Difficult relationships between fathers and sons have always been a dramatic mainstay, and so it is with "Tell Them Who You Are," a compelling look at cinematographer Haskell Wexler by his photojournalist son Mark. ThinkFilm should generate plenty of attention and decent theatrical mileage for this emotionally alive specialty item.

Difficult relationships between fathers and sons have always been a dramatic mainstay, and so it is with “Tell Them Who You Are,” a compelling look at the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler by his photojournalist son Mark. Focus is less on the elder Wexler’s achievements behind the camera than on his seemingly inexhaustible contrariness, a trait that, combined with his fame and prima donna-sized ego, has not made him the easiest of dads. ThinkFilm, which acquired the docu in Toronto, should generate plenty of attention and decent theatrical mileage for this emotionally alive specialty item before it settles into a long life on cable and homevid.

As seen here, Haskell Wexler comes off as a living embodiment of Groucho Marx’s line, “Whatever it is, I’m against it.” Although born into great wealth in Chicago, he was drawn to political dissent at the earliest age (leading a strike at his father’s own factory, we’re informed) and whenever possible has placed his talent at the service of radical subjects.

Even at 80, there isn’t a protest or a political meeting he can resist attending. As Jane Fonda, who went to North Vietnam with Wexler to make the controversial 1974 docu “Introduction to the Enemy,” remarks, “I can’t believe he has not mellowed. I’m very surprised he hasn’t changed more.”

Amusingly but unsurprisingly, Mark became a conservative, and he’s able to tease his father by presenting him with a framed picture of the first President Bush and with tales of flying on Air Force One in conjunction with making a documentary about the plane.

But just as he can lord his own career over that of his son, Haskell is an old pro compared with Mark when it comes to game-playing and one-upsmanship. From the start of the project, which has the frankly stated therapeutic aim of breaking down some of the walls between father and son, Haskell voices doubts about Mark’s ability to pull it off, telling him he’s not shooting it right or asking the right questions, and even refusing to sign his release unless he’s satisfied everything is to his liking. (There were even reports in Toronto that Haskell hadn’t yet given his stamp of approval.)

But as personally troublesome as they may be, the prickly dynamics keep the docu bobbing along.

The only child from the second of Haskell’s three marriages, Mark sketches in his father’s early privileged life during the ’30s with the help of home movies, notes how Haskell and Barney Rosset once published a magazine called “Against Everything,” and claims Haskell blew $1 million of his father’s money making shorts and documentaries at a specially built film studio in Des Plaines, Ill. (Pic provides a glimpse of Haskell’s early docu, “Half a Century With Cotton,” about a company town in Alabama.)

After establishing himself as a top Hollywood lenser by the mid-’60s, Haskell was able to meld his artistic and political interests in “Medium Cool,” which he directed in the midst of the convulsive 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Interesting coverage of this unique film is followed by a road trip Haskell forces Mark to take from Los Angeles to a huge anti-Iraq war protest in San Francisco, where Haskell seems completely in his element.

Whether due to Mark’s own innate politeness or an inability to sharply articulate his views, one of the film’s disappointments is the son’s unwillingness to forcefully challenge his father’s politics, to call him on any past misjudgments or wayward causes. It’s unlikely Haskell would have given any ground, but a better-armed political adversary might have stimulated Haskell into a deeper exploration of his own sympathies.

Pic makes no attempt to comprehensively cover Haskell’s accomplishments with the camera, but brightly illuminates the downside of his frustration over never having decisively made the transition from lenser to director (his only other feature as helmer was the little-seen “Latino” in 1985).

Elia Kazan, in an archival interview, and Irvin Kershner echo the sentiments of Norman Jewison, who teamed with Wexler three times, that, “He’s a pain in the ass to work with.” Most telling of all is the account of Wexler’s abortive stint as d.p. on “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Co-producer Michael Douglas reveals his fears going in that Wexler would undermine director Milos Forman, and Bill Butler, who replaced Wexler on the picture, says he could see how his predecessor’s work “deteriorated” as his working relationship with Forman did the same.

Although Wexler admits he was “truly devastated” upon being fired, and that “I felt like committing suicide; it was horrible,” he subsequently reveals the source of his problem with directors, no matter how talented: “I don’t think there is a movie I’ve been on that I didn’t think I could direct better.”

His superior airs notwithstanding, a measure of vulnerability seeps out one day when Haskell apologizes to Mark for being on edge prior to a job interview with Danish director Bille August. (Ironically, the resulting film, the ill-fated “Return to Sender,” which Wexler did not shoot, also preemed at this year’s Toronto fest.) Into his 80s, Wexler still very much wants to work, although the offers aren’t as abundant as before.

Threaded through it all is a picture of the last stage in the life of Haskell’s closest (and resolutely non-political) friend, the equally eminent cinematographer Conrad Hall; fascinating sidelight reveals that Mark and Conrad’s son, good friends themselves, always felt more comfortable with the other’s father than with their own.

More moving still is a visit with Mark’s mother Miriam at a cottaged Alzheimer’s care facility. With his ex-wife unable to talk or react at all, Haskell speaks quietly, remembering Chicago to her and tearfully contrasting the unfairness of his own late-age vigor to her vegetative state. It’s the most pronounced emotional display by a man Fonda pointedly compares to her own famous father as having empathy but little skill for intimacy.

Ultimately, one is left with the impression of a father who knows he’s always been rather rough on his son but is just too perversely stubborn to give an inch even in old age, and of a son still struggling to emerge from the shadow of an outsized parent who makes sure it’s impossible for his kid to measure up.

Tightly made pic, in which the subject makes the fascinating confession that he is color blind, is dedicated to Hall.

Tell Them Who You Are

Production

A ThinkFilm release of a Wexler's World production. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York.) Produced, directed by Mark S. Wexler. Narration written by Wexler, Robert DeMaio.

Crew

Camera (color, DV), Wexler; additional camera, Sarah Levy, Joan Churchill, John Ealer, Jon Else, Patrick Loungway, Keith Walker, Haskell Wexler; editor, DeMaio; music, Blake Leyh; sound, Michael Kowalski; afterFX artists, Jeff Defalque, Rick Echevarria; associate producer, Mark Luethi. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Real to Reel), Sept. 12, 2004. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Haskell Wexler, Mark S. Wexler, Peter Bart, James Becket, Verna Bloom, Bill Butler, Victor Chakarian, Billy Crystal, Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Milos Forman, Troy Garity, Conrad L. Hall, Conrad W. Hall, Tom Hayden, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, Norman Jewison, Irvin Kershner, Saul Landau, George Lucas, Albert Maysles, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Julia Roberts, Scott Sakamoto, John Sayles, Martin Sheen, Lee Tamahori, Studs Terkel, Jonathan Winters, Pamela Yates.
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