Despite his reputation as one of the living legends of cinematography who came of age during the dawning of the New Hollywood of the late ’60s, Haskell Wexler is equally renowned as a documentarian and cinema verite pioneer who wears his politics on his sleeve.
And while his directorial feature debut, “Medium Cool,” remains his most influential pic, Wexler’s recollections about that landmark work reveal how prescient, and timeless, the film is within the context of the current cultural climate.
“The overall thing that was happening in the country at that time was that the people who represented us were out of touch about the war, employment and poverty,” Wexler says. “They were ignoring issues, so I knew there would be some conflict between the authorities and what they called the ‘hippies.’ ”
Combining fiction with reality, the pic was shot in sequence amid the turbulence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He wrote the script for “Cool” in three weeks and then immediately shot and directed it.
Forty years later, the 86-year-old ardent liberal admits there are definitely some similarities between today’s heady election turmoil and that of late ’60s.
“We have to know that the general media is not challenging basic things that our government has done,” Wexler laments. “No one is saying that we were lied to.”
With more than 50 films under his belt as a cinematographer, including “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Coming Home,” as well as five Oscar nominations and two wins for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Bound for Glory,” it’s no wonder Wexler is Woodstock’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement recipient.
It’s the fourth such honor for Wexler, following similar plaudists from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Intl. Documentary Assn. and the Camerimage Intl. Fest of the Art of Cinematography.
Despite the career recognition, Wexler does not entertain thoughts of slowing down.
“I feel it is an obligation not to retire but to be engaged,” Wexler says. “I think to not be engaged is to forfeit your humanity.”
For Wexler, that engagement has meant zeroing in on projects that allow him to express his sociopolitical concerns while practicing his art. “At this point, I am sort of obliged to work on documentaries because (studios) don’t hire old guys,” he explains. “Also, you are closer to the filmmaking process.”
In the wake of such works as “The Bus,” “Interviews With My Lai Veterans,” “Brazil: A Report on Torture” and “Introduction to the Enemy,” Wexler most recently took on the dangerous implications of sleep deprivation in the film biz with “Who Needs Sleep?” a doc he directed that debuted at the 2006 Sundance Film Fest.
Wexler, who has been attending the Woodstock fest since its inception in 2000, says he feels a certain undeniable connection to the place and the people.
“Something good resonated with me when it came to that festival because of where they are located and their interest in film,” he says. “They encourage rebels who tell stories artfully and honestly.”