An unblinking eye on a father, son relationship
"Mark, documentary filmmaking is not show and tell," rasps cinematographer Haskell Wexler ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?")...
Seattle Times movie critic
"Mark, documentary filmmaking is not show and tell," rasps cinematographer Haskell Wexler ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Next," "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?") to his filmmaker son in Mark's film "Tell Them Who You Are." But the resulting documentary shows and tells us plenty, both about the troubled but ever-present bond between a fiery father and a son who wants approval, and about what happens to a relationship when the camera stays on.
The film is a portrait of Haskell but ends up being just as much about Mark — it's clear that the son made this movie as a way of both paying tribute to his famous father and of examining their difficult relationship. The often-cranky and yet appealingly down-to-earth Haskell, now in his 80s, and his son, a photojournalist as well as a filmmaker, share the language of the camera. Both men clearly are more comfortable behind a lens, and Haskell in particular is reluctant to cede control of the camera to someone else. And Mark is all too aware of the protection the camera can provide. "A camera allowed me to see the world," he says of his career, "but to be shielded from it by its lens."
Little is shielded here, as a father-and-son relationship is sketched out for us, in ways no screenplay could manage. In one telling scene, Mark and his father are in a San Francisco hotel suite, ready for Haskell to tell a story about his past. The two get into a disagreement over lighting: Mark thinks the scene would be most effective on the balcony; Haskell is convinced that the light would be wrong. Stubbornness appears to be a Wexler family trait, as the two men argue in tones familiar to anyone who's been a parent or a child: Haskell insists he knows best, Mark wants to prove he can do it himself. In the process, both come off badly: the whole reason for the moment — the story — is lost, but another story is told.
Though the two Wexlers dominate the film, as they should, theirs are not the only voices we hear. There's an immensely touching moment of reunion with Mark's mother, Marian (Haskell's ex-wife), who has advanced Alzheimer's disease. "We've got secrets," Haskell murmurs to her, as the two share an unspoken understanding. Jane Fonda, who Haskell shot in "Coming Home," speaks movingly of his generation of men — which also included her own father, Henry. And Norman Jewison, who collaborated with Haskell for "In the Heat of the Night" and "Other People's Money," affectionately describes the cinematographer as "a pain in the ass to work with."
Like Nathaniel Khan's equally fine "My Architect," "Tell Them Who You Are" is a coming-to-terms-with-my-famous-dad story, but unlike Khan (whose father, architect Louis Khan, died several decades before his son made his film), Mark Wexler's relationship with his father is still a work in progress. But, in a low-key final scene played over the credits, it's clear that the film has helped these two stubborn men understand each other — and, in the process, given the rest of us a vivid picture of a relationship that, like most, isn't quite picture-perfect.
Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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