Spending Time with Haskell Wexler

Wexler for Current

Take it easy, but take it.
—Haskell Wexler

It was in May of 2012, at the memorial service for Grove Press founder Barney Rosset, that I first saw Haskell Wexler in person. I had recently been assigned to produce our home-video edition of his 1969 film Medium Cool, and soon I would be contacting him about his participation. I still had plenty to learn about the filmmaker and cinematographer, so I was intrigued to see him at the memorial for Rosset, a man well-known in publishing for his bravery and righteousness. The evening ended up being an essential introduction to Wexler.

Haskell Wexler towered over most people at the memorial and wore a trusty, well-kept leather jacket and a 12 On 12 Off baseball cap (after the name of his nonprofit, dedicated to promoting the safety of film crews; I later learned that the hat had been atop his head ever since he’d cofounded the organization in 2004). As he spoke to us from the podium, he referred to a stack of index cards on which he’d collected stories about his and Rosset’s escapades from their days growing up in Chicago—one young radical influencing and inspiring another. He had prepared too many cards for the time he was given, but even if he had gotten more time, he couldn’t have used it all, because, he told us, he had to catch a flight to Chicago, where the next day a NATO summit would commence. Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel had told the press that he wouldn’t let things turn into “another Medium Cool.” With that charge, Haskell felt compelled to be there with his camera in hand, to document the activity outside the convention, which the Occupy movement had declared its place of action. The footage he captured resulted in the documentary Four Days in Chicago, a portion of which he allowed us to include in our edition of Medium Cool. Haskell was ninety years old at the time.

I was admittedly nervous the first time I spoke to him on the phone, a few months later. It became clear to me that he wasn’t entirely sure what we do at Criterion (or maybe he did know but wanted to hear about it from me), so I described our process and how I envisioned his participation. From the beginning, I hoped he would record an audio commentary track for his iconic and prescient film. This he agreed to do, though with much hesitation. He’d never recorded a commentary track before and wasn’t confident about his recall of names, faces, and production details. I assured him we could stop at any time to make sure we had the facts straight. We also decided to shoot an on-camera video interview with him at the recording studio, as a sort of backup that could be intercut with the commentary.

In January 2013, I flew to Los Angeles and checked in to my hotel in Santa Monica, which was located just down the hill from Haskell’s apartment overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The exterior and grounds of his tall, terraced building were immaculate. Nothing looked out of place—so it gave me pause when I had the misfortune, while walking up the clean path towards the entryway, of stepping in a dog’s little dropping. Instantly, I had a sinking feeling that things were not going to happen as planned.

Haskell greeted me heartily and welcomed me into his office, an apartment a few doors down from his residence. “I sure thought you’d be taller and blonde!” he exclaimed. And then, “You know about the Weather Underground, right? Well, you just missed Bernardine Dohrn. She was sitting on the couch right where you are now. She’s an old friend of mine. So, tell me what you have planned.” A red flag slowly raised inside me. And soon after I began to go over the details for the next day’s recording session, Haskell cut to the chase and told me he really loved my enthusiasm but he wasn’t going to record a commentary.

It was how he delivered the blow that struck me. He was equal parts empathetic and commandeering. He went on to inform me that we would record the video interview right there in his office. From the start of our correspondence, he had allowed me to take the reins, but suddenly they were firmly in his hands. I was reminded of his son Mark’s documentary Tell Them Who You Are, in which Mark, as director, with camera in hand, follows Haskell, and yet it’s Haskell who is constantly telling Mark where to shoot and steering the conversation in the way he thinks best. (It’s a remarkable and poignant portrait of the man.) I called the studio to cancel our session, and while I was on the phone, Haskell insisted that I tell the person on the other end of the line that I was working with him, “and that I used to co-own the building they’re in. That way, maybe they won’t charge you anything.”

That night, Haskell and I went out for dinner. I drove my white rental car, with him in the passenger seat, his tall frame barely fitting under the roof. The whole way there, all he wanted to talk about was me, my interest in documentary, and the projects I’d started and shelved. All I wanted to talk about was him, of course—his documentaries and decades-long career in cinema, his current and future projects. But he kept turning the conversation back to me. It was an astonishing rush of support and enthusiasm coming from a man forty-nine years my senior, who seemed to have no end of life in sight.

When I interviewed Haskell the next day, we covered a lot of ground about his life, his career in film, Medium Cool specifically, and his passion for justice and the moving image. Late in the session, I asked him what had kept him hooked on being behind the camera all those years. His eyes filled with tears. For a moment, he was at a loss for words. And then he said earnestly, “I would die if I couldn’t shoot.”

Since then, I have followed Haskell’s blog and his postings on Facebook. Social media was a cool medium, which he relished as a way to share, to interact, and to get people thinking about what is right and wrong with the world, and about our government’s actions in particular. When he died, there was a massive outpouring on his Facebook page from followers, friends, colleagues, and his students of cinema and justice.

The last time I saw Haskell Wexler in person was at the New York Film Festival in October 2015, where he was present for a screening of Pamela Yates’s documentary Rebel Citizen, about Haskell, her mentor and friend. During the Q&A that followed, Haskell walked on stage with his video camera in hand, intending to film us, the audience. For every question about him that we raised, he turned the conversation back to us. He didn’t want to dwell on his own work; he wanted to be clear that what was most important was for the dialogue he helped start to be carried forward, through film and through action.

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