Sunday, January 31, 2016

Mark S. Wexler | Tell Them Who You Are

a life behind the camera

by Douglas Messerli

Mark S. Wexler Tell Them Who You Are / 2006

When the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler died on December 27, 2015, I quickly ordered a documentary about him, Tell Them Who You Are, as well as a copy of the film, which he also directed, Medium Cool. I was not quite prepared for how the documentary, filmed by Wexler’s son Mark, portrayed about his father.
     Yes, this work reiterates all the great films made by the significant cinematographer, including his work on numerous films, including American Graffiti; In the Heat of the Night; Coming Home; America, America; much of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; and Bound for Glory,  two of which won him Academy Awards.
      But the younger Wexler’s film is, far more interestingly, centers upon Wexler’s own personal life and his often very unappealing personalitypartly through his own insistence. Whereas, it first appears that Mark might easily have turned his film into a documentary of talking heads—the film includes such luminaries as George Lukas, Ron Howard, Milos Forman, Billy Crystal, Michael Douglas, Norman Jewison, Jane Fonda, John Sayles, Elia Kazan, and Julia Roberts—praising the father’s genius, with Wexler’s insistence that his son focus on him as a human being separate from his work, the film becomes something much different. The film’s title arises from a comment from Mark’s childhood, when, encountering a figure he much admired, the elder Wexler advised the younger to “tell him who you are,” which his wife quickly quipped, meant to tell him that you’re the famous cinematographer’s son.
      From the very first scene, we not only perceive a most uncomfortable hostility between father and son, but soon learn their history, including Wexler’s insistent womanizing, ending, finally, in his divorce after 30 years from Mark’s mother, and his daily political evaluations of nearly all events. Haskell Wexler, born into wealth through his father’s sales of electronical devices, rebelled against his own father, becoming a leftist sympathizer, eventually, leading the workers in a strike against his own father’s business. 
       Born into a generation, as Fonda sagely—and from her own experience—describes as men for who “intimacy was not [a] gift,” Wexler was what might easily be described as a legendary “son-of-a-bitch,” an often mean-spirited man who daily demeaned his family, and saw his anti-government opposition as a god-given and righteously-deserved privilege. He began each morning, apparently, ranting against the news he encountered in the newspapers, and spent many an evening in criticizing the stupidity of the directors with whom he was working. His son was often included in the group of individuals he perceived as stupid and incompetent.

       Similarly, this man of strong opinions often found it hard to work with directors who didn’t agree with his perfectionist efforts. After a series of attacks he addressed to the film’s actors, against Milos Forman, while Wexler was shooting, he was fired and replaced as cinematographer for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—an action Wexler still maintains was due to FBI pressure. After shooting the memorable first scene of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, he was again fired for attempting to usurp the director’s position.
       In fact, this documentary makes it clear that Wexler had the ability to be, and might have succeeded better, if he had primarily played the role of director, as he did with Medium Cool—his memorable docu-drama about the Chicago Democratic Convention—and his highly political film with Fonda and Tom Hayden, Introduction to the Enemy—a film detested for decades by conservatives and even some liberals—both evidencing his substantial directorial skills.
     Is it any wonder that a son, encountering his father’s daily harangues and dragged along to nearly every major American war protest might, in defining his own personality turn in another political direction? Supporting the police, conservative governmental figures such as George Bush, and other institutions that his father derided, Mark somewhat purposely reminds his father of their differences If, as a liberal viewer, I side with the father, I can only feel a sincere sympathy for such a son—who found a more significant father figure (and one who could laugh at himself) with Wexler’s highly talented cinematographer partner, Conrad L. Hall, who, in this film, is already diagnosed with cancer and dies during the filming. Hall’s son, also a significant cinematography, related, somewhat ironically, more with Mark’s father, the two sons wishing that they might exchange fathers.
      While Wexler continues throughout the film to challenge and even goad his son, arguing about his cinematic techniques and visual approaches (sometimes quite accurately), Mark ultimately gets his vengeance through his revelation that his father, in fact, is quite colorblind—despite making often brilliant color movies—and through the recounting of almost all of the great directors he interviews of how difficult it was to work with his father. 
       In the end, both father and son reveal quite clearly why the two are and probably continued to be up until the elder’s death this year, at odds. They are very different people, of which the son is determined, despite his quieter and more passive expression, to give evidence. 
       If Wexler, the elder, is passionate about causes, his son, Mark, is equally passionate about his resentment of his father. Yet, for all that, the film—despite these discomforting encounters between the father and son, both able to observe one another, it appears, only through the lenses of their isolating cameras—finally does serve as witness to a kind of reconciliation. Visiting Mark’s mother, now suffering from late-stage Alzheimer’s disease, the two greet the woman who can no longer communicate with them. Mark employs his camera in a way that his own father might have, intruding on personal life in a way that finally reveals deeper truths: Wexler, simply to make patter, comments on theaters and restaurants which the two had long before shared, and then—after her open-mouthed, slightly smiling silence—he bends toward her, embracing the woman he once so loved, appealing to her: "We've got secrets, you, me. We've got secrets. We know things about each other that nobody else in the world knows." For the first time in the encounter, the mother, his former wife seems to almost awaken, agreeing, “Yes, Yes.”  A tear rolls from the older man’s eye.
       The scene is so memorable and revealing that even the elder Wexler shares his feelings about with his son, suggesting that, despite the fact, as he has stated earlier in the film, we are all actors and are always acting, that, he has ignored the camera, and, as his friend Alfred Maysles (who died shortly before his peer and fellow “direct documentarian”) earlier observed, become one of those for those who are not actors, eventually revealing their real selves.

       Ultimately, both Wexler father and son make their own positions quite clear through Mark’s intelligent film, with many of the father’s former collaborators attempting to reveal to the younger director how he might move toward a reconciliation. Throughout the film, Wexler has refused to sign his son’s necessary permission to film him; yet in the very last moment of the film we see him signing that contract, demonstrating clearly, that the movie, as controversial as it is, has his final approval. But then, isn’t that always what the elder Wexler—as opposed to his more conventionally-thinking son—was always about. Controversy, clearly, was his way of thinking. Challenging established ideas was Haskell Wexler’s definition of an American citizen.

Los Angeles, January 28, 2016

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