“If you don’t know where the fuck we are right now,” cinematography lion Haskell Wexler barks to his camera-bearing son at the onset of Tell Them Who You Are, “just look around! You’re making a goddamn documentary!” So he is. A 46-year-old pro photographer and promotional filmmaker, Mark Wexler has decided to steer a lens toward his famous father, and it’s no small measure of their stormy relationship—and the film’s prickly, fascinating texture—that Haskell in turn aims his camera right back. The men duel it out in scene after scene with shoulder-propped video cams. Wexler père, who turned 80 during filming, is a much more compelling figure than we glimpsed in 1992’s DP essay Visions of Light—a reedy, wary, principled radical whose fierce political convictions and hypersensitive bullshit meter dominate his social intercourse. Fired from high-profile movies more than once for battling with directors—even Norman Jewison, who hired him three times, declares him a “pain in the ass!”—Wexler cannot have been an easy father to grow up beside, and indeed the film expends as much consideration on the Wexler men’s generational combat as it does on Wexler’s auspicious career. Still, Haskell cannot help but instruct his son on the formal vagaries of nonfiction filmmaking; every setup is questioned and protested. “If you get what happens in this room, good,” he grumbles. “If you don’t get it, tough shit.”
Tell Them Who You Are reveals things about the family gradually, and often inadvertently: At fundamental odds with his father politically (in fact, a self-acknowledged politician glad-hander, kissass, and conservative promoter who made a celebratory film about Air Force One), Mark Wexler never seems to note their mutual tendency toward oppositional responses. (An argument about whether to shoot an important moment in a hotel room or outside against a sunset leaves the scene undone.) The interviewees (George Lucas, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman, Milos Forman, longtime pal Conrad Hall, etc.) are already familiar with the dynamic; Haskell is beloved from a discreet distance by everyone, but at close range by only a tolerant few. At the latitude from which we experience him, it’s hard not to adore Wexler, or to empathize with his barely modulated frustration with his shallow son. But the younger Wexler’s film is so attentive to irony and generous with its confrontational comedy that you could assume that Wexler fils is deliberately stooging it, just to rankle his dad. Busting with clips from films Haskell Wexler shot and directed, the doc is a rare thing: an ingenuous portrait of a thoroughly Four-Square Artist, Assembled With Love And Rockets Inside A Family’s Spite-Tainted Gates.