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Haskell Wexler

Haskell Wexler

Articles - Directing

Wexler (right): Even his lesser films are well worth
watching.

WHEN HASKELL WEXLER WON the 1966 Best
Cinematography Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,
he said his acceptance speech, "I hope we can use our art
for love and peace." Two years later, he did just that. On
a self-financed budget of $600,000, Wexler wrote, shot, and directed Medium
Cool
. Set during the days leading up to and during Chicago’s
1968 Democratic National Convention, the film is a pastiche of
everything contemporary: Martin Luther KinG, RFK, Norman Mailer,
Jean-Paul Belmondo and Breathless; Vietnam, Tiny Tim, black power,
the sexual revolution, even roller derby.  Violence is everywhere
and no one is held accountable. The fictional framework of Wexlers
feature incorporated the actu­al antiwar demonstrations along with
the riots in the streets    – outside the convention. The resulting
movie is a gripping and truthful document of a remarkable time
in our history. Yet Paramount refused to release it unless Wexler
agreed to an ‘X’ rating, crippling the film’s chance to gain the
youthful audience for which it was intended. The government did
not want the American public to know that peo­ple were protesting
the war, and that the protests were working.

Wexler had, however, struck a nerve. In the name
of love and peace, he had used his art to make one of the most
courageous films ever.

Even though Vilmos Zsigmond (Deliverance, McCabe
and Mrs. Miller
) once called him "the greatest director
of all cinematographers," Medium Cool is one of only
two fictional features Wexler directed. Instead, he has directed,
produced, or been involved in more than 40 documentaries, photographed
hun­dreds of TV commercials, and shot more than 35 feature films.
He was the first active cinematographer to win the American Society
of  Cinematographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 1996
he became only the fourth director of photography in history
to be hon­ored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard’s Walk of Fame.
He won Oscars for Woolf and Bound For Glory, and
was nominated for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Matewan,
and Blaze.

To pare down Wexlers career of more than 50 years
to a few essential must-sees is like trying to recommend Hemingway’s
most austere paragraphs or the Beatles’ snappiest melodies. He
has so much electricity in his style, so much sight in his eye,
that even Wexlers lesser films include something worth watching.

He began shooting documentaries in the ’40s, and
made the transition to features in the late ’50s, after Rebel
Without a Cause
(1955) paved the way for a new starkness in
Hollywood cinema. It was now possible to make movies with the type
of blunt subject matter that Wexler wanted to explore. In 1958,
he and Roger Corman ponied up $15,000 each to make the raw docudrama, Stakeout
on Dope Street
, directed by Irvin Kershner. He and Kerchner
then collaborated on two more films, The Hoodlum Priest and A
Face in The Rain
. All were shot in a black-and-white, semi-documentary
style, with hand­held cameras and practical lighting.

"Jesus,
I love to shoot film."

– Robert Forster in Medium
Cool

Wexler is credited with inventing the much-emulated
hand-held running shot, which he introduced in A Face in the
Rain
in 1962, by running with an actor down a narrow alley.
His first big-budget feature was Elia Kazan’s America, America.
But it was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf that cemented
his repu­tation as both a consummate pro and a risk-taker.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf

When he brought out his old hand-held camera on the
set of Mike Nichol’s debut picture, Wexler said, "All the
old timers would walk away and there would be a lot of snick­ering." But
Nichols trusted Wexler’s gritty, intimate approach to the Edward
Albee play.

Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

His camera prowled the faces of the four protagonists
in Albee’s classic portrayal of an acid-boiled marriage. At times,
Wexler’s low light levels caused a loss of focus, but it only added
texture and authenticity to what was already a shocking display
of on-screen vulgarity for mid-’60s audiences. Richard Burton was
afraid Wexler would light his pockmarked face unflatteringly, but
the director of pho­tography came up with the idea of using dimmers
and umbrellas on single-source lights to soften the intensity.
The actors moved through interiors that were evenly lit and relentlessly
bright, with no dark corners in which to retreat.

His exteriors were deep and black, broken by washes
of light that were nested over, glowing from an unseen source.
The vast yard surrounding the central house offered no escape from
the vitriolic bickering of Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. In one
stun­ning scene, in which Burton and Taylor declare war on each
other, they stand outside a roadside restaurant. Spotlights glare
into the lens; the neon broils in the background. There is not
a single angle where we can rest. Wexler’s achievement here is
to suggest actual motivating sources for all that light, yet we
know that nothing could be that hot, that unforgiving. It’s a beautifully
lit moment of psychological ugliness.

The Thomas Crown Affair

This movie is a pop quiz on has-beens and flame-outs.
Who was the editor? Hal Ashby (dead). The second unit director?
Walter Hill (irrelevant). The stars? McQueen (dead) and Dunaway
(forgotten). The direc­tor? Norman Jewison (dried up). The only
survivor is Wexler, who took Jewison’s gim­micky, design-school
vision and managed to have fun with it.

Wexler used four hidden cameras during the heist
scene, shooting the robbers exiting the bank with bags of money
as if it were really happening. He shot through windows with long
lenses, stacked elements in the foreground, and smashed visual
information into a compressed frame. In a thrilling shot of a flare
scooting down a hallway floor, Wexler’s camera rocketed along with
it through the red smoke.

Although Jewison took a lot of heat for the arty
multiple screen sequences, the result is a breathless re-working
of montage. Concurrent events are quilted into one screen rather
than cut to and from. We get a feel for the precision of the heist:
the faces of the rob­bers, the timing, the spaces, the puzzle-like
perfection. Wexler masters the edges of each frame. Each shot is
a compelling image in itself. The sequence-all avant-garde gloss-is
accomplished with verve and wit.

The movie is a whiffle ball, but Wexler’s pictures
knock it out of the park.

Bound for Glory

Wexler met Woody Guthrie in the Merchant Marine and
was later  invited to direct a film based on Guthrie’s life. But
he held out for a better script and a cou­ple of years later his
friend, Hal Ashby, had one. Bound For Glory was just the
kind of movie the cinematographer loved. "It celebrates something
that is mar­velous about America," Wexler said in an interview
in American Cinematographer. "Woody is anti-establishment,
and much of his life was a struggle, but he really tested the vigor
of the democratic process."

James Earl Jones in Matwewan (1987)

Wexler won his second Oscar for the film, a moving
and vivid account of Dust Bowl drifters, union organizers and the
battle for artistic freedom. The cinematographer used a simple
but rigorous visual scheme to main­tain the muted palette of the
film. He dif­fused his shots with silk, dust, and smoke. He flashed
nearly the whole film, which means briefly pre-exposing the emulsion
to light to desaturate the colors. He had a painter standing by
to tone down any reds or greens in the set design. The finished
movie has the faded, pastel look of old jeans and weather-beaten
antiques.

Bound For Glory includes the now-leg­endary
shot in which Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown descends from a
cherry­picker, picks up Guthrie (David Carradine) in a migrant
camp, and walks with him through the crowd. It was one of the first
times the new device was used in a major feature, and it spawned
all the imitators.

There is an odd moment in the film when Guthrie performs
at a prison. During a sequence set to his music, the camera cuts
to a shot where not only convicts, but grips, gaffers, and movie
equipment are seen in the frame.

It’s one of Wexler’s "grab shots," similar
to the scenes in America, America, when the immigrants are
waiting to be processed at Ellis Island. The issues/35/images were captured
between real takes, when the extras were just milling about. To
him (and obviously to his directors as well), the spirit of the
films was expressed in these casual down moments as much as in
the actual filming.

It’s difficult to imagine a major Hollywood film
looking the way Bound For Glory did 23 years ago, with its
degraded, scruffy issues/35/images. Fast, fine-grained films and sharper
lenses have contributed to the glossier, crisper look of today’s
movies.

Colors

Wexler’s latest film, John Sayles’ Limbo,
suf­fers from this problem. Set in Alaska, the bright, deep-focus
exteriors are so spiffy they look like pictures in a travel brochure,
sparkling like "Kodak moments."

Haskell Wexler’s love of slanting sunlight was evident
in this overlooked 1988 film. Directed by Dennis Hopper with an
effi­ciency he had not demonstrated since Easy Rider, Colors is
a movie thick with the por­tent of violence, with a difficult partnership
between two cops at the center of the story.

It’s set during a perpetual Los Angeles summer, where
the Bloods and Crips are at war with each other and the cops are
just try­ing to keep them separated. Robert Duvall plays the veteran
who tries to reason with the gangsters; Sean Penn is the new partner
who wants to beat them into submission. Even though their clash
is predictable, an unspoken loyalty develops between the two men
who are caught up in the ritualized hatred of a sub-culture they’ll
never comprehend. Wexler was no doubt drawn to the social issues
of the film. "Most interpersonal dis­putes in film and TV
are settled by violence," he once said. "That’s a political
statement."

Sam Shepard in Days of Heaven (1978)

The sunlight is as omnipresent as the vio­lence in
this movie. It glares into the lens and burnishes the chrome of
the guns and cars. It’s that beautiful yet eroded Los Angeles sun,
tainted with smog and threat. Wexler captures a daylight unprettied
by technique, which makes the senseless deaths more real and nauseatingly
stupid.

Medium Cool

Medium Cool is a brilliant fusion of political
activism, documentary, and fictional narra­tive. In examining the
moral aesthetics o£ photojournalism in the face of political commitment,
Wexler crafted an aggressively controversial, wonderfully naturalistic
film. Robert Forster plays a TV cameraman who maintains a cold
objectivity toward the sub­jects he shoots; who resists becoming
politi­cized to the events of the day. When he falls in love with
a poor Appalachian woman who has migrated to Chicago with her son,
he finally begins to question a life beyond the end of his lens.

The film is composed of several memo­rable set pieces,
in which Wexler’s camera tracks, pans and runs through streets,
apart­ments, and tenement back alleys. There is the opening shot
through a cracked wind­shield set to the annoying blare of a car
horn. There is the long lens montage in a crowded parking lot,
with Wexler’s tele­photo tracking a foot chase. And there is the
famous romp of Forster and his girl­friend (Marianna Hill), running
nude through his spacious apartment. Forster wouldn’t do the scene
unless Wexler stripped as well. So the director cleared the set,
took off his clothes, and he, Forster, and Hill dashed around in
naked, wide-angle glory. The scene is one of the last of its kind,
a free-spirited appreciation of hedo­nism, cleaned of guilt or
coyness-a brazen, ecstatic few minutes of film.

There are moments in the movie when Wexler deflates
the pace with cocktail party conversations and awkward love scenes.
His political motivations are obvious and bleed­ing-heart, which
made sense at the time but now give the film a dated feel. Forster
tends to shout his way through the movie, and the ending, an homage-(or
possibly a rip-off)-to Godard’s Contempt, is more obtuse
than it should be. But on the whole, it’s an exhilarating work,
free of pretension, raw and impressionistic. The movie should be
included in any time capsule, not only as an example of political
filmmaking, but as evidence of what a man with a camera could accomplish.

Nearly all of Haskell Wexler’s features are on video,
except for a few early films. Other titles worth noting are Matewan for
director John Sayles, Ashby’s Coming Home, One Flew Over
the Cuckoo’s Nest
, Blaze, and Days of Heaven,
on which Wexler worked the last 19 days of the shoot, taking over
for Nestor Almendros. His documentary work is harder to find. He
shot parts of Gimme Shelter, worked with Emil DeAntonio
on Underground, and won an Oscar for Interview With My
Lai Veterans
. What’s great is this: he’s still shooting. Seek
out his work. MM

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