Unlike most independent film directors, I have a pretty great relationship with my father. We meet once a week for dinner, we are very open about our work and our relationships, and, maybe most important, we understand each other on a very equal plane. I doubt this would have been very different if he had been famous in any right, but who am I to make such projections. What I know is that we're both very impressed and happy with how each other have turned out. Whether Mark Wexler and his appropriately named father, Haskell, see each other in these terms is a question that becomes the focus of the documentary Tell Them Who You Are.
The title comes from an insistence of Mark's mother when he is too shy to say hello to a celebrity; she says "Tell them who you are! Tell them you're Haskell Wexler's son!" For those who don't know, Haskell Wexler has been widely recognized as a great cinematographer. He worked on films like American Graffiti, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and last year's Silver City, and was fired from both Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation and Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Why was he fired? More than likely, it was because he's a pain in the ass the likes of which have never been seen. He's judgmental, quick to call names, impatient, quick tempered, and a mighty big liberal, although he'd probably lose it if you called him that. Mark documented the relationship between he and his father from 2002 till the beginning of 2004, using interviews with Haskell and several high-end celebrities.
Mark loves Haskell, Haskell loves Mark, and there's no arguing that. The film wants to look more at how they work in terms of identity and belief. Haskell is as liberal as they come and questions authority like it's his job (it sorta is). Mark is much more on the right and believes in America as it is. Haskell, with age and wisdom, understands his son trying to get a rise out of him by telling him that he is going on air force one with Bush Jr. and giving him a picture of himself and Bush Sr. for his birthday. He is still a frantic troublemaker, but he understands the situation more and therefore, reacts to things with a much calmer heading. If this wasn't enough, Tell Them Who You Are is also an expert study on the job of a cinematographer. Easily one of the most overlooked jobs in the business; we see how close the director and the cinematographer worked together and how close they are in skill. Haskell insists that he could have directed all the films he worked on better than the people who actually directed them. You can't help but be impressed by Haskell, however; he's still a complete rebel at the age of nearly 84 and he doesn't seem to be slowing down at all. There are few scenes this year that will hit you like Haskell's visit with Marianne, Mark's mother (an Alzheimer's patient). It's the one scene where we see Haskell without the politics or emotion shielding and see him as a vulnerable male. It's stunning.
If you really want to see Jane Fonda's comeback, watch this film. She, among a slew of the Hollywood who's who, gives the most insight into the differences between father and son, along with what one has to prove to the other. You can't help but feel a little sad at the film's inclusion of the late, great Conrad Hall, without a doubt my favorite cinematographer of all time. Hall and Wexler were best friends for years and the film takes time to see Hall's personal relationship to both Haskell and his son, even though he was outspokenly apolitical. Tell Them Who You Are is a film about getting over our beliefs and centering on people as people. Without being judged or condemned, we see Haskell, Mark, Conrad, and all their high-end friends without the shroud of celebrity and with a palpable air of honesty. It's a rare film of startling sincerity.