Tell Them Who You AreReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 05/20/05 09:02:43
(Worth A Look)
When most film fans walk into “Tell Them Who You Are,” a new documentary on the subject of acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler, they will probably be expecting a standard hagiography–the usual blend of talking heads and judiciously selected clips highlighting his work as a cameraman (whose credits include such indelible collections of images as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Bound for Glory,” “Days of Heaven” and “Coming Home”), a director (whose key work is the still-startling “Medium Cool”) and as a long-standing social and political activist. Such a movie would probably be an interesting work but this is not that movie. Those things are on display, of course, but they are in the service of a far more intriguing and moving film than one might expect.Instead of taking the standard route, Mark Wexler, his son and a documentary filmmaker in his own right (you may have seen his interesting 1996 film “Me and My Matchmaker”), has chosen to give us a warts-and-all look at the often-prickly relationship between a headstrong father and a son trying to carve out his own identity while working in the same field that brought his father fame. Not one to suffer fools gladly, Haskell is often confrontational with his son about the entire idea of making the film and can often be seen telling his son where to put the camera in order to get a better shot. (The fact that he is probably right is not really the point.) The differences are both personal and political–it is almost inevitable that Mark would wind up with more conservative leanings and there is an amazing scene when he declines to join his incredulous father at a protest rally because he fears that it might jeopardize his standing with the White House in connection with a project he is working on about Air Force One. (This may be the only film in which a son excitedly brags that he has flown on the presidential plane and the reaction of the father is not exactly filled with pride.)
One of the most fascinating sequences in the film is an interview segment with Jane Fonda about their collaborations, both on film and in the anti-war movement. Fonda, who, like Mark, grew up in the shadow of a famous father while making a name for herself in his profession, offers interesting thoughts about such an upbringing while reminiscing about interrupting the shooting of the love scene from “Coming Home” to take a call from Cesar Chavez. When the interview ends, Mark surreptitiously shoots Fonda and his father as she tells him about the pressure that his son must be working under–a discussion that the elder Wexler seems to instantly ignore. Another interesting segment chronicles the still-murky circumstances surrounding Wexler’s firing from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and his difficulties getting his decidedly leftist “Latino” financed and released at the height of the Reagan Revolution.
And yet, the film is more than simply 95 minutes of a headstrong father and son constantly at odds. There is a sequence in which Mark tags along as Haskell films an interview with Julia Roberts and the two not only fall into perfect sync, Mark actually saves the day at one crucial point. The scenes involving the shooting of “Medium Cool” (perhaps one of the most genuinely radical films ever released by a major studio) in the midst of the riots during the 1968 Democratic convention are so compelling that they almost deserve a movie of their own. As for the final scenes, I will not describe them except to say that they come as an emotional wallop that force viewers to look at Wexler in a new light.If all you are looking for is a study of the art of cinematography from the perception of one of its greatest practitioners, I would recommend searching for the excellent 1992 documentary “Visions of Light.” If, on the other hand, you are more interested in the man behind the work–at both his best and his worst–or simply a look at a father and son coming together against all odds, “Tell Them Who You Are” is a film that is definitely worth seeking out.
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