Tell Them Who You Are (Director: Mark Wexler, USA, 2004): Oscar-winning cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler is a man who is invariably praised as brilliant, but he has just as often called “a pain the ass to work with.” This portrait by his son Mark Wexler delves beneath the accolades to find out what sort of man, and father, he really is. It’s a painful and awkward journey at times.
We get a standard series of talking heads, including actors, directors and other cinematographers who have worked with Wexler. We learn a few things: that despite all the accolades as a director of photography, Haskell Wexler suffers from colour blindness. Also, that he thinks he could have done a better job of directing every film he ever worked on as a cinematographer. The difference in a few of these interviews is that Mark is often asking them for advice on getting closer to his dad, with whom he’s had a complicated relationship. The fact that Mark chose to enter the same line of work as his dad may be the cause or the effect of this alienation.
Mark Wexler is clearly not the gifted cameraman that his father was. And he has spent years trying to emerge from his father’s enormous shadow. Which makes his decision to make this film an odd one. In trying to decipher his relationship with his father, he has made the film he will be remembered for. And it’s a film in which Mark again fails to emerge from his father’s enormous shadow. It’s not that it’s not a powerful film. It’s just that the force of Haskell Wexler’s personality, even into his 80s, crowds out his son.
Both father and son express many times during the film their desire for the project to bring them closer, and by the end, perhaps it has, but I’ve often found it a particularly male issue that our most intimate interactions with each other have to be mediated in some way. Many times in the film one or the other of the Wexlers are behind a camera while trying to express some awkward emotion.
In some ways, the fact that this is a very unpolished film works both for and against it. It’s certainly not neatly resolved by the end, which is a strength, but on the other hand, Wexler Jr.’s very artlessness as a filmmaker comes across as a weakness. This is the source of a lot of humour in the film, since Haskell is often crankily dispensing advice to his son behind the camera.
Not in the film itself, but in one of the extras, we see Haskell’s reaction to the finished film, and it’s extremely emotional and cathartic to see him praising his son’s work, maybe for the first time in any substantial way. It’s not a perfect film, but I suppose as an emotional document of two people reaching toward each other, it’s perfect enough.