The title of Tell Them Who You Are comes from an anecdote told by Pamela Yates, a friend of the director, Mark Wexler, who as a small boy had approached a group of adults shyly and been admonished by his father: “Tell them who you are.”
“What he meant,” says Ms. Yates, “was ‘Tell them you’re the son of Haskell Wexler.’”
It might not mean anything elsewhere, but in Hollywood Haskell Wexler is a name to conjure with. The two-time Academy Award winning cinematographer enjoys almost legendary status there for his work on such films as Elia Kazan’s America, America (1963), Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (1965), Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967), George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976) and many others. Yet for all the great directors under whom he worked, he tells his son’s camera that “I don’t think there’s been a movie I’ve been on that I didn’t think I could direct it better.”
There is no irony, no twinkle in the eye or tongue in the cheek when he says that. This is not a man subtly to deflate his own arrogance and pomposity. And nor is it the only point in the film where we may have our breath taken away by those qualities. Why did Haskell Wexler agree to do it? What was he thinking? Maybe he was attempting yet another illustration of what, he tells us here, “I was trying to say” in Medium Cool, the movie he made about the riots at the Democratic convention in 1968, namely “that everybody is in somebody’s movie.” But 37 years ago he could have had no idea of the extent to which the next generation of film-makers would have accustomed us to voyeurism on the one hand and exhibitionism on the other. If in 1968 everybody was in somebody’s movie, there was a sense of spookiness and sinisterness about the fact. Now, everybody can’t wait to get into somebody’s movie — apparently including Haskell Wexler himself.
But you can’t help feeling that he wouldn’t have felt that way if he had had even a smidgen of self-knowledge. One of the running themes in the film is Mark’s attempt to get his father to sign a standard release form. “I’m not going to sign this until I see the movie,” he says at first. “What if you make a movie that I find insulting?” The fact that the final scene of the movie shows him signing the release suggests to me a kind of flourish on Mark’s part, as if he were having a private joke with the viewer. “See,” he is saying. “My father was worried that the movie might be insulting, but as it is he hasn’t a clue what a mean, nasty, manipulative s.o.b. he looks like without my saying anything.” Except that that’s not really Mark’s style — unless he’s a much slyer dog than I take him to be. On the contrary, he comes across as rather pathetic in his ability dumbly to submit to his father’s constant querulousness towards him and his stream of belittling comments. He seems to want to deal with such overt hostility by hoping that we, like him, will somehow learn to love the old man for it.
Well, it does happen. Families often have to turn their relatives who are like Haskell Wexler into affectionate jokes in order to stay together at all. Oh, that’s just Dad! But it doesn’t work when Dad is exhibiting his meanness of spirit to a wider audience. A selling point of the movie, according to its publicists, is that it must represent some kind of reconciliation between Wexler Senior, an old-time Hollywood radical, known for such highly political movies as Introduction to the Enemy (1974) and Latino (1985) as well as Medium Cool (1969), all of which he directed, while his son the director of Tell Them Who You Are is a conservative. Or a sort of conservative. At least he is proud of having done a documentary about Air Force One and got a signed photo from the elder George Bush. This prompts his father to observe that his son’s “whole fight in life is to say he is more important than me.”
In other words, the emotional gap between the two makes the political one look trivial.
THE MOST REVEALING SCENE in the picture comes after father and son have driven together to San Francisco for an anti-war rally. Afterwards, his father summons him to his hotel room because he has something to tell him. Mark comes into the room with a camera and suggests that they go out onto the balcony to get the sunset and the city of San Francisco in the background.
“What I have to say is more important than the image,” says Haskell.
“But could we just see the city,” pleads Mark.
“I want to say something for your f****** movie,” says Haskell, growing more angry.
“Could we just walk outside for a second,” Mark repeats.
“You’re telling me what the film is about?”
“No, I just want to shoot the background that I want to shoot.”
“Is this content or picture? I want to say something and if you can’t respect that immediately it puts why we’re making this film into question.”
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H/T to National Review Online