Judge Jennifer Malkowski is medium cool on this documentary about cinematographer Haskell Wexler.
"There was someone that you wanted to talk to, but you were a little shy about approaching them. And Haskell turned to you and said, 'Go ahead, tell them who you are.' And your mother said, 'What he means is, tell them that you're Haskell Wexler's son.'"
'70s cinematography superstar Haskell Wexler gets the camera pointed at him for a change. This documentary is a probing and pained look at a famous father through the eyes of his son-turned-biographer.
Facts of the Case
Haskell Wexler is a revered and controversial cinematographer with years of quality filmmaking behind him and not many years of life ahead of him. As this film's director Mark Wexler acknowledges, these factors make him due for a tribute. The expected format for such fare includes tons of clips from his films, interviews with stars and directors who worked with him, and reflections from the man himself. But Mark Wexler forgoes these strategies…sort of. He gives the audience all of these elements, but the content of the clips, the star interviews, and the reflections is much more focused on his father's fractured relationship with him than on Haskell's illustrious career or his radical politics.
The film is constructed mostly from footage of Mark and Haskell simply spending time together—talking casually, visiting celebrity friends, going to an anti-war protest, and visiting Mark's Alzheimer's-afflicted mother. Haskell himself becomes involved in the filmmaking process, sometimes turning the camera on Mark, suggesting scenes and places to shoot, and advising Mark on how to position the camera, where to aim the lights, when to cut, etc. But more often than not, Haskell's pieces of advice become orders which Mark must resist in order to retain artistic control.
Notable interviewees include: Billy Crystal, Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Milos Forman, Conrad L. Hall, Conrad W. Hall, Tom Hayden, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, Norman Jewison, Irvin Kershner, George Lucas, Albert Maysles, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Rob Reiner, Julia Roberts, John Sayles, Martin Sheen, Lee Tamahori, and Studs Terkel.
Midway through Tell Them Who You Are, Haskell and Mark appear on screen filming each other. They smile and banter about their dueling cameras. The scene initially felt a little too cute to me, a little too home-movie. But I soon realized that Tell Them Who You Are should feel like a home movie because, more than almost any other documentary, it is. Home movies chronicle things family members do together, milestones in their lives, and events that bring them closer to one another. Making movies is what the Wexlers do together, and the production of this movie is certainly a family milestone that brings father and son closer to each other. As such, the scene is pitch perfect, as is the tone of the whole film.
What makes this documentary intriguing is the way father-son dynamics bubble just under the surface of every scene that seems to be about the movie business. And that bubbling feels more and more immediate as it becomes apparent that filmmaking for these two is the way to communicate, not just to an audience, but to each other. The nature of their relationship is enacted in every squabble about technical decisions, and every time Haskell tries to take control, their tenuous reconciliation is put in danger. As a father-son story, Tell Them Who You Are is an interesting counterpart to another wonderful documentary, Nobody's Business. In that film, director Alan Berliner wants to make a movie about his dad, but has to convince the colorful old codger that his life deserves to be up on screen. Mark Haskell faces the opposite challenge: his father not only knows he belongs on the screen, he knows he belongs behind the camera, too. The most revealing scene is prompted by Haskell calling Mark to his hotel room to film an interview about the protest they just attended. When Mark arrives, Haskell has already set the shot up inside. Mark wants to do it out on the balcony to get the sunset in the background. Haskell disagrees and a shouting match ensues. Mark feebly insists, "I'm behind the camera! I'm behind the camera!" But Haskell overpowers him, as usual, intoning his words as only a stern father can: "I, the star of your fucking movie, want desperately to say something…Bullshit with the sunset! This is not a fucking Miller Beer commercial, this is your father talking about something that's important to him!" Soon after, Haskell plays out his domination over Mark again by laughing and refusing when Mark asks him to sign a crucial release form for the film.
These painful scenes of strife are balanced by rare moments when the pair
truly manages to connect. The highlight from this end of the spectrum is the
visit to Mark's mother's nursing home. This scene recalls a comment from earlier
in the film by Albert Maysles, who assures Mark that his father will not be able
to keep an unemotional front up for the camera, that eventually he will have to
be himself. (Direct-cinema king Albert Maysles giving personalized advice to
Mark about the psychology of documentary subjects?
Because Tell Them Who You Are is so deeply driven by Mark's desire for affirmation of his filmmaking—and just plain affection—from his father, Haskell's reaction to the finished film seems incredibly important. And the DVD release provides it for us in a ten minute extra that is as good as the film itself. "Haskell Wexler's Reaction" is a must-watch, but the rest of the extras are for a niche audience. They consist mostly of additional footage from some of the celebrity interviews mentioned above (Sheen, Douglas, Howard, Fonda, Crystal, Poitier, Bill Butler, and both Halls). Anyone curious about these particular stars' relationships with their famous parents/children will get a lot from these, but they are otherwise skippable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Most of the celebrity interviews are not integrated as seamlessly as
Maysles's. Of course Wexler has to establish his father's fame, which is crucial
to the narrative. But many of the clips feel forced, as if he inserted them just
to boost his press releases with the names of some additional stars. The fact
that the front cover of the DVD case is plastered with the names and pictures of
George Lucas, Dennis Hopper, Julia
Also, it would be nice if documentary DVDs in general, including this one, would bother to include subtitles. Sound recordings of real events taken as they happen can be messy, from a technical standpoint, and captions can really help when audibility is hard to achieve.
There is no question that Tell Them Who You Are functions in the filmmaking-as-therapy mode more so than it functions as biography or tribute. Some people find this style of documentary self-indulgent or overly sentimental. Tell Them Who You Are will elicit either drowsiness or eye rolls from that crowd. But those who watch it for an intimate, emotional exploration of the difficulties of father-son relationships—especially those with fame and achievement thrown into the mix—won't be disappointed.
Director Mark Wexler is free to go on the condition that from this day forward he only interviews his dad's famous friends if he has a darn good reason to.
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