Tell Them Who You Are is a captivating documentary. It begins as a look at the life and career of famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler. He came on the scene in the ‘60s and has worked with such noted directors as Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols, Norman Jewison, George Lucas, Milos Forman, Hal Ashby, and John Sayles. What alters this film from being a straightforward biography is that Haskell’s son, Mark Wexler, an accomplished photojournalist, shot it. Their fractious relationship is exposed through their on-camera interactions, allowing an intimate view inside that most families would not want to share.
Haskell, a two-time Oscar-winner, is a cantankerous old man, and through interviews with friends and colleagues, the viewer discovers only his age has changed since he was at the peak of his career. He is the embodiment of a ‘60s Hollywood liberal, always involving himself in leftist activities. He started at a young age, organizing a strike against his father’s company, so it was no surprise when this activist action made its way into his work. He shot and directed documentaries about unions, torture in Brazil, and the No Nukes concert. He even headed to Hanoi with Jane Fonda recording her infamous trip in Introduction to the Enemy. His greatest work is the hybrid documentary/fiction film Medium Cool that was shot using actors set against the very real activities that took place outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Mark is a conservative, and it is apparent that their conflicting views add to the strain of their relationship. Unfortunately, we never learn how Mark’s political views were shaped. Instead, we just see hostility and berating from Haskell. I’m sure they have had those battles over the years, but it would have added to Mark’s character and helped the viewer understand him better. He is the only child from Haskell’s second marriage, which ended in divorce, and has always lived in his father’s shadow.
Haskell suffers, as many parents do, from only being able to see their children as the young, helpless creatures they brought into the world. He is constantly cutting Mark down no matter who is around. Even though Mark is an accomplished photographer, his father treats his skills as below novice, yelling at Mark as he tries to set up shots. Haskell even refuses to sign a release until he sees the final film.
Mark shouldn’t take it personal because Haskell says, “I don’t think there’s a movie that I’ve been on that I wasn’t sure I could direct better.” This attitude helped get Haskell fired from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, although he blames his release on his work with The Weathermen, the ‘70s revolutionary group who advocated the overthrow of the U.S. government and the capitalist system. Director Forman and producer Michael Douglas disagree. Mark also should have realized how tough it would be to film a subject who is hyperaware of the art form.
There are three key events that cause Haskell to let down his guarded wall and bring hope that their relationship can finally grow. He loses his best friend and business partner, cinematographer Conrad L. Hall. He turns the tables and interviews Mark on camera. Mark opens up and it seems as if this is the first time Haskell learns about his son’s feelings. Lastly, the film closes with a heartbreaking scene between Haskell and Mark’s mother at a convalescent home. She suffers from Alzheimer’s and sits in a wheelchair, staring off with her mouth agape as if she is unaware that Haskell and Mark are there. Haskell talks to her about the wonderful times they had together and she has a moment of lucidity. It is the only time Haskell forgets the camera. Later, Haskell shares an unbelievable secret with Mark that makes his talents more impressive, while figuratively explaining a lot about the way Haskell sees the world.
Obviously Tell Them Who You Are is a good film considering it met Haskell’s high standards or else he never would have signed the release. Don’t be put off by thinking that it’s too inside Hollywood. It is a wonderful exploration of a father-son relationship that gives hope that damaged relationships can be repaired, and is identifiable to anyone who has been a parent or child.