Unflinching film of Haskell Wexler exposes the son too

In the first scene of "Tell Them Who You Are," the new documentary about Haskell Wexler, the legendary cinematographer is serenely -- well, seemingly serenely -- walking around his equipment room, describing the history of his camera equipment. At one point, he holds up a piece of camera equipment that he used on Elia Kazan's "America, America" four decades ago. The director of the documentary, his son Mark Wexler, innocently asks, "Dad, could you tell us where we are right now?"

Haskell throws up his arms in disgust. "If you don't know where we are right now," he barks, using a barnyard epithet for emphasis, "just look around. We're making a goddamn documentary! You don't have to get me to say where we are. Just get a shot of the film and the equipment!"

It's right about then -- 45 seconds into the film -- that you realize this is no ordinary documentary. (The film opens here May 13 at the ArcLight Cinemas.) Sometimes poignant, often searingly painful, populated with interviews with an all-star cast of Hollywood actors and filmmakers, "Tell Them Who You Are" is a dysfunctional father-son story that has more in common with an intensely personal memoir like Geoffrey Wolff's "The Duke of Deception" than the carefully modulated history lessons delivered by Ken Burns on PBS.

A photographer turned documentarian, Mark Wexler was looking for a subject for a new film when he realized he would never find a more vivid character than his own father. Now 83, Haskell Wexler is a fire-breathing old lefty with the crusty soul of a sensitive artist. In his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, he was one of Hollywood's leading cinematographers, winning Oscars for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Bound for Glory," while also shooting such audacious films as "In the Heat of the Night," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Coming Home."

Between Hollywood gigs, he made political documentaries and directed the trailblazing "Medium Cool," a meditation on violence in America set against the backdrop of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In the early 1970s, he did everything from help George Lucas shoot "American Graffiti" to travel in North Vietnam with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, making the film "Introduction to the Enemy."

Wexler has kept busy into his 80s, pursuing his political passions and also shooting several films for John Sayles, the most recent being last year's "Silver City." It seems possible that Wexler could have had an even bigger career if he hadn't been his own worst enemy. Not every director wanted a second helping of Wexler's prickly perfectionism. As Kazan put it in his memoirs: "He was a man of considerable talent and he was a considerable pain in the ass." A decade later, Haskell was fired from "Cuckoo's Nest" after Milos Forman became convinced Wexler was undermining his relations with his actors.

Nobody understands how difficult Wexler can be better than his son. As he says in the documentary, "I respect all his achievements in American cinema, but I'm not exactly a fan." Throughout the film, Haskell lectures Mark on how to light or stage scenes. He's the kind of guy who, as he walks out the front door of his house, says, "I suggest that you cut now." One day, after Mark follows his father to a peace march, his attempt to arrange the proper magic-hour lighting for an interview degenerates into an ugly father-son confrontation.

"This isn't a Miller Beer commercial," Haskell rages. "This is your father, the star of your ... movie, desperately wanting to say something about what today has meant to me...." I'd bet Mark filmed Haskell signing the release form for the movie because he wanted evidence in case the old man changed his mind.

I got a taste of Haskell's orneriness when I called to discuss his role in the film and found myself on the receiving end of a lengthy monologue about why he didn't want to talk at all. "It's not my documentary," he said. "I'm proud that my son has been able to express himself in such a creative way, but beyond that, I don't want to talk about it. As a father, what I think of the movie is between myself and Mark."

Mark's earliest memory of his father is the image of a man with a camera on his shoulder. As a young boy, Mark visited his dad on sets around the globe and remembers Marlon Brando coming to the house to try to cajole Haskell into making a documentary about Native Americans.

As a teenager, Mark rebelled against Haskell's extreme liberalism and nonconformity ("you probably should say he's radical left -- he'd hate for me to call him a liberal") by embracing the other end of the political spectrum. He praised the FBI and participated in an LAPD ride-along program. "I was very into authority," the 49-year-old filmmaker explained the other day over lunch. He says he's still conservative politically, though "I'm not as far right as my father is left."

Mark had learning disabilities as a kid. He says he couldn't read until sixth grade. "I did so badly on tests in elementary school that they didn't even know how I could talk." His problems made him especially sensitive to nonverbal communication, propelling him into the visual arts.

He kept his distance from his father for years, but at some point realized that a film about Haskell was an opportunity for reconciliation. "He's 83, so I knew it was now or never," Mark says. "I knew it would be difficult, but I thought -- it's either make the film or go into massive therapy."

He shot about 140 hours of film over a two-year period. Haskell was wary at first, but Mark encouraged him to take a camera and film their encounters, leading to scenes where both men move around, wielding cameras like, well, light-sabers. "The cameras gave us a connection, a way of talking about our feelings in a way we couldn't otherwise do," says Mark. "The camera was a shield for me because it's not easy for anyone to spend that much time around your family. As Baba Ram Dass once said, 'If you think you're enlightened, go spend a week with your parents.' "

The end result is meta-layered cinema. When Haskell complains about Mark asking him to identify the setting of their interview, it's not just a father criticizing his son, it's a confrontation between a "don't tell 'em what to think" cinema verite master and his touchy-feely "help the audience along" disciple. Mark doesn't spare himself. In one scene, we see him miss all the speeches at Haskell's 80th birthday because of a bad sound connection. In fact, "Tell Them Who You Are" fits squarely into the new genre of nonfiction film that perhaps should be called the Me Documentary, the personal film that is indelibly shaped by the presence of the filmmaker.

Although reality TV surely has played a big role in shaping the new genre, it really owes an even bigger debt to the literary memoir. For the last decade, memoirs have become star-making machinery in literary circles, bringing celebrity to the likes of Tobias Wolff ("This Boy's Life"), Dave Eggers ("A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"), Mary Karr ("The Liars' Club") and Kathryn Harrison ("The Kiss"). If there's any work that's especially close to Mark's film, it's probably Christopher Dickey's "Summer of Deliverance," a memoir about his difficult relationship with his famous poet father, James Dickey.

Personal documentaries used to get the bum's rush in traditional film circles. But in recent years, gifted filmmakers have jumped out from behind the camera and into their films, including Ross McElwee ("Bright Leaves"), Nathaniel Kahn ("My Architect"), Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman ("Born Into Brothels"), Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me") and, how could we forget, Michael Moore, who has married Haskell's old-school activism with reality TV showmanship.

"Documentaries today can be as incredibly personal, deeply felt and as ripped from your insides as an Ingmar Bergman movie," says ThinkFilm chief Mark Urman, who is releasing the Wexler film and also put out "Born Into Brothels," which won an Oscar this year. "These new films are very self-referential and incredibly sophisticated. Look at 'Born Into Brothels.' If someone had just made a film about kids in a Calcutta slum, well, you've seen that before. But the film is very much about Zana's journey as a photographer. She's not just influencing the story she's telling; she's the heroine of her own story."

I'll leave it to the critics to say who's the hero of "Tell Them Who You Are," but for me, both men deserve a medal, Haskell for giving his son the freedom to tell his father's life story, Mark for artfully balancing his father's cranky integrity with his imperfections. After Mark showed Haskell the final film, he says Haskell tearily told him, "If no one else sees this film, although I hope they do, it'll still be good, just for the two of us." Haskell would probably hate to hear anyone say that in a Hollywood movie, but that's the beauty of this new kind of documentary. In real life, simple sentiment packs an awfully big wallop.

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