Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Documentary Channel: "Tell Them Who You Are"

During the month of December, Documentary Channel is presenting a "Best of" series of some of the most honored documentaries of the past few years. I will be reviewing several of these films over the next two weeks. Here is my first review of the film "Tell Them Who You Are." - Tom Hyland

Tell Them Who You Are (2004) is a documentary made by Mark Wexler about his father, celebrated two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer, Haskell Wexler. Moving, funny and deeply touching, this is a first-rate film about how these two filmmakers struggle with their differences while at the same time, coming together in the mutual respect and love only a father and son could share.

Haskell Wexler has been one of Hollywood's greatest cinematographers for more than four decades (he is  currently 89 years old- he was 82 when this film was made) and his talent is legendary, as evidenced by his photography in such films as The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), In The Heat of the Night (1967)  and dozens of other films including Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and Bound for Glory (1976); these last two being his Oscar winners. Wexler has also directed a few films, his most famous being Medium Cool (1968), much of which was filmed during the Democratic National Convention of that years, held in Chicago, when anti-war demonstrators filled the streets of downtown Chicago in protest. Wexler has always been an activist with left-wing views and it's something he's quite proud of.

But the elder Wexler has also been a bit of a difficult person to deal with and that's much of the focus of this film. We get interviews with directors, producers and actors he's worked with and there are many comments as to how they would never work with him again. Milos Forman, who fired Wexler late in the filming of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), talks about this experience, as does Michael Douglas, the producer of that film.

Yet it isn't just his work in Hollywood that has Haskell arguing with someone; it happens at home as well and his son Mark shows us a few of these instances. In one memorable scene, the two of them argue over whether or not Mark should shoot an interview of his father outside to obtain the light from the sunset, while Haskell thinks what he has to say onscreen is much more important than getting the right visual tone. This scene goes on for a bit and I loved watching every minute of it, as we see the friction between father and son on what seems to be a relatively minor point.

Lest you think that Haskell is always a handful, there is a very moving scene late in the film where he goes to visit his first wife (he has since remarried) at a care facility, where she is suffering the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. Mark's camera gives the two of them proper space and then slowly creeps in, as we see Haskell softly tell his wife about the wonderful times they shared when they were youngsters. Haskell finally breaks down, as we see him shed a few tears, as he realizes the love of his life is slipping away from him. Especially after seeing the cantankerous moods of Haskell, this scene is quite powerful.

You will learn a bit about Haskell Wexler's movie career while watching Tell Them Who You Are, but more importantly, you will see how he reacts with his son. It isn't always an ideal relationship, but at the end of the day, there's a great deal of respect there as each respects the talents and wishes of the other. This is a marvelous film that is Highly Recommended.

Tell Then Who You Are will be shown on Documentary Channel on Wednesday, December 14 at 8:00 PM Eastern time. For a schedule of the special documentaries that will be shown this month, go to the website for a schedule.

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