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TH!INKFilm presents
Tell Them Who You Are (2005)

"I don't think there's a movie I've been on that I wasn't sure I could direct it better." 
- Haskell Wexler, notoriously fiery cinematographer

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: November 20, 2005

Stars: Haskell Wexler, Mark Wexler
Other Stars: Billy Crystal, Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Milos Forman, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, George Lucas, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Julia Roberts, Martin Sheen
Director: Mark Wexler

MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual images
Run Time: 01h:34m:33s
Release Date: October 18, 2005
UPC: 821575535854
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- A-B+B+ B+

DVD Review

I'd wager that most filmgoers today couldn't name a single cinematographer, past or present—that's not necessarily a bad thing, as it's the job of moviemakers to conceal the nature of the illusion they're creating, not to draw attention to it. (Truly, every time we go to see a feature film, we are asked to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.) But of course those in the business know that there are some titans in the field, and Hollywood can be such a small company town that it can seem like everybody regards the likes of Conrad Hall and Gordon Willis and Michael Ballhaus in the same manner that they do Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, or even Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty and Robert De Niro. And if you choose to go into the family business, the sharp sense of being not yourself, but the Great Man's son, has to be that much more pronounced—how ever are you going to get out of the old man's shadow?

Tell Them Who You Are, then, really could only have been made by one person, and it functions both as a gripping piece of filmmaking, and as a remarkable coming to terms between a father and son. Its director, Mark Wexler, is an accomplished documentarian, but, especially growing up in L.A., he's known in many circles first as being the son of Haskell Wexler, one of the great DPs in Hollywood history. Haskell's credits include Coming Home, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and American Graffiti; he also directed the landmark Medium Cool, in a career that led him to work with the finest directors and actors in Hollywood in the last half century. (Look at the roster assembled on the front of the DVD case, for instance, to pay their respects.) The film tells Haskell's story well—he was a child of privilege and a veteran of World War II, a frequent pain in the ass to work with (see the quote at the top of this review, and ask yourself if, were you a director, you'd want that kind of attitude from your DP), and a titanic figure for his children. So there's a fair amount of celebration of Haskell the pro, but really, this is a story about intergenerational friction, as Haskell, at 81, faces his mortality.

Haskell is a pain as a subject, too—his liberal politics clearly don't jibe with Mark's, who gives his father a picture of himself with the first President Bush; and Haskell is forever telling Mark how to make his movie, where to put the camera, what questions to ask, what to shoot, and what he's doing wrong. There's an aspect to this of filmmaking as therapy, but Mark never wallows in it—still, it's no surprise that the two most poignant interview subjects whose last names aren't Wexler are Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda, both of whom know a little something about what it's like to grow up in Hollywood with a father who's a household name. (As a producer, Douglas had to fire Haskell from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, lest the cinematographer incite a riot against director Milos Forman.) Mark gives us some extraordinary personal tidbits—it's kind of astonishing that Haskell is color blind, for instance, but more poignant is the trip that father and son take to the facility where Mark's mother, Haskell's ex-wife, now lives. She's ravaged by disease, barely able to speak; Haskell weeps for her, and you get the sense that, like his father, Mark is torn between his emotional life and his craft. Should he put down the camera for a private family moment of comfort, or is it more important to keep rolling?

Especially poignant is the relationship between the Wexlers and Conrad Hall and his family—each famous cinematographer had issues with their own children, and seemed to serve almost as a surrogate father for the other's kids. Also moving is a road trip the two men take, to a rally protesting the Iraq war—it's never spelled out specifically, but there's a sense that Haskell and Mark are on opposite sides of the political fence, and even more, that the war stands in for whatever it is they haven't been able to talk out over all these years. But the candor and love of this movie make it much more than just a sentimental portrait of a man by his son—it's deeply emotional, and you don't need to know how to operate a Panavision camera to relate.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The feature was shot on high-end video, and transfers reasonably well to DVD, though there's quite a bit of contrast.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno


Audio Transfer Review: Some hiss and buzz from location shooting, but that's to be expected.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
Cast and Crew Filmographies
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring Second Best, Born Into Brothels, Murderball
8 Deleted Scenes
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: There's a way in which those who saw this film in its theatrical release or on the festival circuit were deprived, as the biggest emotional punch comes not in the feature, but in an accompanying epilogue of sorts—it's a visit (08m:14s) that Haskell pays to Mark's editing suite, the father's reaction after seeing the documentary for the first time. He turns to his son and says: "You're a hell of a filmmaker,", and the offscreen sobbing and shaky camera tell us everything about Mark's reaction to this stamp of patriarchal approval, and it really is incredibly moving, on some level the payoff for everything we've already watched.

Eight bonus interview clips (01h:01m:06s in all) focus not on the industry, but on family—they feature Martin Sheen; Michael Douglas; Ron Howard; Jane Fonda; Billy Crystal; Sidney Poitier; cinematographer Bill Butler; and Conrad Hall and his son. You'll also find a filmography for Haskell, and a brief biography for Mark.

Extras Grade: B+

 

Final Comments

A strong, deeply moving look at a great and flawed man by his son, with a package of extras that occasionally pack even more of an emotional wallop than the feature.

 


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