Review: Tell Them Who You Are

This amusingly introspective family film, despite its self-analytical conceit, never devolves into cloying narcissism.

Tell Them Who You Are
Photo: THINKFilm

A self-reflexive slice of therapeutic documentary filmmaking, Tell Them Who You Are explores director Mark Wexler’s conflicted relationship with his legendary cinematographer father Haskell. Wexler’s film begins as a straightforward attempt to document the life and career of his 82-year-old dad, an ultra-liberal activist who won two Academy Awards (for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf and Bound for Glory), traveled with Jane Fonda to Hanoi (to shoot Introduction to the Enemy), directed the daring 1968 pseudo-doc Medium Cool, and pissed off countless professional collaborators (including Milos Foreman and Michael Douglas, who fired him from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) throughout his 50-plus-year career. Yet frustrated by having spent his life in his father’s immense shadow, Mark turns his biographical camera partly on himself, shrewdly transforming his project into a personal examination of long-simmering familial tensions. Through interviews with colleagues, including George Lucas, Norman Jewison, and long-time friends Irvin Kershner and Conrad L. Hall, and argumentative father-son footage, Mark accurately presents his dad as an opinionated radical, a gifted artist, and a domineering know-it-all who can’t keep from making suggestions to his son about the proper way to shoot and edit his film. The bitterness and disappointment that characterizes their relationship is most tellingly captured in a moment featuring Mark filming Haskell filming Mark, an image of two alienated men most comfortable interacting with each other through the filter of a camera lens. Even at a swift 95 minutes, Tell Them Who You Are—its title a reference to how Mark’s folks once instructed him to introduce himself as Haskell Wexler’s son—can be occasionally repetitive, with Haskell’s entertainingly gruff persona wearing thin after his umpteenth tirade and one too many photo montages of Mark posing with various former presidents. And though Haskell’s reunion with his nursing home-confined ex-wife is a heartbreaking portrait of an emotionally remote man coming face to face with mortality, the film ends on a somewhat flimsy semi-reconciliatory note. Nonetheless, this amusingly introspective family film, despite its self-analytical conceit, never devolves into cloying narcissism, and a scene in which the younger Wexler disobediently excises his father’s political comments (only to include Haskell’s vehement demand that said comments be included in the final cut) stands as a sly piece of filmmaking rebellion that ironically highlights the fundamental similarities between resentful progeny and pain-in-the-ass parent.

 Cast: Haskell Wexler, Mark Wexler, Peter Bart, Verna Bloom, Billy Crystal, Michael Douglas, Jane Fonda, Milos Forman, Conrad L. Hall, Dennis Hopper, Ron Howard, Norman Jewison, Irvin Kershner, George Lucas, Albert Maysles, Julia Roberts  Director: Mark Wexler  Screenwriter: Mark Wexler, Robert DeMaio  Distributor: THINKFilm  Running Time: 95 min  Rating: R  Year: 2005  Buy: Video

Nick Schager

Nick Schager is the entertainment critic for The Daily Beast. His work has also appeared in Variety, Esquire, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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