Friday, June 02, 2006

TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE - fascinating doc about legendary cinematographer

Haskell Wexler, the subject of this documentary, comes across as a love-able scoundrel. Born into privilege, he started a school newspaper called “Against Everything” and later organised the workers in his father’s factory into a strike. He then burned through a cool million of his father’s dollars making movies before skulking off to Hollywood as a cinematographer for hire. Wexler quickly became one of the most admired Directors of Photography in the business. He won Oscars for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and BOUND FOR GLORY, and shot iconic movies like AMERICAN GRAFITTI, THE THOMAS CROWNE AFFAIR and more recently MULHOLLAND DRIVE and SILVER CITY. He also shot parts of Milos Foreman’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and Francis Ford Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION before being fired for being “difficult”.

Despite the roll-call of famous movies in the first paragraph of this review, TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE is not a piece of hagiography. Rather, it is shot by Wexler’s son Mark, also a documentary film-maker, and avowedly “a son, not a fan”. Mark tries to explore, partly at his father’s behest, the man away from the camera and to try to stage a reconciliation through the medium of making a documentary. I am not sure if Mark succeeds, but we do realise that what made Haskell a difficult father is the same thing that makes him a difficult Director of Photography. Haskell Wexler is good at what he does; he knows he is good at what he does; and he suspects that he is better at what you are doing than you are. The fact that he is probably right, and delivers his rants in a style that is often hilarious, does not lessen the blow. Similarly, the fact that as a kid, Mark knew that when his dad called him “stupid”, he was also calling great directors “stupid” was of little comfort. If your dad tells you you’re dumb is it really any comfort to know that you are in august company?

The whole documentary is like a worked example of both Wexler’s genius and his flaws. He abrasively tells his son what he is doing right and wrong, both in terms of choices about photography, but also concerning content. These exchanges are really funny because Haskell is a funny, feisty guy. Moreover, he is usually right.

The question is whether this documentary has an appeal beyond the obvious audience of movie buffs. My view is that while Wexler is an intriguing and really like-able character, and the themes touched upon in this picture have an appeal beyond the world of cinema, I doubt if someone who really isn’t that interested in how cinema is made would be interested by this documentary. Similarly, viewers expecting famous talking heads recounting chat-show anecdotes are also likely to be disappointed.

TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE toured the festival circuit and went on limited release in the US in 2005. It is currently on release in the UK

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