"If you don't know where the fuck we are right now, just look around. You're making a goddamn documentary, so you don't have to have me say in front of the camera where we are."
There's probably nothing more frustrating for a director than to be directed himself, but filmmaker Mark Wexler should have expected exactly that once he pointed the camera at his dad, fractious bastard Haskell Wexler. The elder Wexler also moonlights as a celebrated cinematographer and political activist, and in the absorbing documentary/therapy session Tell Them Who You Are, Mark explores the life and work of a Hollywood legend as well as the complicated and often contentious relationship between a formidable father and a son longing for his respect.
For those who don't automatically get all film-geeky at the mere mention of his name, here's a little Haskell Wexler 101: A pioneer in the moviemaking style known as cinéma vérité, Haskell has five Oscar nominations, with wins for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory. He's shot films for heavyweights like John Sayles (the beautiful Secret of Roan Inish) and Elia Kazan (America, America), and he wrote and directed a classic of his own called Medium Cool, which he filmed in and around the riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Through interviews with Haskell's friends and co-workers, including George Lucas, Jane Fonda, Studs Terkel, and Albert Maysles, Mark paints a portrait of his father as an uncompromising (and colorblind!) artist whose vision was not always in concert with his bosses. The man who states, "I don't think there's a movie I've been on that I didn't think I could direct better," has been fired from films by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola (The Conversation) and Milos Forman (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).
Norman Jewison made three films with Haskell and still calls him "a pain in the ass to work with." (Haskell also claims to have shot more than half of Terrence Malick's sublime Days of Heaven, considered by many to be the most visually stunning film ever made... and for which cinematographer Nestor Almendros won the Oscar.)
Haskell, who came from a privileged background, once organized a strike among the employees at his father's factory, and his rabble-rousing ways are at perpetual odds with his son's conservative leanings. Haskell's choices in projects reflect his willingness to court controversy, whether the topic is racism (Jewison's In the Heat of the Night), gang violence (Dennis Hopper's Colors), Vietnam (Hal Ashby's Coming Home), or the current political climate (Sayles' most recent, Silver City).
Mark used to grudgingly accompany his father to political rallies, but now he makes films about Air Force One and takes photos with Bushes. He knows this irritates his dad, but like any normal kid, he takes secret delight in winding the old man's clock.
Tell Them also watches as that same old man rages against the dying of the light. Now in his early 80s, and still quite handsome and fit, Haskell is growing concerned with his own mortality, reading the obituaries and averaging out the ages of those who have passed on. His prickly attitude toward his son may be flecked with some envy that the younger Wexler still has many years of filmmaking left in him, while Haskell recognizes that he still has much more to say but not that much more time in which to say it.
Interestingly, the relationship between Mark and Haskell is echoed by that of Conrad L. Hall (an Oscar winner for American Beauty) and his son, Conrad W. Hall (Panic Room), both gifted cinematographers in their own rights. The fathers were close friends, as were the sons, but Mark admits that he used to wish the easygoing Conrad L. was his dad, while Conrad W. confides that he felt more of a kinship with Haskell than with his own father. The elder Hall died before Mark completed Tell Them, and the film is dedicated to him.
And just when you're ready to write off Haskell as a man who sacrificed his heart for his art, the Wexler men make a trip to see Miriam, Mark's mom and Haskell's second wife. Haskell's vulnerability finally emerges as he tries to get through to Miriam, once a gorgeous and talented painter but now in the latter stages of Alzheimer's.
How Mark was able to keep the camera steady (and dry) during this heartbreaking scene is a mystery, but he had better take care not to fall into the same impassivity trap that threatens to ensnare those who observe the world through the detachment of a lens.
Tell Them Who You Are (NR), directed by Mark Wexler, is showing Friday, September 16, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre.