off the handle after Mark suggests a composition that differs from Haskell’s own inclinations. (“I don’t think there’s a movie I have been on that I wasn’t sure that I could direct better,” Haskell grumbles.)
The film, in fact, is probably more revealing of Haskell than Mark (its tile is a reference to a relative encouraging Mark to name drop in a professional situation, but it could equally be read as a request to his subject), and one gets the impression that Mark Wexler is the type of artist who would rather make a solid, entertaining documentary than bare his soul. But his film is nevertheless quite touching and perceptive and displays an admirable technical proficiency. Old photographs are layered together in ways that mimic three-dimensional space and shift in interesting ways according to different camera movements, and several interviews are particularly intimate and memorable, including those with Fonda (who empathizes with Mark’s relationship with an emotionally distant father) and director Irvin Kershner, who muses knowingly and lovingly on Haskell’s positive and negative traits.
It’s a film that manages to be true to a troubled relationship and the multi-faceted men who define it without sacrificing the compassion and admiration they convey towards one another in subtle, complex ways.