Film: Tell Them Who You Are (95 min) Directed by Mark Wexler Available from Amazon and other outlets Released: 2005 (USA) Tell Them Who You Are is an entertaining and richly integrated film about the search for disclosure between an adult son and his iconic father, now in his 80s. The father, Haskell Wexler, is a preeminent and prolific cinematographer who worked on many critically acclaimed films throughout his long career, including American Graffiti and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. From the opening scene of this film it is clear that the quest for disclosure and connection will be a rocky one. In his equipment room, Haskell is showing and talking about some of the cameras he has used throughout his career. Mark, his son, as he shoots the scene asks him to tell us where we are. Haskell responds with agitation, “If you don’t know where the fuck we are right now, just look around. We’re making a goddamn documentary, so you don’t have to have me say in front of the camera where we are. You get a shot of some of the equipment…” View largeDownload slide Haskell Wexler and Mark Wexler. (Photo courtesy of Mark Wexler) View largeDownload slide Haskell Wexler and Mark Wexler. (Photo courtesy of Mark Wexler) It is not just the vociferous crankiness of the father that gets in the way of a deeper level of connection between father and son. In fact, the father is mostly mellow throughout the film, and offers several invitations to get to something deeper: “I would like to be able to use our filmmaking—maybe even about each other a little bit—to break down some of the walls that happen as with any fathers and sons as they get older and they get more independent.” A bit later he repeats the invitation: “If you want to make the kind of documentary I hope we’re making, at some point we have to get out of Hollywood and into here and to here,” pointing to his head and his heart. A bit later, Mark himself says, in one of his many narrated interjections, “What I really want to explore—and maybe this film is the way to do it—is who Haskell Wexler, the father, is.” But despite these statements, the film, in Kafkaesque fashion, takes several meandering digressions into Haskell’s professional life, and begins to feel more like a biography of Haskell the professional cinematographer and his left leaning politics than a personal connection between son and father. Short clips from many of Haskell’s films are skillfully interwoven with interview comments from well-known actors and directors that Haskell worked with. Throughout much of the film, it appears as though Mark, the son and the filmmaker, is blocked by his own reticence to explore his relationship with his father. Gradually, however, through several interchanges between father and son we begin to see the nature of their relationship in spite of the lack of any open conversation about it. There is, for example, a telling scene where they each have a video camera in their hands and Haskell humorously exclaims: “Dueling cameras!” Later we accompany them on a trip to a peace march where they both use their cameras as they participate in the march. What becomes increasing clear is the rivalrous nature of their relationship and Mark’s need for his father’s approval. This is succinctly confirmed in an unguarded off-camera moment in which we hear Haskell say to one of his colleagues in reference to Mark: “His whole fight in life is to say he’s more important than me.” This comment comes shortly after we see Mark present his father with a belated birthday gift—a framed photo of Mark with president George H. W. Bush, occasioned by Mark’s documentary film of Air Force One for National Geographic. Could there be a more direct plea for his father’s approval, both by giving this photo as a birthday gift and then by including the giving of it in a documentary about searching for his father on a deeper level? Shortly after this, we see a rather painful exchange between Mark and his father as Mark is setting up the camera for filming a conversation that Haskell has invited him to have on camera. Ostensibly, the argument is about how to compose the scene. But at a deeper level it is clearly a power struggle between father and son—a struggle that they both seem to be using to avoid getting to the deeper conversation they both profess to want. It is actually not until Haskell, in a turnabout of roles, sets up a camera and interviews Mark that we get to some honest revelations about their relationship. In answer to one of Haskell’s questions, Mark says, “Growing up, I often felt that you undermined me in certain ways… ‘You’re stupid, Mark.’ I remember hearing that a lot when I was growing up.” This very personal reflection is quickly followed by Mark adding “and sitting around the dinner table you would say, ‘that film director is stupid; he doesn’t know what he is doing.’” This additional comment gives his father the choice to respond to having called his son stupid, or to respond to his calling a film director stupid. Haskell takes the easy way out, and Mark, in his construction of the film, goes with him. Rather than stay with the personal hurt of his father’s comment, Mark moves the film into another digression about how Haskell was ultimately fired from the production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because he was undermining the film’s director. But in retrospect, this way of shaping the film is actually quite effective. Rather than getting to a tell-all early in the film, we are allowed to see in brief glimpses a more gradual revelation of the relationship. At one point in the film, Albert Maysles, a well-known documentary filmmaker, makes a statement that is central to the heart of the film. “Any psychologist will tell you that the stronger of the two instincts—to disclose or to keep a secret—the instinct to disclose, that’s the stronger one. People would much rather open up.” Then he adds, “There are opportunities in getting close to your father that you may not have thought of, that you should take advantage of.” Eventually we do get to that deeper disclosure. It happens toward the end of the film when Mark and Haskell visit Mark’s mother, Marion, who has dementia and is now in a residential care facility. (Marian and Haskell, after 30 years of marriage, had divorced several years earlier.) Though wordless with her dementia, Marion looks at Mark with surprise and joy. One gets the sense that Haskell has not seen his ex-wife for some time; he greets her warmly and talks with her about some of the memories of their life together. Then at one point the tears well up in his eyes and he leans in close to her and says. “We’ve got secrets; we’ve got secrets. We know things, you, me—we know things about each other that no one else in the world knows.” Marion responds emotionally, “I know.” Later, sitting in the car with Mark, Haskell needs to process what happened, and we finally get to that deeper level of emotional honesty that both father and son have been looking for. Haskell talks about how much he enjoyed his years of marriage with Marion, and attempts to explain to Mark why he and Marion separated. Beyond these deeply moving scenes, there is yet another scene that reveals an even deeper connection between father and son. Strangely, it is not in the film itself but in one of the “extras” on the DVD. Called, Haskell Wexler’s Reaction to “Tell Them Who You Are”, it shows, after Haskell has watched the film, a deep emotional bonding between father and son—the very thing Mark was searching for. It is an extremely poignant moment, and perhaps should have been integrated into the film itself as a postscript, rather than segregated into the extras. Tell Them Who You Are ends up being a very courageous film. In its disclosure of some of the deep undercurrents common in many father–son relationships the film is as self-revelatory of the son/filmmaker as it is of the father. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Gerontological Society of America. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
The Gerontologist – Oxford University Press
Published: May 21, 2018
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