By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 10, 2005
IT SEEMS all too many stories about father-son conflicts paint the father as the fall guy, the one who failed his child. That could be because most of these stories are written by wounded sons, whether it's Russell Banks, who wrote the beautiful, but emotionally brutal novel "Affliction," or Nathaniel Kahn, whose documentary "My Architect: A Son's Journey," describes the awesome professional achievements of his architect father, Louis Kahn, but also tells of his monumental failings as a parent.
Myth teaches us this inevitability. You kill your father, you become a man. Only then can you move on. But do we ever hear from the other side? How many fathers sit down to a novel, play or screenplay to lambaste the moral failings of their sons? That's simply not part of the mythic program. Life itself takes up the father's cause by balancing things out in the end: Many angry sons grow up to be bad fathers, too, incurring similar ire from their sons. In the end, they face their own music. And they are finally brought closer to the man they deplored.
These and related issues roil intriguingly in the air while watching "Tell Them Who You Are," filmmaker Mark Wexler's portrait of his father, veteran cinematographer Haskell Wexler. Wexler Jr.'s Oedipal self-pity fills the frame as roundly and fully as the proverbial elephant in the living room, as his film takes almost sanctimonious glee at his father's lifelong crankiness, egocentricism, womanizing and control freakism.
But what makes this movie deeply fascinating is the fight Haskell wages. As the semi-willing subject of this movie, he's determined to gain the upper hand or, at least, come out somewhat sympathetic.
In many ways, Haskell plays to his son's expectations, as he disputes his son's camera angles and ridicules him. Haskell's behavior is precisely what Mark thinks of him: a man who cannot let others rule him and who never suffers fools (which amounts to many people) gladly. And Mark, whose very existence often infuriates his father, knows full well that Haskell's behavior will instantly garner audience sympathy for the son behind the camera. Mark also brings out a number of Big Names, such as Michael Douglas and Milos Forman (who both worked with Haskell on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest") who talk about Haskell's irascibility and insubordination on the set (he was fired from "Cuckoo's Nest").
And yet, there's a certain roguish charm about Haskell that makes it harder to pigeonhole him. As a confirmed leftist he has shown no compunction expressing his worldview, frequently when liberalism has been cartoonized by conservatives as something shameful and suspect. And such films as 1969's "Medium Cool" and 1985's "Latino," both of which he wrote and directed, were overtly political works of fiction that openly criticized the Nixon and Reagan administrations' policies, respectively. There's no end to his moral passion when it comes to politics.
There's another quality, perhaps elusive to recognize but there nonetheless. None is more aware of the Oedipal conflicts at work between father and son than he, and perhaps none is more sensitized to his own faults. Haskell's just too darned stubborn and granite-souled to come out and say this stuff.
And here's the rub of the movie: Mark Wexler doesn't come out brimming with a victim's honor, either. There's a moment that illustrates this compellingly. Father and son have come to San Francisco to attend an antiwar march (this is in 2003). As they sit in a hotel room, Haskell tells his son he has something very important to say, something heartfelt. And he wants to say it then and there. But Mark is insistent that his father step out onto the balcony first, since the light is so beautiful at that moment. Haskell is dismayed.
"Is this content or is this picture?" he asks. This documentary, he rails on, isn't supposed to be "a [expletive] Budweiser commercial."
There are many more elements at play here: The film pays passing tribute to Haskell's brilliant cinematography for such film classics as "Coming Home," "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "In the Heat of the Night" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" And Mark's political conservatism, and his pride that he got to make TV documentaries about Air Force One and meet both Bush presidents, irks his father no end. There is also Mark's warmer relationship with Haskell's lifelong friend and cinematographer, Conrad L. Hall, which has always hurt Haskell. And finally, there is the great burning issue of why Haskell left his wife (and Mark's mother) after 30 years of marriage. (The movie's most affecting moment comes when the Wexlers visit her at an intensive care facility where she's being treated for Alzheimer's disease.)
Ultimately, "Tell Them" isn't about Haskell Wexler's faults and qualities, it is really about the age-old battle between fathers and sons, a battle whose emotions and passion far outweigh any objective discussion or even resolution. It's also about regrets and the near certainty that almost everyone will experience them. Haskell has a full share of those, as we learn. (He's a "tortured soul," Hall says.) And Mark, well, he can expect some of his own one day.
TELL THEM WHO YOU ARE (R, 95 minutes) -- Contains some nudity and obscenity. At the Avalon Theatre.