Haskell Wexler: An Insider Outlier

Haskell Wexler
Haskell Wexler with his blimped Eclair CM-3 during the filming of Medium Cool. The blimp was made for him by Carroll Ballard.

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created a second cinematography Oscar in 1939, it was simply acknowledging the growing audience appeal of the still new 3-strip Technicolor format. Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan shared that first Oscar for color for Gone with the Wind, while Gregg Toland won for his black-and white-cinematography in Wuthering Heights.

By the mid-1960s, films photographed in black-and-white were so few that in 1966, the Academy awarded its last Oscar for black-and-white as a separate category. That award went not to industry veteran James Wong Howe for his bold lensing of Seconds, but to a brash industry outlier for his controversial cinematography in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The cinematographer was a passionate documentarian from Chicago named Haskell Wexler, whose friend Conrad Hall had been nominated the year before for his black-and-white work on Morituri. During the next several decades, these two men redefined American cinematography, garnering 15 nominations and five Oscars.

Here is an excerpt from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that features Haskell’s bold, wide-angle compositions and stark, even unflattering lighting, which highlight the growing tension in the Sartrean “no exit” evening of the film’s two couples.

Connie died in 2003 at age 76. Haskell forged on, seemingly impervious to time — active in the industry, in the Motion Picture Academy, the International Cinematographers Guild and the American Society of Cinematographers, continuing to make edgy documentaries with his prosumer video cameras right up to his death, at 93, on Dec. 27.

Though much of Haskell’s Hollywood work was a veritable roll call of memorable dramas of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, his stream of nonfiction films was equally long, embodying a deeply activist social and political commitment. His sense of justice (and injustice) seemed to continually stoke not just his camera, but the depths of his very soul. One of those later documentaries, Who Needs Sleep?, is a call to action to the film industry itself. Focusing on the problem of unreasonable crew work hours, the film was prompted by the death of camera assistant Brent Hershman, who fell asleep driving home after a 19-hour shooting day. For years after Hershman’s death, Haskell argued for the adoption of a mandatory limit of 12-hour work days, sparking controversy even among the ranks of fellow crew members who perceived shorter hours not as a humane imperative, but as a pay cut. It was a signature of Haskell’s singular focus that after decades of involvement with topics of broad national and international interest, he boldly pointed his lens at his own backyard, unafraid to speak out to an industry rife with fears of career implosion.

Haskell may have had the wealthy man’s luxury of being able to speak and act publicly and loudly with impunity, but his fiscal independence was not what drove him. One look at the IMDb roster of his documentaries (including The Living City in 1953, The Bus in 1965, and Four Days in Chicago in 2013) is all the evidence you need that Haskell Wexler always put his camera where many others only put their mouths — or their wallets. His detractors, and there were many inside and outside Hollywood, were always outflanked by his passion for whatever cause he took on. According to an in-depth tribute published by The Guardian, Haskell even garnered prime status on J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI “watch list” as a result of his directorial debut, Medium Cool, which is set amid the demonstrations of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, and for his photography of a polarizing 1976 documentary about the militant activist group The Weather Underground. The FBI said Haskell was “potentially dangerous because of background, emotional instability, or activity in groups engaged in activities inimical to the United States.” Haskell’s camera lens was a metaphor for a gun or bomb. (I wrote about Criterion's Blu-ray release of Medium Cool here.)

In an hour-long conversation with Lip TV’s Allison Hope Weiner, Haskell talked about the arc of his documentary films:

I knew Haskell for many years as a fellow governor on the ASC Board of Governors, but even before that, we were two of eight partners who acquired a parcel of remote land near Lake Isabella, just outside the Sequoia National Forest and intersected by the Pacific Crest Trail. In 1981, a group of us erstwhile 1960s dissidents, including my wife, Carol Littleton; Paul Golding, the editor of Medium Cool; the writing/acting/directing spouses Patricia Knop and Zalman King and Ellen Segal, music editor, purchased 640 acres of high-desert land miles off the power grid. We designated it a nature preserve, “Piute Partnership,” and it was intended for our low-impact use and future preservation. We built a partners’ cabin, and although Haskell seldom made the demanding drive (the last 25 miles of which is over a dirt road culminating in a fire road that’s graded maybe once a year), he was an active voice at our group meetings, always arguing for maintaining the land against any encroaching development, even as rows of wind turbines were erected along the crest of Jawbone Canyon Road. I think it was the "idea" of protected land that appealed to Haskell; it was a kind of poke in the eye to potential exploiters of the fragile terrain.

Haskell Wexler wore many guises — impassioned documentarian, commercial Hollywood cinematographer, director of television commercials, political and social activist, and outspoken institutional (even union) contrarian — but to me he was an exemplar of how to live your life. His work, his social and moral values, and his sense of a meaningful artistic life were not separate parts of his being, but flowed into and through each other in a rich mix. The whole of his life was a heady brew that proclaimed — like the title of his son Mark’s 2004 documentary about him — Tell Them Who You Are.

Two scenes in that film illustrate its subject's duality. In this first clip, we see workers prepping the sidewalk to receive Haskell’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame:

Haskell’s star is on the south side of Hollywood Boulevard, at 7070, and Conrad Hall’s is very close, at 7060. There surely is a low-key irony that these two very independent-minded cinematographers should have neighboring plaques in a sidewalk that mostly celebrates popular “stars.”

In another scene, Mark Wexler asks his father to sign a standard release form to facilitate the making of the film. Haskell refuses, saying he wants to see the film first. When Mark says that’s impossible, Haskell asks why he would agree to a film he might find insulting. Holding out a pen, Mark says simply, “You gotta trust me.” Anyone who ever attempted to get Haskell to sign onto anything will recognize this moment: An intractable skeptic, he would give you the impression he thought he’d been conned — even when he agreed with you.

When engaged in discussion with Haskell, it was not always easy to know whether his concerns or objections were springing from his own uncompromising morality, or whether he was simply being the not-so-reluctant provocateur. It’s quite possible Haskell didn’t always make such distinctions himself. This skittish duality is part of what made him such a vital force. His mantras could be “Take nothing for granted” and, when he was in doubt about any would-be snake-oil proposition, “Take no prisoners.”

Haskell Wexler will be missed as a passionate voice in American cinema, but those of us who knew him beyond the camera and sparred with him on the many topics that inspired him will miss a great deal more. Haskell’s often-passionate contretemps forced us to question many of our assumptions, to ask crucial questions beyond the obvious and find therein a new truth. He belonged to that admirable line of American mavericks who dare question every accepted truth — and who insist on forging new ones for the rest of us.

NOTE: Shortly after I wrote this, I received word that Vilmos Zsigmond had died at age 85.  Another great cinematographer has left us, but, like Haskell, Vilmos created a rich body of work in many genres. I met with him a few months ago to discuss his work on The Rose for The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release. I wrote about this and shared clips from our talk in this post: "Vilmos Zsigmond and The Rose."



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