Tell Them Who You Are

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This documentary about acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler is only partly about his career and his involvement with some of the more interesting films of the last four decades (among them, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, In the Heat of the Night, Days of Heaven and Matewan). Filmed by his son Mark Wexler, the emphasis is more on the relationship between the two, exploring Haskell’s sometimes cold and harsh dealings with Mark, who grew up in the shadow of a famous father, struggling to stake out his own identity. The viewer may find it difficult to pick a side to root for; Haskell, now in his early 80s but still sharp, is overbearing and cranky, but not too much sympathy is engendered by Mark, who comes across as a dull, buttoned-down guy.

Haskell is a sort of imperious figure, the kind of devout leftist who likes to lecture people on the obvious sins of governments and corporations with the dogged certainty that’s common among people born of privilege who spend their lives trying to atone for it. But it wasn’t politics that led to his stormy career, marked by his arguments with directors and getting fired from projects like The Conversation and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; rather, it was his stated conviction that most directors are idiots and he could always have done a better job at the movie’s helm.

By contrast, his son is a non-assertive conservative, proud of having flown on Air Force One with George H. W. Bush while making a documentary, and torn between wanting to please his father and do his own thing, whatever that may be. Can this odd couple find meaning in their relationship beyond the obligations of blood ties? It’s not that compelling a dilemma. More interesting are the bits about how Haskell made Medium Cool, the most famous of the handful of films he actually managed to direct; his long partnership with fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall, who was the kindly yin to Haskell’s prickly yang; the Rashomon-like story of how Haskell was fired from Cuckoo’s Nest; and an excruciatingly moving scene toward the end when Haskell visits his Alzheimer’s-afflicted ex-wife in a nursing home.

There’s enough here to interest film buffs, but, intentionally or not, the arc of the film leads to some sort of resolution to the lifelong conflict between a hard-ass son of a bitch and his understandably repressed son. The revelation is rather dreary, though viewers unaware that brilliant artists can sometimes be turds in real life may find it enlightening.

 

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, at 7:30 p.m., Monday, Sept. 26. 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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