Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Haskell Wexler, R.I.P.

Haskell Wexler (1922-2015)
Photo ©Tom Hyland

Haskell Wexler, one of the 20th century's most talented and influential cinematographers, passed away on Monday at the age of 93. His son Jeff, told CNN that his father died peacefully in his sleep.

I met Wexler once, at a special evening at the Chicago International Film Festival in 2011; I wrote about that memorable occasion in this post. At 89, Wexler was engaging, direct and humorous; let's hope we're all that lively if and when we get to that age.

I've always been someone attracted to visuals; it's this sensation that gives a sense of wonder and magic to films, in my opinion. When a director of photography can create the proper mood with lighting as well as depth of field (no matter how shallow or deep) it adds to the emotional power of the movie. I can list numerous examples, but few accomplished this feat as well as Wexler.

He started out working on documentary films in the 1950s, eventually finding success in Hollywood, with one of his first notable accomplishments being the cinematographer for Elia Kazan's America America in 1963. It was only a few years later in 1966 that Wexler's work would be honored for his black and white photography for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, directed by Mike Nichols. While Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton delivered searing performances, and Nichols directed with great urgency, it is impossible not to credit Wexler's work as any less important in this marvelous film. At times gritty, at times dreamy, at times stark, but always beautifully honest, Wexler's photography perfectly captured the raw nature of this work; he justly received an Academy Award for his contribution.

Wexler would work in color for most of his career; I especially loved his efforts on In the Heat of the Night (1967), directed by Norman Jewison. This particular scene, pictured above, has always been one of my favorites as far as photography, as the colors here are relatively cool, lending a tranquil setting to this moment. This serenity will soon be at odds with the characters in this scene, as Sidney Poitier, the detective, slaps the elderly gentleman for his bold statements; it's a jarring moment, one about racism that doesn't scream as such, thanks in large part to Jewison's staging as well as Wexler's lighting.

Wexler would win a second Academy Award for his color photography on Bound For Glory (1976), director Hal Ashby's at times laid back, at times stirring tribute to folksinger and activist Woody Guthrie. The setting of this film is the depression of the 1930s, and the spirit of the film owes much to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, especially in the desolation of the land as well as the honesty and good spirit of the impoverished farmers and their families as they struggle with their everyday fate. The visuals are stunning, from a recreation of an apocalyptic dust storm that fills the screen to several scenes of Guthrie and others riding on top of trains, often to hide from the authorities. The color pallete that Wexler worked with in this film was based on earth tones, with dark browns and muted yellows; you feel at once transported to that era and its forlorn realization. 

Wexler would use Steadicam, invented by Garrett Brown, in this film for a scene in a labor camp; it is a tracking shot that lasts about three minutes, taking Guthrie (and the viewer) through a heartbreaking tour of the conditions the migrant workers must endure. While Steadicam is a mainstay in filmmaking these days, be it a multi-million dollar epic or a moderate budget independent production, this use in Bound For Glory was the very first in a Hollywood film. 

I was so impressed with Wexler's images in Bound For Glory that I wrote a separate post about it a few years ago (link here). Roger Ebert also pad tribute to Wexler's work on this film when he wrote, "there are images in Hal Ashby's Bound For Glory so striking or so beautiful I doubt I'll ever forget them." (Ebert's full review can be found here.)

Haskell Wexler was also a director, most notably on Medium Cool (1969), a documentary about the turmoil in the streets of Chicago during the troubled 1968 Democratic National Convention. This was his most successful film as helmsman; he would also become involved in Latin American politics with documentaries such as Brazil: A Report on Torture (1971) and Latino (1985). Activism was part of his DNA; Wexler would also direct films about the Occupy protests in 2011 in both Los Angeles and Chicago (his hometown); he was also instrumental in changing work laws in Hollywood after a fellow director of photography fell asleep while driving home after a 20-hour day on the set. Wexler's 2006 film Who Needs Sleep? would tell the story of his colleague.

While I was continually impressed by Haskell Wexler's work behind the camera, I was also fascinated by the man. A striking portrait of the man emerged in the film Tell Them Who You Are (2004), directed by his son Mark; here was a riveting look at how Haskell carried himself in his everyday existence, perfecting his craft, but also looking out to make the world a better place. His socialist politics were at odds with his son, giving this film an unforgettable human element, but it is the elder Wexler's strong personality and unshakeable belief in justice for all that stayed with me as I watched this film.

Yes, I'll always remember Haskell Wexler for the images he created on screen, but his faith in his fellow man will also stir my memories of this remarkable individual.

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