Tell Them Who You Are Review

Haskell Wexler is now in his eighties, and is one of the most distinguished cinematographers in the USA, one of only five to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has won two Oscars – for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bound for Glory. He has also directed documentaries and two fiction features: Medium Cool, a major American film of the late 1960s, and Latino, which was released in the mid 1980s and pretty much sank without a trace.

Mark Wexler is Haskell’s son, his only child by the second of three marriages. He began as a photojournalist and has produced and directed documentaries. Tell Them Who You Are is his portrait of his father.

The result is two films in one, and the seams do occasionally show. Film One is a traditional overview of Haskell’s career, interspersed with interviews from directors and actors he has worked with, including the late Elia Kazan, Billy Crystal, Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Milos Forman, Norman Jewison, John Sayles and Paul Newman amongst others, with brief sections looking at specific films, such as the two fiction features and the documentary about Vietnam, Introduction to the Enemy, which Wexler made with Jane Fonda and her then husband Tom Hayden. Wexler emerges as a somewhat difficult man, though such difficulty is down to trying to get things right. He also claims to have been able to direct the films better than ninety percent of the directors he worked with. As Irvin Kershner says, Wexler is a man tortured by “should haves”: should he have become a director? Now, it’s too late. On the other hand, Wexler claims that cinematography is the work he does, which is not the same as the man he is.

Haskell Wexler the man is the subject of Film Two. Father and son have not always got along. Wexler Senior is famously leftist, while his son veers more to the right. These sections of the film raise questions as to how a son of a distinguished father can create his own niche, particularly if he follows the same profession, and how son and father should make their peace while they have time to do so.

Two interviewees figure largely here: one of them is longtime family friend Jane Fonda, who herself has faced parent-child issues with her distinguished father. The second is cinematographer Conrad Hall (captioned as Conrad L. Hall to avoid confusion with his son Conrad W. Hall, who is also interviewed), Haskell’s long-time friend, himself a highly distinguished cameraman and co-owner of a commercials company with Haskell that was set up in the 1970s. He was also something of a father figure to young Mark Wexler. Some other interviewees might not have gone amiss: one obvious omission is Daryl Hannah, Haskell’s niece and someone who shares many of his left-wing affiliations. Conrad Hall died before Tell Them Who You Are was released, and the film is dedicated to his memory.

Documentaries about cinematographers are not thick on the ground, so it’s good to see one of the greats being put in the spotlight, and this film is an interesting and sometimes poignant portrayal of a father by his son at the same time.

As a film presentation, Tell Them Who You Are is as plain vanilla as they come. Shot on video, the film is presented in 4:3, with the film clips appropriately letterboxed. There’s nothing wrong with the picture quality, which is sharp and colourful without any obvious artefacts. Some of the archive footage and extracts from 16mm-originated documentaries are noticeably softer and grainier.

The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0, and it plays as mono with my amp set to Dolby Prologic. Even the incidental music comes out of the centre speaker. There’s clearly no need for a multi-channel blow-out on a film like this – most of the films we see extracts from have mono soundtracks too – but the present track does its job just fine. In a couple of scenes the sound drops out, but this is intentional. Regrettably there are no subtitles.

Metrodome’s DVD has twelve chapter stops. It is encoded for Region 2 only.

The only extra is the theatrical trailer, which runs 2:36. It’s hard to say what else could be added – a commentary track would be superfluous in a film like this – but maybe a filmography would not have gone amiss.

Tell Them Who You Are is a film of obvious but specialist interest, though anyone interested in cinematography should sit this next to Visions of Light on their shelves. It’s hard to recommend buying such a bare-bones DVD at full price, but anyone interested should keep an eye out for discounts.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 04:51:52

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