In the first scene of "Tell Them Who You Are," the new documentary about Haskell Wexler, the legendary cinematographer is serenely -- well, seemingly serenely -- walking around his equipment room, describing the history of his camera equipment. At one point, he holds up a piece of camera equipment that he used on Elia Kazan's "America, America" four decades ago. The director of the documentary, his son Mark Wexler, innocently asks, "Dad, could you tell us where we are right now?"
Haskell throws up his arms in disgust. "If you don't know where we are right now," he barks, using a barnyard epithet for emphasis, "just look around. We're making a goddamn documentary! You don't have to get me to say where we are. Just get a shot of the film and the equipment!"
It's right about then -- 45 seconds into the film -- that you realize this is no ordinary documentary. (The film opens here May 13 at the ArcLight Cinemas.) Sometimes poignant, often searingly painful, populated with interviews with an all-star cast of Hollywood actors and filmmakers, "Tell Them Who You Are" is a dysfunctional father-son story that has more in common with an intensely personal memoir like Geoffrey Wolff's "The Duke of Deception" than the carefully modulated history lessons delivered by Ken Burns on PBS.
A photographer turned documentarian, Mark Wexler was looking for a subject for a new film when he realized he would never find a more vivid character than his own father. Now 83, Haskell Wexler is a fire-breathing old lefty with the crusty soul of a sensitive artist. In his heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, he was one of Hollywood's leading cinematographers, winning Oscars for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and "Bound for Glory," while also shooting such audacious films as "In the Heat of the Night," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Coming Home."
Between Hollywood gigs, he made political documentaries and directed the trailblazing "Medium Cool," a meditation on violence in America set against the backdrop of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. In the early 1970s, he did everything from help George Lucas shoot "American Graffiti" to travel in North Vietnam with Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden, making the film "Introduction to the Enemy."
Wexler has kept busy into his 80s, pursuing his political passions and also shooting several films for John Sayles, the most recent being last year's "Silver City." It seems possible that Wexler could have had an even bigger career if he hadn't been his own worst enemy. Not every director wanted a second helping of Wexler's prickly perfectionism. As Kazan put it in his memoirs: "He was a man of considerable talent and he was a considerable pain in the ass." A decade later, Haskell was fired from "Cuckoo's Nest" after Milos Forman became convinced Wexler was undermining his relations with his actors.
Nobody understands how difficult Wexler can be better than his son. As he says in the documentary, "I respect all his achievements in American cinema, but I'm not exactly a fan." Throughout the film, Haskell lectures Mark on how to light or stage scenes. He's the kind of guy who, as he walks out the front door of his house, says, "I suggest that you cut now." One day, after Mark follows his father to a peace march, his attempt to arrange the proper magic-hour lighting for an interview degenerates into an ugly father-son confrontation.
"This isn't a Miller Beer commercial," Haskell rages. "This is your father, the star of your ... movie, desperately wanting to say something about what today has meant to me...." I'd bet Mark filmed Haskell signing the release form for the movie because he wanted evidence in case the old man changed his mind.
I got a taste of Haskell's orneriness when I called to discuss his role in the film and found myself on the receiving end of a lengthy monologue about why he didn't want to talk at all. "It's not my documentary," he said. "I'm proud that my son has been able to express himself in such a creative way, but beyond that, I don't want to talk about it. As a father, what I think of the movie is between myself and Mark."
Mark's earliest memory of his father is the image of a man with a camera on his shoulder. As a young boy, Mark visited his dad on sets around the globe and remembers Marlon Brando coming to the house to try to cajole Haskell into making a documentary about Native Americans.
As a teenager, Mark rebelled against Haskell's extreme liberalism and nonconformity ("you probably should say he's radical left -- he'd hate for me to call him a liberal") by embracing the other end of the political spectrum. He praised the FBI and participated in an LAPD ride-along program. "I was very into authority," the 49-year-old filmmaker explained the other day over lunch. He says he's still conservative politically, though "I'm not as far right as my father is left."