Tell Them Who You Are, Mark Wexler's loose-limbed documentary about his father, the famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler, is equal parts homage and therapy. For Haskell and the 40-something Mark, the only child of Haskell's second failed marriage, have shared a life-long bristly relationship. So Mark, a photojournalist and journeyman filmmaker, sets out to document his dad, to create a portrait larger than the sum of Haskell's prodigious work, and hopefully to help heal their rifts through the process.
Haskell Wexler worked with some of the greatest directors of the late 20th century, many of whom are interviewed here. He nabbed two Oscars for cinematography (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Bound for Glory), and wrote and directed the 1969 counter-culture classic Medium Cool. Interestingly, Wexler was a child of privilege, though he rebelled early and eventually became as well known in Hollywood for his far-left activism as for his camera work.
Wexler today is an energetic eightysomething, and he has lost few of his convictions, politically or professionally. Beloved, feared, tolerated and detested by those he worked with, Wexler sums up his chief flaw thusly: "I don't think there's a movie I've been on that I wasn't sure I could direct better." Naturally, that includes this one. "Don't direct me -- just do it!" he yells at Mark, even as he resists cooperating throughout the project.
For every entertaining anecdote about the old days, there's a squirming contemporary personal moment caught on film. Haskell harangues Mark -- criticizing his filmmaking techniques (often with merit), his politics (Mark leans right) and his motivation for the film itself. Haskell may win our admiration, but Mark gains our sympathy: There are better dads.
The film's title derives from an admonishment the senior Wexler would offer in social situations to the tentative Mark. He meant, of course, to tell them you're Haskell Wexler's son. At times, the egocentric Wexler's studied disregard of Mark's achievements, held up for paternal approval, is painful to witness. When, in Taos, N.M., Mark points out an old church constructed by Spanish explorers whose restoration he documented for Smithsonian magazine, Wexler snaps, "Artifacts of the conquerors." He then launches into a tirade about colonialism, implicating Mark in those crimes.
Yet a detail of the Wexler family history is not revealed until the very end, and it precipitates what might be Mark's small victory -- when his father drops his guard and the larger-than-life alpha male becomes simply a weary old man savoring a bitter moment of insight. Mark's quiet tenacity wins out over Wexler's bluster: Tell Them is a fascinating portrait of a Hollywood icon and radical liberal, and of a man and his son who, through their shared medium, do come closer to understanding each other.