The son of acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler confronts his complex father by turning the camera on him. What results is a portrait of a difficult genius and a son's path out of the shadow of a famous father.
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Mark Wexler's cinematic blend of biography and autobiography centers on his relationship with his father, legendary Oscar-winning cinematographer and filmmaker Haskell Wexler, whose long and illustrious career is a virtual catalogue of 20th-century classics. Haskell's collaborations with such world-class filmmakers as Elia Kazan, Milos Forman, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Mike Nichols include such works as WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, AMERICAN GRAFFITI, COMING HOME, BOUND FOR GLORY and ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST. The film features interviews with many of these artists, along with such luminaries as Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Sidney Poitier. But the true "star" of TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE is Haskell himself, a controversial, larger-than-life character who challenges his son's filmmaking skills while announcing with complete conviction that he could have done a better job directing most of the movies he's shot. As these two men swap positions on camera and behind it... Written by
Words and Music by Leadbelly (as Huddie Ledbetter) and John A. Lomax
Courtesy of TRO - Ludlow Music, Inc.
Performed by The Weavers
Licensed from and used by permission of Vanguard Records, a Welk music Group Company
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Missed potential that comes from Mark's failure to work with what he gets not from Haskell's bl00dy-mindedness
The title references a story recalled by Wexler junior and is a well chosen one as perhaps the story is a small illustration of the relationship between the success father and his son. I came this film because I recognised Wexler from Medium Cool and the Making Of film I saw recently, but I was even more interested when I realised quite how many famous films I had seen where he had been the cinematographer. I, like many others, thought "here is an interesting man and hopefully a good documentary". Sadly it isn't or at least, not in the way that I hoped it would be.
Mostly we hear little of Wexler the filmmaker and even as a man, the film is unable to really bring out the person so much as just seeing him being grumpy and deliberately difficult. Maybe this is who he is, but even if this is true the film doesn't really capture this very well or even structure it it just happens as a side-effect of nothing else working. At times (most notably in the early stages) the scenes where Haskell directs over the top of his son Mark offered interest because I thought it would be a good way where the film could get him talking about the craft and the film would be strong on that. Although this happens in miniature here and there, it just happens and doesn't seem to be something deliberate that is followed up on and the potential in these scenes are never realised.
Mark has done lots of interviews for this film but few are used for more than a snippet here and there. Instead we get the majority of the film depicting the relationship between father and son as they argue and Haskell continually forces his will onto Mark. In this way it is interesting because, regardless of who the person is (and in this area it doesn't really matter that the father is a famous cinematographer) the unspoken story offers potential. Some have said that the way Haskell hijacks the film makes it a mess and a failure but I disagree. The mess came in the editing suite and the failure is the failure to pull all these "real" moments into a structure where they are the film. Instead these moments again just happen and the inability to harness them and make them in to a film is what frustrated me not the fact that they happened.
However without this happening, it did leave me agreeing with several others who question the value of the film. It doesn't do a good job looking at Haskell's career; nor does it do a good job looking at him as a man; nor does it do a good job of looking at the craft of the cinematographer; nor does it manage to structure a portrait of a father and son relationship. So what does it manage to do? Well, the truth is, a small amount of each of these but nothing in sufficient quantity or quality to be of real value. Intermittently interesting but mostly it is a messy, out-of-control affair with limited value.
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