This is a documentary about the legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler, only it’s directed by his son Mark, so instead of being about Wexler’s career and genius, it’s more about daddy doesn’t love me enough. The son rebelling against the father and then trying to make up before he kicks it (he’s in his ’80s).
The opening scene won me over right off the bat. Haskell is in a big store room in front of all kinds of camera equipment, talking about what he does. From behind the camera, Mark asks him to tell where he is.
Now, we the audience aren’t retards. We know he’s in some sort of room where he keeps his camera equipment, because he’s standing in front of a bunch of camera equipment. Mark is a grown man and has directed documentaries before, but he clearly doesn’t know about “cinema verite,” also known as “direct cinema” or “good documentaries.” Haskell tries to explain that he shouldn’t have to say where he is, the audience will know where he is by watching what he’s talking about, seeing his surroundings, watching what happens. But Mark isn’t having it. He keeps asking Haskell where he is, and Haskell flips out. Immediately I knew I liked the guy.
I wasn’t so sure about Mark, though. After this great opening, you are hyperaware of the cornball techniques Mark uses for his documentary. The old first person narration bit, lots of photos altered to look 3-D, etc. It’s like he’s purposely trying to use bullshit documentary techniques just to torture his dad. He doesn’t seem like he has the kind of charisma that makes you accept one of these documentaries about the act of making a documentary either. And then you find out he’s some kind of a republican.
Haskell of course is a well known liberal. He directed MEDIUM COOL (about and filmed at the ’68 democratic convention). Also one I never heard of before this documentary was one called LATINO, about and filmed during the war in Nicaragua (wonder if it’s as good as Alex Cox’s WALKER?) He started out doing documentaries about the civil rights movement, and even late in his career he was cinematographer for political movies like Michael Moore’s CANADIAN BACON and John Sayles’s SILVER CITY. And remember when Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden went to Vietnam? Did you know that was for a documentary Wexler directed called INTRODUCTION TO THE ENEMY?
So what does his son do to give dad a heart attack? Smoking weed probaly wouldn’t work. So when he was a kid he started hanging out with cops and FBI agents and admiring authority figures. In his adult life he hangs out with presidents to do a documentary about Air Force One. During the movie he gives Haskell a birthday present: a framed photo of himself with George Bush Sr., the filthy loins from which sprang the worst calamity to ever face our nation. We see later that he has a picture with Bill Clinton, but he still chose the Bush photo to give his dad. It seems like he must be teasing but if so it’s the most deadpan delivery you ever saw.
So although the movie tells us a little about Haskell’s career, it is more about the father-son relationship. In fact, Haskell asks for this on camera. (The movie shows quick clips of a bunch of “Haskell’s career” stuff he shot and dumped – hopefully some of that will be on the DVD.) Still, Haskell worries that his son will make him look bad, and refuses to sign the release form until he sees the movie.
And the movie does make him look bad, in a way. It is clear that even though he is right about documentaries, and right about politics, he doesn’t know how to be nice to his son. He cheated on his wives, he was a pain in the ass on film sets, he even got fired from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. And now he claims the FBI forced Milos Forman to fire him from that movie for doing a documentary about the Weather Underground, a claim that even Haskell’s closest friends think is ridiculous.
So you got the father who is a genius but is a pain in the ass, and you got the son who is probaly a nice guy but maybe not so much of a bright bulb. (Actually I think he is smarter than he lets on, considering how good the documentary turned out.) Well here they are making this movie together. Haskell is very interested in how it’s gonna turn out, offering suggestions (Mark doesn’t like this), sometimes even shooting parts of it.
Throughout the movie they push each other’s buttons and eventually have some bonding moments. As Mark interviews his dad’s famous friends (Albert Maysles, Jane Fonda, George Lucas, others) they not only tell stories about Haskell’s career (always referring to him as “your dad”) but kind of butt in and offer advice as friends of the family. There is also kind of a subplot about Conrad Hall Sr. and Jr., both famous cinematographers. The fathers and sons were close friends, and each son saw the other’s dad as a father figure. So when Conrad Sr. dies during the course of this documentary, it emphasizes Haskell’s mortality. He’s in great shape for a dude in his ’80s but he’s gonna have to die some day, at least according to most scientists. I’m not gonna take one stand or another though ’cause this is the Bush years, science is not allowed. For all we know Haskell could live forever using magic jesus blood.
See how I had to get a political thing in there for no reason? That is apparently how Haskell is. They say he rants about politics every day. He really doesn’t seem annoying about it in the movie but I could see if you were his son and you were actually PROUD to have your picture taken with Bush – smiling, no middle fingers up, etc. – that it could be pretty annoying to be around this guy.
By the way, another tangent. Couple years back I was very proud when I got an opportunity to flip Dick Cheney off to his face. I was standing on the corner with just a couple protesters, one lane of traffic away from his limo. I was actually able to make eye contact as I waved both birds and yelled FUUUUUUCKKK YOUUUUU with a proud, American voice. Since that historic day I have been pushing for the city of Seattle to erect a statue of me on that corner, or at least a commemorative plaque. However, my deed has now been far surpassed by Dr. Ben Marble, apparentle the gentleman in Gulfport who, while Cheney was being interviewed about how nice all the local “folks” had been while he surveyed the hurricane devastation, yelled “GO FUCK YOURSELF CHENEY!” several times. The reporter actually asked Cheney if he got alot of that and he claimed it was the first time he’d heard it. It was pretty much the greatest thing I ever saw. Good job doctor.
Oh yeah, but I was reviewing that movie I think. If you love motion pictures, you will probaly be interested in the subject of Haskell Wexler. But this truly isn’t a film buff movie like, say, Z CHANNEL. The appeal really is the last ditch attempt at a connection between father and son. So like the best wrestling documentary, the subject is universal. You don’t have to be into wrestling. I guess if you’re gonna watch a documentary about a cinematographer you’re probaly gonna be a film buff though, no matter what. Unless you trick somebody into watching it somehow. I’m not sure how but let me know if it works.
As the movie goes on, there is less and less narration, and more of what Haskell wants: inobtrusive footage of fascinating moments that speak for themselves. There’s some real touching shit in this movie. Especially when you find out what happened to Mark’s mother. You get sad, and you get sweet. Not overly sweet. Maybe not even enough sweet. You might cry. But this is a great movie.
I ain’t watching the Air Force One documentary, though. sorry dude.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.