In the first moments Tell Them Who You Are might seem to be about the life and career of famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Wexler stands in his storage room talking for a moment until his son, photographer and filmmaker Mark S. Wexler, asks from behind the camera where he is standing. Thanks to a well-timed cut, instead of offering a simple answer, Haskell replies:
“Documentary filmmaking — my kind, anyway — is not show and tell. In other words I don’t tell them what’s going to happen, what’s the scene and so forth. In other words if you shoot and scene and if there something happens then it will be clearer to the audience. Then it has some validity. Otherwise it loses its honesty.”
This film is more than about the life of an artist working in Hollywood. Instead, this film is about fathers and sons. It is as much about Mark as it is about Haskell.
Their relationship is not an easy one, as father and son differ in politics, filmmaking technique, and general outlook. Documentary filmmaker Pamela Yates recalls Mark feeling hesitant to talk with another famous person and Haskell encouraging his son to “tell them who you are” — that is, son of the famed cinematographer.
Nearing 81 at the time, Haskell has quite an accomplished career in the industry. He has won two Oscars, one for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and for Bound for Glory (1976). His camerawork helped envision such other films as In the Heat of the Night (1967), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), and Coming Home (1978). His directing credits include The Bus (1965), Medium Cool (1969), and the recent Who Needs Sleep? (2006). He also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an accomplishment only four other cinematographers can claim.
The documentary is Mark’s project, and he maintains, or tries to maintain, the most control over the piece. We often hear his honest perspectives through voiceover. While his father is a visionary with a reputation in Hollywood, Mark himself is not necessarily a fan. He describes his father’s early documentaries as “dry and didactic.” One of his favorites among his father’s documentaries is is about tumbleweed’s journey, which is more “witty and whimsical for a change.”
At points in the film father and son wrangle for control of the camera and the scene. In San Francisco after a war protest, for example, Mark suggests they go outside and enjoy the city and the sunshine while talking about the day’s events. Haskell wants to stay inside the hotel room and even dictates how to set the scene, insisting he has things to say about the protest.
These moments of camera interplay occur throughout the film. Some moments have both of them aiming cameras at each other, and at one point Haskell turns the camera and the interview questions onto his son. But there are also moments of learning in the film, and one moment becomes particularly poignant and metaphorical. While Haskell is swimming in the pool, Mark is trying to get the proper vantage point to keep his father in focus as he swims toward the ledge. His father instructs him to meet him half way, which Mark does, and it works, with the shot focusing on Haskell about mid-point in the pool until he swims full into the frame.
Haskell also withholds nothing about his opinions of his son, and at times his remarks sound rather cruel. After working out with a personal trainer, he says, “Maybe I would have been a better father if I knew what I know now when you were growing up so you wouldn’t turn out to be such a mess” and then laughs.
Talking heads comment about how difficult Haskell was to work with. Both Michael Douglas and Milos Forman discuss his temperament on One Who Flew the Cuckoo’s Nest and how they had to fire him. Elia Kazan swears he would never work with Haskell again. Norman Jewison even says, “He’s a pain in the ass to work with.”
Haskell explains his role as director of photography this way: “I always have worked as if it’s my film.”
Another point of contention is the overtness of Haskell’s politics. His 1985 film Latino in some ways epitomizes uncompromising directness of his viewpoints. His documentary topics also represent his views, including civil rights, Vietnam War, and War protestors. He even goes so far as to criticize a Catholic monument in Taos, New Mexico, because it fails to represent how the missionaries colonized the Indian people. Overall, he distrusts the U.S. government.
Mark, on the other hand, never intended to follow in his father’s footsteps, as either a camera operator or as a political activist. As a child, though, he did pick up a camera: “It allowed me to see the world but be shielded from it through the lens.” Instead of going into Hollywood, he became a photojournalist, doing stories on Air Force One for Smithsonian Magazine and developing ties with the Federal government.
Mark requests that somehow they keep the conflicting politics out of the film, but that fails to work as Haskell takes him to the war protest and then to another meeting about Cuban spies. Mark begs off the meeting, and Haskell ridicules him for it mercilessly.
But Mark makes a point to show the compassionate side of his father as well. In a scene near the end of the film, Haskell visits his former wife of 30 years and Mark’s mother, who now lives in a care facility. Haskell talks, but she responds little and he begins to tear up during his time with her. In the car afterward he talks about the marriage, the divorce, and his admiration for her as an artist.
While Mark and Haskell’s interactions are the core of the film, Mark also includes interviews with others. Notable among those are ones with Conrad L. and Conrad W. Hall, father and son cinematographers with whom Mark is close. An interesting conversation between Conrad W. and Mark reveals some of the difficulties in growing up in long shadows cast by famous fathers. Jane Fonda reveals some background about working on Introduction to the Enemy (1974) and Coming Home with Haskell and about his politics and passion behind them. Other interviews include George Lucas, Saul Landau, Bill Butler, Studs Terkel, Peter Bart, Paul Newman, Ron Howard, Dennis Hopper, Tom Hayden, Billy Crystal, Lee Tamahori, Martin Sheen, Sidney Poitier, Vera Bloom, and even Albert Maysles.
Another strength of this documentary is its use of archival materials. The most brilliant demonstration of this comes through a test of Haskell’s possible colorblindness. Mark asks him to look at the colored dots with the numbers in them to see what kind of limitations his father might have, and he juxtaposes that exchange with deeply colorful and expressive scenes from his father’s films, possibly to demonstrate his father’s amazing eye. Other materials include pictures and videos of both Mark and Haskell in their younger days.
One odd thing about the film is Blake Leyh’s score. The production seemed to follow the typical background-music model, but at times the eerie score was more distracting than complementary.
A recurring theme the film leaves open ended is the signing of a release form. Mark approaches Haskell about signing it, and Haskell refuses for various reasons. It is not until the film’s end do we see Haskell sign it, though we do not get a clear explanation why. The DVD bonus features provide more depth.
In all this film is an interesting portrait of not only a visionary cinematographer but also a sketch of the tensions and healing in a father and son relationship.