Haskell Wexler four years ago, at home in Santa Monica with his two Academy Awards in front of a shelf lined with other prizes for his work. Photo by Ed Rampell.
Haskell Wexler, a man of peace, died as he lived. His son Jeff Wexler posted this announcement at HaskellWexler.com:
“It is with great sadness that I have to report that my father, Haskell Wexler, has died. Pop died peacefully in his sleep, Sunday, December 27th, 2015. Accepting the Academy Award in 1967, Pop said: ‘I hope we can use our art for peace and for love.’ An amazing life has ended but his lifelong commitment to fight the good fight, for peace, for all humanity, will carry on.”
As one of Hollywood’s greatest cinematographers, the Chicago-born Haskell Wexler was director of photography for many of Hollywood’s top directors. After shooting Elia Kazan’s 1963 America, America, Wexler won his first Academy Award for lensing Mike Nichols’ directorial debut, 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The following year he was the DP for In the Heat of Night, which scored the Best Picture Oscar. Wexler was also co-nominated for Best Cinematography in 1976 for Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which likewise scored the golden statuette for Best Picture. He was also director of photography for Michael Moore’s only feature, 1995’s Canadian Bacon.
Wexler has also helmed and/or worked on a number of political documentaries, including 1971’s Interviews with My Lai Veterans, 1972’s The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, 1974’s Vietnam War doc Introduction to the Enemy, starring Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden and 2000’s Bus Riders Union. He directed two features, including 1969’s landmark Medium Cool, which creatively mixed documentary and fictional footage. Wexler’s other feature, Latino, was released on DVD in 2011 to mark the 25th anniversary of the Iran-Contra Scandal.
I interviewed the tall, slim, passionate Wexler’s in his home office overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica, California for Rock Cellar Magazine four years ago. Since that interview, Wexler continued to be cutting edge, with 2012’s Occupy Los Angeles and 2013’s Four Days in Chicago, with CodePink’s Medea Benjamin, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, onetime Chicago 7 defendant Tom Hayden and former Weather Underground militant Bernardine Dohrn (who’d previously appeared in Emile de Antonio’s 1976’s Underground, clandestinely shot by Wexler). Wexler also filmed Neil Young’s recording sessions for “The Monsanto Years” album in March 2015 and was director of photography for Ian Ruskin’s one-man show To Begin the World Over Again: The Life of Thomas Paine, narrated by Elliott Gould.
Wexler was 93.
ED RAMPELL: Arlo Guthrie publicly supported the Occupy Wall Street movement and Tom Morello sang his father’s This Land is Your Land at Occupy L.A. You won the cinematography Academy Award for the 1976 Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory. What do you think Woody would make of the Occupy movement?
HASKELL WEXLER: Woody Guthrie would be out there singing his songs. He sang [Pete Seeger’s] The Banks Are Made of Marble: “But the banks are made of marble, With a guard at every door, And the vaults are made of silver, That the workers sweated for.” The last verse has to do with taking over the banks. I was thinking of transcribing that music for Occupy Wall Street.
I knew Woody fairly well, mostly when he was about to ship out. We were both Merchant seamen [in the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II]; we talked in the National Maritime Union hall… After the war I’d see him at meetings, and was a friend of the family.
ER: What do you think of the Occupy movement?
HW: I’ve been filming since it started in L.A., (and was ignored by the media at that time). I brought a placard down there with a saying by Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” That’s been the history, so far, of the Occupy movement… it was ignored by media… When people have problems with their mortgages and jobs many feel they’re a failure, they didn’t work hard enough or speak well enough: It’s their fault things are going so bad. When they see their bodies right there [at occupations], we have something profoundly in common. That force – which the system tried to laugh at – when it finally broke through and the movement was recognized, the media said they were “just a bunch of spoiled kids, dope smokers [who] don’t know what the hell they want.” To demean it as something laughable – but that didn’t work for very long. It’s still an ongoing struggle; they’re trying to find out how to fight. It’s very exciting times.
ER: Whose music did you use in your 1985 movie Latino co-starring Robert Beltran and Tony Plana?
HW: Jackson Browne was helping me. Little Steven [Van Zandt] wrote a song at the end. Greg Landau did some of the music; he’s a producer, especially with Latin American music. George Lucas also helped us with the film.
ER: Latino was the first feature film about U.S. covert actions in Central America. Didn’t you direct it before the Iran-Contra Scandal was exposed?
HW: That’s correct. Preparing for the film, I met American soldiers who were based in Honduras and helping the Contras. But I had no visible evidence of what was going on, because it was a secret war – mostly secret from the American people. The Contras were still making inroads into Nicaragua… just generally terrorizing people. We were in Ocotal, Nicaragua – there’s a scene there where a big chicken truck blows up. You see people running, some bloody, someone carries a child in her arms.
A week earlier Ocotal was hit by the Contras. They were based across the border in Honduras, with American advisers and soldiers. This is the basis of my script, and the Contra War was happening even as I shot.
ER: Cinema Libre Studio released Latino on DVD to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Iran-Contra affair. What are the lessons to be drawn from Contra-gate?
HW: The Contras had a torture manual, printed in Spanish by the U.S. government. When it was exposed, nothing was done or said. The idea of accountability in Vietnam, Nicaragua and now Iraq— the media never has that in its quiver. When you see time after time there is no possibility of Nuremberg [war crime trials], we’re doomed to have it repeated. Not one Wall Street executive has been charged with crimes since the 2008 financial crash.
ER: You’re generally known as a cinematographer, but you also directed Medium Cool, shot against the backdrop of the riots during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
HW: Onscreen, the demonstrators chant “The whole world is watching,” which I was pleased to know was chanted at Wall Street recently. My thought regarding the ending of Medium Cool was about the relationship between fiction and reality. In the sense that some other photographer could be shooting the same things I was shooting, and make a different story. I wanted to say this is what is in my heart, this is my artistry.
ER: Why the Marshall McLuhan-esque title?
HW: Actually, one of the guys in the Black militant scene, suggested Marshall McLuhan, he said, “What about Medium Cool?” So I said, “I don’t know anything about Marshall McLuhan. I read some of the stuff, I didn’t understand it at all. He was pretty smart and so I gave it that title.
ER: Most moviegoers know you mainly for your work on fiction films, but you’ve also worked on documentaries.
HW: To work on Emile de Antonio’s 1976 Underground film about the Weathermen [domestic terrorists], we had to undergo severe cloak and dagger surveillance. We had to be at a certain bench at a certain place, and when a red Volkswagen drove by we had to go to a payphone and call a certain number, etc. They wanted to make sure we weren’t being followed. It turns out they were close behind, but we lost them. After the shooting and before anything broke, I lived in the Hollywood Hills and had helicopters follow me and my van. Two guys in suits changed a tire in front of my house all day long. FBI came to my door and gave a subpoena to my wife. When I was shooting Cuckoo’s Nest someone of authority was asking the accountant questions about me.
ER: You were a cameraman for Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up, about U.S. clandestine operations against Cuba. What was it like working for director Saul Landau?
HW: I’ve made six or seven films with Saul. He’s taken me on all of these incredible adventures. We shot Subcomandante Marcos in Chiapas with the Zapatistas. On Will the Real Terrorist Saul couldn’t take any pictures or sound when he visited one of the Cuban 5 [in prison], but he had him on the phone discussing what happened to him when he was arrested. So I reenacted when the FBI SWAT team apprehended him.
ER: Where did your radical sensibility come from?
HW: I don’t know. When I search myself carefully I do think it’s from my mother. [Laughs.] I even feel strange saying that. Most people, I believe, when they’re asked profound questions about their own persona are not really able to enunciate it, because it’s a combination of so many things. But certainly influences early on that I felt from my mother. I wouldn’t say she was “political” per se; she was sensitive to other people. She always, when we had food, made sure I ate it all. She’d say, “Remember the starving Armenians.”
ER: Was your family Armenian?
HW: No. But see, that question is part of the answer to you. My mother let me know that we’re all connected. If some of us become more affluent it’s not because we’re better or even smarter people – we have a responsibility to ourselves to be a good boy.
According to the website HaskellWexler.com as of this writing a memorial service for Wexler is being planned, with details to be announced. A screening of Paul Cronin’s documentary Look out Haskell, It’s Real: The Making of ‘Medium Cool’ will take place at Beyond Baroque, 681 Venice Blvd., Venice, CA at 7:00 p.m., January 29, with a discussion to follow. The documentary’s title refers to a tear gas canister fired near Wexler while he was filming the riots in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention for scenes to be intercut with Medium Cool’s fictional story.
For info on Latino and Will the Real Terrorist Please Stand Up DVDs see: http://store.cinemalibrestore.com/latinodvd.html and http://store.cinemalibrestore.com/special-wtrtpsu-1.html