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‘Tell Them Who You Are’ a great documentary

Film looks at the life of cinematographer Haskell Wexler. By Christy Lemire
/ Source: The Associated Press

For more than four decades, cinematographer Haskell Wexler has trained his camera with striking realism on such diverse films as “Coming Home,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — the last of which earned him one of his two Academy Awards.

Now that Wexler is in his 80s, his son, Mark, has made the filmmaker the focus with his funny, intimate, surprisingly poignant documentary “Tell Them Who You Are.”

It’s a film that works as a warts-and-all look at a colorful, cantankerous character; as a study of movie history and methodology; and as a who’s who of Hollywood, including interviews with everyone from Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier to Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas. But mainly it works as a portrait of a father-son relationship that’s awkward, volatile, uneven and always painfully real.

Writer-director Mark S. Wexler clearly still exists in a state of intimidated awe of this larger-than-life figure, even as he approaches 50. The desire for his father’s love and approval is especially apparent as he follows in the old man’s footsteps, though he’s moving in a slightly different direction.

Haskell Wexler is a longtime political activist and self-professed lefty who wrote and directed the groundbreaking “Medium Cool,” in which he inserted actors and a fictional story within the rioting that took place during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He traveled with Fonda and Tom Hayden to Vietnam to shoot the 1974 documentary “Introduction to the Enemy,” and here he drags his son to an anti-war rally in San Francisco, with both men carrying cameras the whole way. He even insists the FBI had him fired from “Cuckoo’s Nest” for his outspokenness.

Meanwhile, Mark Wexler takes great pride in having ridden aboard Air Force One for television projects, and includes in the film photos of himself with former Presidents Clinton, Carter, Ford and Bush. He respects and even embraces the establishment — an act that dad construes as rebellion.

But the two also clash over the smallest details, and Mark Wexler has the confidence (or maybe it’s masochism) to let us watch as his father verbally takes him out to the woodshed. Haskell nitpicks over camera angles and lighting, over the questions his son asks him — “You know where the (expletive) we are. ... It’s a documentary film, it’s not show and tell” — and even over what to shoot and when.

“I’m going out the door and I suggest that you cut now,” he says firmly as the two head out for breakfast near Haskell’s home in upscale Montecito, Calif.

His behavior never feels like an act for the benefit of the camera, though. It especially makes sense after Haskell informs us that he’s thought he could do a better job than every director he’s ever worked with — and he’s worked with Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Mike Nichols and Milos Forman. (Elia Kazan’s take on Wexler: “I would never work with him again but he’s a damn good cameraman.”)

The two Wexlers frequently film each other during the movie — a simple but telling device, that the safest way for these men to address each other is through their respective lenses. But then Haskell turns the camera on his son and starts asking the questions, and “Tell Them Who You Are” turns into a much-needed, long-overdue therapy session.

Later, the film becomes unexpectedly emotional as the two visit Mark’s mother (Haskell’s ex-wife) at an intensive care center where she’s being treated for Alzheimer’s disease. She doesn’t seem to recognize the man she was married to for 30 years, and can barely respond when he tearfully tries to remind her of the time they spent together, of the secrets they share.

“I knew your camera was there but I didn’t give a (expletive),” Haskell says afterward in the car, still choked up.

Beneath all the bluster and bravado, this is who Haskell Wexler really is. And by telling his story, Mark Wexler tells us who he is, too: the man behind one of the year’s best films.