Clip Off the Old Block

Tell Them Who You Are
Studio: ThinkFilm
Rated: R
Release Date: 2005-04-15
Cast: Conrad L. Hall, Dennis Hopper, George Lucas, Haskell Wexler, Jane Fonda
Director: Mark Wexler
Screenwriter: Robert DeMaio, Mark Wexler
WorkNameSort: Tell Them Who You Are
Our Rating: 4.00
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler has shot some of the most important films in American history. He's a creative titan by any standard one wishes to apply. And within minutes of the documentary Tell Them Who You Are, you hate his guts. There's Haskell, pushing 80 and mercilessly berating his son, Mark, a fellow director of photography who is merely trying to lens a tribute to his old man. They're standing amid dad's warehouse of camera equipment, looking to capture a talking-head sequence that should be simple enough to nail. But no matter what Mark tries to do and how he attempts to frame the scene, Wexler senior practically exults in pointing out that the boy is going at it all wrong, wrong, wrong. (Except that he says it with more profanity.) Before the short intro is over, we've sussed out this Haskell Wexler as the worst kind of father: the kind whose fragile ego is so threatened by the potential success of his offspring that he's made pre-emptive humiliation a way of life. The elder Wexler pulls similar stunts throughout this movie, which, thanks to his relentless kibbitzing, becomes less a conventional biography and more a nightmare portrait of the incredibly strained relationship between the two men. Neither does it seem as if Haskell has reserved his anti-social tendencies for his boy. Even the industry bigwigs Mark goes to for background – people like George Lucas, who praise Haskell's photographic skill – say he's an exasperating buttinsky to work with. He was fired from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and appears to have ventured inordinate input into the projects he was able to follow to completion, including In the Heat of the Night and Coming Home. But something unexpected happens as the doc proceeds and the Wexlers continue to rub up against each other: You come to sympathize with the crotchety Haskell (to a certain extent, anyway) while questioning Mark's motives. Though the latter says his aim is to celebrate his father and hopefully bring them closer together, it's easy to detect an undercurrent of revenge – especially when the audio drops out on one of Haskell's anti-Bush diatribes, which, he has instructed his far more conservative son, must remain in the picture. You don't have to share Haskell's fiercely leftist principles – or loathe Mark's reactionary, smirking repudiation of them – to see in this creative "choice" the willful defiance and disrespect of a perpetual adolescent. Whose side are you on? The movie poses the question over and over, until it suddenly isn't relevant anymore. Unlike countless other bad-dad pictures, Tell Them moves gradually and elegantly toward a reconciliation that isn't too maudlin or forced. The film also makes us understand the reasons why Haskell is the way he is, without ever confusing an explanation with an excuse. Born into privilege, Haskell had wasted $1 million of his own father's money before amassing any significant success in the film business; granddad was less than pleased. Showing how such shame is passed down from generation to generation connects Tell Them with families living far outside the Hollywood power axis. Using cameras to make that hurt stop hurting is the Wexlers' particular coup. (Opens Thursday, Aug. 18, at DMAC)
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