Fathers and Sons
Tell Them Who You Are examines a legendary cinematographer from a unique angle.
Thursday, June 16, 2005
Haskell Wexler is the perfect subject for a documentary. Primarily known for his work as a cinematographer, the two-time Academy Award winner has worked on a wide range of pictures from 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to Richard Pryor’s 1982 concert film Live on the Sunset Strip. Also a director and writer, Haskell is known for his own films, like 1969’s Medium Cool and 1985’s Latino, where he attempted to blur the line between feature films and documentaries. For Latino, he actually filmed down in Nicaragua, where the real Contra War served as the movie’s backdrop.
Tell Them Who You Are starts by tempting the viewer with some interesting tidbits about Wexler, like the fact that he loaned little Ron Howard grip equipment to make his first student films. But, in the middle of an interview with Jonathon Winters, the movie detours into something more than a biography of one of the most interesting characters in modern film. The man making this documentary on Haskell Wexler is none other than his son, documentary filmmaker Mark Wexler. Prompted by his father, Mark Wexler suddenly changes direction and attempts to use the filmmaking process as a way to understand their father-son relationship.
For film buffs, there are scores of great movie stories in Tell Them Who You Are about events like Haskell Wexler being fired from his cinematographer position on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. These events resonate deeply because in this context they are more than just great stories but also windows into Haskell Wexler’s fascinating personality. As Sidney Poitier says in one of many surprisingly penetrating insights into the father-son dynamic by actors and actresses (including Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas), the complexity of a father-son relationship is a direct reflection of the depth of the father’s personality.
Needless to say, Haskell Wexler’s relationship with his son is an intricate beast. For one, Mark Wexler is following in his father’s footsteps as a filmmaker, which provides some comic and painful moments as Haskell tells his son how to shoot various scenes. Also, while Mark is excited to pose for pictures with the first President Bush, Haskell is a passionate crusader for liberal causes.
Despite occasionally being one of the film’s strengths, the fact that both of the Wexlers are filmmakers constantly hauling around cameras makes some scenes feel a bit contrived. A few times, it almost feels like the two disagree about something because they know it might add tension to the film.
By the end of the movie, Mark still comes off as an undefined character when compared to his towering father onscreen. Despite this, Tell Them Who You Are succeeds as a declaration of independence for Mark as a filmmaker.
TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE ( * * * )
Directed by Mark Wexler
Starring Haskell Wexler, Mark Wexler and Milos Forman.
(R, 95 mins.) At the Osio Cinemas.