Monday, July 7, 2008

Tell Them Who You Are (Mark Wexler; 2004)

An overtly smug session of film festival psychotherapy done on the cheap, Tell Them Who You Are is nominally Mark Wexler's shot-on-video portrait of his father, the cinematographer and filmmaker Haskell Wexler. More to the point, it is a determined effort to paint the old man as a remote, hopelessly irascible, leftist prick. Forget the brilliant career and aversion to compromise, the lifelong committment to causes larger than winning an Academy Award. Mark has issues, folks, and the political divide between father and son . . . he seems to think sprawling at the feet of George W. Bush on Air Force One itself represents an achievement of some weight . . . is only the beginning of where he wants to drag us. For despite the wealth of detail and testimony spread throughout, Tell Them Who You Are isn't really about Haskell Wexler or what he has accomplished. It's about family relationships, unresolved issues, generational gulfstreams; and nary a moment goes by when the viewer isn't confronted by the filmmaker's mewling resolve to offer us something more 'meaningful' than the study of a man whose extraordinary eye helped to reshape American cinema. With its unconscionably patronizing, resentful tone it bears a striking resemblence to that other navel-gazing landmark in the annals of filial ambush, Aiyana Elliott's The Ballad of Ramblin' Jack (2000) but without the relief of that film's concomitant interest in its subject as an artist. While Haskell Wexler's true achievement and often implacable will would inspire any halfway decent documentarian to dig into the marrow of the man (or die trying), Mark Wexler simply packs up the car and drives it headlong into Oprah country, where all mediocrities go to waste their time (and ours) without stopping for gas.


swac said...

I haven't seen this, but everything I've read so far leads me to believe it's Medium Tepid. Thanks for confirming my suspicions.

Ivan G. Shreve, Jr. said...

I second what Mr. Cooke said...I read about it when it first came out and was anxious to see it. Sad to hear that it's not actually about Haskell, who directed one of my all time Top 100 movies, Medium Cool.

Tom Sutpen said...

Gennelmen . . .

I can't bring myself to say it isn't worth seeing (the all-too brief clips from his documentaries alone might make it worth your while), but it's an extremely frustrating film at best, and the sole culprit is Mark Wexler's incredible mania to make the film as much about himself (a hack, right wing photojournalist) as his old man; who I think everyone would agree has the more compelling resume as an artist and a human being.

The most emblematic moment for me is a scene that takes place after Wexler the Elder has participated in one of the protests marches that took place in the run-up to the Iraq war. He's back in the hotel room and he wants to say something on camera about what the day has meant to him. Now any other filmmaker would set the camera before him and let him riff. It's elementary. Not Mark Wexler (who, in a prior scene, has said that he doesn't want to get 'too political' at this protest gathering). He begins to argue . . . with one of the greatest cinematographers on the planet . . . about the lighting in the room (which is fine) and how it's so much better if they conduct the interview out on the balcony because then he can incorporate the sunset into the frame, etc.

Like I said . . . a hack.

Any event, if the exasperated Haskell actually got a chance to disclose his thoughts on camera that day we'll never know, because it's not in the film.

It's worth seeing once, but it's most assuredly not the film it should have been. The real Haskell Wexler documentary has yet to be made.