Tell Them Who You Are

Offering an unusually intimate glimpse into Hollywood family ties, “Tell Them Who You Are” is a self-reflexive meditation of Mark Wexler about his attempts to understand and reconcile with his famous father, master cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who's also known as a lifelong political activist.

Though centering on a star-subject who's flawed man, the docu suffers from a streak of sentimentality and from excessive therapeutic sensibility. This subjective work belongs to a subgenre of father-son documentaries, the best of which are “Kaddish” and “George Stevens: A Filmmaker Journey,” George Stevens Jr's loving tribute to his famous Hollywood filmmaker.

The docu expresses sometimes agonizing, sometimes funny scenes of a push-and-pull relationship. Part therapy, part educational, part film school training, “Tell Them Who You Are” is about a father and his son, who literally point cameras at each other, as each tries to disentangle their troubled relationship. Wexler emerges as a complex figure, passionate and funny, yet self-righteous and opinionated father, whose caustic personality could easily undermine the confidence of the most secure son, which Mark obviously is not.

A brilliant photographer, Wexler has worked with the world's most accomplished directors including Elia Kazan, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, George Lucas, Milos Forman, and Francis Ford Coppola. He has won two Oscars in a career that includes numerous achievements: “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf” “In the Heat of the Night,” “American Graffiti,” and “Bound for Glory.” In 1969, Haskell wrote, produced, and directed “Medium Cool,” a counterculture work shot in the midst of Chicago's 1968 Democratic Convention.

As a teenager, Haskell organized a strike at his own father's factory. Later, his antiwar activities included a trip to Hanoi with Jane Fonda at the height of the Vietnam War to film the documentary “Introduction to the Enemy.” He claims that he was dismissed from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest” at the behest of the FBI because of his leftist activism. When Mark rebelled against Haskell embracing “the Establishment,” father accused son of spying for the FBI.

Haskell's work and politics kept him at a distance from Mark. His larger-than-life persona set an unattainable standard for his children to follow. “When I was growing up,” Mark recalls, “My father would always say, Tell them who you are.' Of course, what he meant was, Tell them youre Haskell Wexler's son.” As the only child of Haskell's second marriage, Mark spent much of his life trying to separate himself from his father, and, at the same time, trying to get closer to him.

Though Mark has directed several documentaries, it's clear that Haskell has little confidence in his ability to direct this docu, and petty arguments ensue over camera angles and lighting. Father and son become dueling directors, as Haskell goads Mark throughout the production, reminding him that he, Wexler, is the “star of your fucking movie!” This interaction, however heightened it might be by the camera's presence, still manages to tell us a lot about these men, separately and together. Each, in his own way, tells us who he is.

In revealing and candid interviews, several filmmakers discuss what it was like to create indelible images with Wexler behind the camera. A number of on-camera colleagues, Ron Howard, Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Sidney Poitier, contribute their own insights as well. Despite the presence of many luminaries, there's no question that the docu's true “star” is Haskell, a larger-than-life persona that's accustomed to challenging the directors with whom he works. Known for his renegade style, Haskell, 82, announces with complete conviction, “I don't think there's a movie that Ive been on that I wasn't sure I could direct better.”

Questioning his son's choices about camera placement, lighting, and storytelling, Haskell makes it clear that Mark's film is no exception. In fact, there are scenes where Haskell can be seen filming Mark, while Mark's filming him. Their dueling cameras, and the resultant footage, reveal a lot about the particular dynamics of their relationship. They also disclose some universal truths about how parents teach their children to see the world, and about personal and artistic legacies are created and transmitted from one generation to another.

Wexler's professional achievements and colorful life could fill a whole documentary feature, but Mark chose to tell his own history along with his father's. The past serves as a background: Most of the film deals with who these men are today. Both men are revealed through the film they are making in Haskell's attacks and Mark's counterattacks, in Mark's need to prove he can make a film, in Haskell's need to prove that without his cooperation, there is no film.

Mark avoids a straightforward chronological portrait of his father, whose professional life has been written about before extensively. Says Mark: “I knew that my father was fascinating, both in his complex personality and his impressive career and celebrity.” Mark wanted the film to be about the two of them, and at the same time to address more general themes that run through all father-son relationships, with which the audience could identify.

The professional and the personal domains intersect in intriguing ways. Mark says he made the film to get closer to his father emotionally and that he hopes it would help them reconcile. His onscreen presence allows the viewers to see how they interact as father and son. Mark is as much the docu's subject as its storyteller and director; his vision represented a totally subjective perspective.

Wexler was filmed over 18 months. Mark began collecting material during the 1996 Democratic convention in Chicago. He had been asked by ABC News to do a piece on the convention for Nightline,' comparing it to the 1968 convention, during which his father had shot “Medium Cool.” This material of Wexler as political activist is combined with the footage of other appearances at various public events: a retrospective showing of “Medium Cool” in Chicago; the dedication of his star on Hollywood's fabled “Walk of Fame;” a party celebrating Haskell's 80the birthday; and a touching memorial service for his friend, the great cinematographer Conrad Hall.

Scenes of Wexler as celebrity are intertwined with the kind of footage that only an intimate observer of his position could have had access to. There's the nerve-wracking, humiliating preparation for a job interview; a tour through a warehouse prior to the liquidation of his extensive collection of camera equipment; a shoot with Julia Roberts at her ranch that requires Mark's technical assistance; a demonstration of Haskell's colorblindness, which he has long kept secret. Most poignantly, there's a record of a visit with Mark's mother (Haskell's ex-wife), who has been institutionalized with advanced Alzheimer's disease.

There are also the numerous interview sessions between the two men, which become mini-discourses on how Haskell approaches everything from filmmaking to fatherhood to life itself. The specific manner in which Mark elicits these revelations from his father tells us as much about the son as it does about the father.

The docu boasts an impressive supporting ensemble, including Paul Newman, Michael Douglas, and Jane Fonda. Mark approached these people on his own; his father didn't know who had been interviewed until he saw the final cut. Tellingly, even people who had difficult times on the set with Haskell acknowledge that they have nothing but respect and admiration for Haskell and his craft.

Privileged access resulted in gaining interviews with influential people. Mark allows the benefits from making a film about Haskell by his son. The celebs would have been less inclined to participate if the docu had just been a regular TV biography by someone unrelated to Haskell. Some of those celebs had themselves complex relationships with their own fathers, like Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas. And they were surprisingly open about their own relationships with their fathers and children. Jane Fonda makes the trenchant observation that men of Haskell's generation (like her father Henry) had problem expressing intimacy. “It's not their gift,” she says, claiming that it's almost always the child who must make the first move toward reconciliation with his or her parent.

“Tell Them Who You Are” represents a significant step for Mark's reconciliation with his father. Using the camera, Haskell's own preferred mode of communication, it's important for him to show his father that despite differences what they have in common is major–they are both good filmmakers. During the shoot, there are instances when Haskell states that he does not approve of Mark's directorial choices. He even threatens to stop the film from being shown by not signing a release form until he approves the finished product. However, in the end, Haskell signs the release, even though the film is sometimes painfully personal and not particularly flattering. In making “Tell Them Who You Are,” Mark has given his father a special gift. In signing the release form, which he does in the film's resonant final image, Haskell fully reciprocates.