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.”
“I just want to get the sun setting.”
“Bull**** on the sun setting! This isn’t a f****** Miller Beer commercial. This is your father talking about something that’s important to him…What’s important here is that I, the star of your f****** movie, desperately want to say something about what today has meant to me and why I went up here to San Francisco on this peace march. Now if that is not important to you or is in balance for you with the f****** sunset, then I might as well hang up my jockstrap.”
One of the amusing things about this is that earlier Mark has shown us an excerpt from a Miller Beer commercial made by Haskell Wexler in the 1960s which features a particularly striking sunset. That helps to make his performance in this little scene not only extremely hostile and deeply unattractive but also hilariously funny. Yet Mark goes out of his way, it seems, not to notice either the hostility or the humor. Again and again his father belittles him to his own camera. Even when he seems to be unwontedly humble, he uses it to stick the boot in. “Maybe I would have been a better father if I knew what I know now; maybe you wouldn’t have turned out to be such a mess.”
At one point, Mark tells his father that one of his most painful early memories was when he told him that he thought him stupid. In fact, Mark says, he remembers a great many occasions on which Haskell had pronounced that other people, particularly the directors he worked with, were similarly afflicted. There is a pause and for a second or two we allow ourselves to wonder if at last Haskell is touched with remorse about something he has done to his son. Then he says: “You know why that was, Mark? Because mostly they were.” And when Mark seems as taken aback as we are by this reference to a number of the most prominent directors in Hollywood, he elaborates: “Stupid.”
Over this and other examples of toxic parenting, the healing balm of psychobabble is poured by, of all people, Jane Fonda, who had collaborated with the elder Wexler on Introduction to the Enemy and Coming Home. “For the men of our fathers’ generation,” she tells young Mark, “intimacy was not their gift.” Well, that’s one way to put it. Miss Fonda of course learned her own forbearance through her experience of an emotionally remote and difficult father, but at least Henry Fonda was spared the humiliation of having his personal unpleasantness recorded for the world to see by the child he had wronged.