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Look Out, It’s Real!

Michael Atkinson

Haskell Wexler and son Mark S. Wexler

Look out, Haskell, it’s real!,” shouts a crew member, in the watershed moment from Haskell Wexler’s 1969 seminal is-it-real-or-is-it-cinema, American New Wave classic Medium Cool.

This moment in a fiction film wasn’t fiction at all: the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, which Wexler attended with his cast and crew anticipating a riot. Of course, he got one, got tear-gassed (and blinded for 24 hours), and for a sickly few moments, as the actors blend in with the famous chaos and the filmmaker drops to the floor, the film ruptures what we think of as American political filmmaking, and becomes political life itself.

Medium Cool was all about life and media intermingling until they have no mutually exclusive definitions, conceived and fashioned by one of our national film tradition’s great raging liberals. A two-time Oscar winner and, apparently, one of the most bull-nosed, inflexible, shit-stirring iconoclasts to ever get famous in Hollywood, Wexler, now charging into his 80s, is the focus of Tell Them Who You Are, a fascinating doc-portrait made by his son. Mark S. Wexler, a middle-aged photographer/​TV filmmaker is, self-admittedly, a Republican brown-noser, proud politician-handshaker and all-around establishment twerp. Not surprisingly, the film is only half about Wexler’s life and career; the rest is the filmmaker’s effort to fathom his relationship with his dad in an utterly conventional, memoir-doc kind of way, and getting bile, recriminations, cinematographic hectoring and, often, a second camera aimed right back at the first, for his troubles.

Still, the least that could be said about the Wexlers’ uneasy co-production is that it does assemble the pieces of the father’s redoubtable career: a nearly 50-year run as one of the industry’s most respected cinematographers, checkered with politically fierce features and documentaries on Nicaragua, civil rights protest, the Weather Underground, Third World thug regimes, and Vietnam (with Jane Fonda in tow). Film clips from Wexler’s career can and do make you swoon, and Wexler’s titanic intransigence just makes him all the more lovable. The interviewees on display – Fonda, John Sayles, Norman Jewison, Julia Roberts, George Lucas, Michael Douglas, Albert Maysles, et al. – all agree, but from a respectable remove, and no one’s shy about defining Wexler as, in Jewison’s words, a pain in the ass.” Even amid the idiosyncratic, nomadic throng of world-class DPs,Wexler was always resolutely nonconformist, getting fired more than once from big projects (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for example) for bickering with the directors, and getting on best with fellow travelers like Sayles, Michael Moore, Frank Zappa, Dennis Hopper and Hal Ashby. 

Cinematographers are rarely lauded in public or acknowledged by the press or beloved by moviegoers, and yet they are often the authors, precisely, of the cinematic moments we adore and remember. Tell Them Who You Are is many things at once: an autumnal father-son double-self-portrait, a glimpse into a familial left-right schism that will only end in death, and a mini-history of one man’s journey through American moviemaking from the postwar years to the new millennium. But, maybe most of all, it’s a rare tribute to the act of shooting film – what it captures, what it cannot retain, how it binds the filmer and the viewer, how it’s so involved with life that trying to separate the strands is foolishness. We may too often forget that it’s real,” but Haskell Wexler never has.

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Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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