The trouble with being a documentary filmmaker, I suppose, is that there’s always a chance someone will make a documentary about YOU. And the trouble with making a movie about your famous filmmaker father is that he’s apt to try to tell you how to do it.
But out of such hot furnaces are new bonds forged, and “Tell Them Who You Are,” apart from being an interesting lesson in Hollywood history, is also a record of a father and son connecting after many years of failing to understand each other.
The subject is Haskell Wexler, legendary Hollywood cinematographer on such films as “In the Heat of the Night,” “Coming Home,” “Colors,” “The Babe,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “Bound for Glory,” and an Oscar-winner for the latter two. The cantankerous, garrulous old ladies’ man began work on “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and was fired half-way through the production, eventually sharing credit (and an Oscar nomination) with his replacement, Bill Butler. He’s pals with George Lucas and provided technical advisement on “American Graffiti.”
He’s also been through three wives and who knows how many girlfriends. The son of a rich Chicago electronics salesman, Haskell rebelled against formality and became a power-to-the-people type, a hippie before there were hippies. As a youth, he organized a strike among the workers in his father’s factory. As an adult, he directed documentaries about civil rights and other underground movements.
Wexler’s son, Mark, primarily a photographer by trade, is the man behind “Tell Them Who You Are,” which biographies his father and records his relationship with him. (“I’m not exactly what you’d call a fan,” Mark says of his own attitude toward Dad’s work.) Just as Haskell bucked against his upbringing to become a radical, Mark rebelled the other way to become a conservative. His grandfather, the Chicago electronics magnate, would surely be proud of him.
His dad is more prickly. The opening shot of “Tell Them Who You Are” has Haskell in the frame, Mark off-camera giving instructions as they tour Haskell’s warehouse of camera equipment. Haskell doesn’t take kindly to directions — ask any of the directors he’s provided cinematography for — and certainly not when the subject is himself.
Later in the movie, Haskell tells his son he has something important to tell him and he wants it on film. When Mark arrives, they spend 10 minutes arguing about the best way to shoot the scene in regards to lighting and camera setups. We never do find out what Haskell wanted to tell him in the first place.
As a lover of film history, I’m always delighted to see the story of an unsung Hollywood legend. (A lot of people couldn’t even tell you what a cinematographer does, let alone name a famous one.) That in itself would be useful, but “Tell Them Who You Are” goes a bit further, documenting Mark and Haskell’s tortuous path to making amends and relating to one another. That universalizes the movie, making it not just a behind-the-scenes history chapter but an insightful father-son comedy-drama.
B (1 hr., 35 min.; )