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Jesus, I Love to Shoot Film: The Siskel Film Center Pays Tribute to Haskell Wexler

The late Haskell Wexler is regarded as one of the greatest and most innovative talents to ever work in the field of cinematography. As a filmmaker in his own right, his output was smaller but no less interesting and included one of the boldest and most daring films ever made in the city of Chicago. As a political and social activist of the first order, he tirelessly campaigned for the rights and safety of people all over, including within his own industry, right up until his passing in 2015 at the age of 93. 

Throughout the month of May, Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center will honor all aspects of his legacy with “Haskell Wexler: Impact, Influence and Iconography,” an eight-film retrospective of some of his most notable works (including a few being presented in 35mm) to commemorate his centenary. Besides being an ideal primer to the man and his work, the retrospective also serves as a mini-festival of some of the most momentous and groundbreaking works of his era. 

Wexler was born in Chicago in 1922. After spending a year of college at the University of California at Berkley, he volunteered to join the Merchant Marines as the U.S. was preparing to enter WWII. Following a stint working for the desegregation of his fellow Marines and receiving the Silver Star after his ship was torpedoed by a German submarine off the coast of South Africa, Wexler returned to Chicago and decided to become a filmmaker. With his father, Simon, he set up a studio in Des Plaines and made industrial films in local factories. The studio did not last long but Wexler continued with his filmmaking ambitions by joining the International Photographers Guild in 1947 and working on films, television shows, and TV commercials. (He continued to do commercials throughout his career, eventually forming a commercial production company with fellow celebrated cinematographer Conrad Hall.) He also began to make documentaries and one, the Chicago-focused “The Living City” (1953), was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary Short.

In 1958, Wexler made his feature film debut as cinematographer with “Stakeout on Dope Street,” beginning an association with up-and-coming filmmaker Irving Kershner that saw them reunite on “The Hoodlum Priest” (1961) and “Face in the Rain” (1963) and establish a pattern of working numerous times with certain directors. In 1963, Wexler financed and shot “The Bus” (1965), a documentary that followed a group of Freedom Riders on a journey from San Francisco to Washington D.C., and landed his first job as cinematographer of a big-budget studio film, Elia Kazan’s acclaimed drama “America, America.” Following the success of that film, Wexler began working steadily in Hollywood, shooting the political drama “The Best Man” (1964), the black comedy “The Loved One,” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966), Mike Nichols’ enormously controversial adaptation of the Edward Albee play. Although much of the original focus of the publicity surrounding the film focused on the then-shocking language in the script, Mike Nichols making his directorial debut, and the presence of co-stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Wexler’s contributions were celebrated as well. Wexler received one of the film’s five eventual Oscars for Cinematography - Black-and-White (the last year for that category before it and the Color category were merged into one).

Wexler’s next project, 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night” (May 8 and 19), also his first collaboration with director Norman Jewison, was even more significant and groundbreaking. The plot concerns Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), a Black homicide investigator from Philadelphia who teams up with Gillespie (Rod Steiger), the police chief of the town of Sparta, Mississippi, to solve the murder of a rich local industrialist in the face of open racism. Having a Black man at the center of a major Hollywood full-color production was still an anomaly back then, and filmmakers at that time did not take into consideration that the standard lighting methods used by most cinematographers did not favor actors with darker skin, often causing a glare that left them looking slightly less distinct than their white counterparts. Wexler recognized this and took careful consideration to light his scenes in ways that solved this problem. He allowed Poitier to stand out as distinctly as Steiger and the rest of his co-stars, an accomplishment that not only made Poitier look as good as he ever would on screen, but subtly reinforce the notion that this was a film about a Black man determined to stand out and do his job, no matter what anyone around him might think. Insanely, Wexler’s contributions were not among the seven Oscar nominations that the film received—though he was given the Best Cinematography prize from the National Society of Film Critics—but it could be argued his work here went on to become the most influential of all his shoots for the way it influenced the filming of Black actors.

Wexler and Jewison reteamed the next year for the infinitely lighter The Thomas Crown Affair(May 5 and 14), a slick caper film. Steve McQueen stars as a millionaire who masterminds and executes elaborate heists just for the thrill of it, while Faye Dunaway plays the insurance investigator who knows that he is guilty. The film follows their game of cat-and-mouse, one that is only heightened by the mutual sense of attraction that is there from the moment that they meet. The resulting film is a silly contraption that has nothing more on its mind than showing insanely attractive movie stars going through their paces. And yet, it still works on some fundamental level thanks in large part to Wexler’s stylish contributions. 1968 also saw the release of Faces (May 10 and 18), John Cassavetes’ searing drama chronicling the death throes of the marriage of a middle-aged couple (John Marley and Lynn Carlin). Wexler, a friend of the maverick filmmaker, made some uncredited contributions to the movie, lending Cassavetes camera equipment for the shoot and filming a brief sequence that made the final cut.

It was at this time that Wexler decided to broaden his artistic ambitions by directing his first narrative feature, Medium Cool (May 6 and 22). In the film, which he also wrote, Robert Forster stars as John Cassellis, a Chicago-based television news cameraman who is more concerned with pursuing news stories that will grab audiences (car crashes and the like) than in getting involved with the issues of the day. When he learns that his network has been supplying the footage captured by him and other cameramen to the FBI, he finally rebels and is soon fired from his job, eventually becoming a freelance cameraman while at the same time getting involved with Eileen (Mariana Hill) and her young son, who have just arrived in the city from West Virginia. It all culminates in a famous sequence in which both John and Eileen are caught up in a clash between protestors and police, and the line between fiction and documentary is eliminated by the fog of tear gas.

That sequence, in which Wexler and his crew continued to film even as events were exploding around them, still packs a wallop today (even if Wexler admitted years later that he was not shooting sound at the time and the famous overheard line “Look out Haskell, it’s real!” was dubbed in afterwards) but it is hardly the only reason why the film still works today as well as it does. Using a cinema vérité approach seemingly inspired by Cassavetes (to whom Wexler reportedly first offered the lead role), Wexler gives the story a documentary-style feel that works beautifully with the material and shows a deft handling with his actors as well. Many of the issues that it raises—the responsibilities of the media and the troubling specter of government surveillance—are just as relevant today as they were back then, and the sense of genuine anger that Wexler brings to the material still hits hard. The film was one of the most genuinely politically radical works of its era to actually get produced by a major film studio, Paramount, and paid the price for that in the end—"Medium Cool" received an “X” rating from the MPAA (it would eventually be re-rated “R”) and Paramount all but dumped it despite the rave reviews that it earned. Nevertheless, it has stood the test of time as one of the most powerful cinematic works of that time and in 2003, it was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

Although it was years before he directed another feature, Wexler began working with a number of the up-and-coming filmmakers of the early 1970s, albeit with somewhat mixed results. Several years earlier, via their shared interest in car culture, he befriended a teenager named George Lucas and when Lucas was having troubling getting interest from the studios in his latest project, “American Graffiti” (1973), Wexler signed on as the film’s visual consultant in order to help get it produced. Wexler began shooting The Conversation (May 25 and 27), Francis Ford Coppola’s classic tale of paranoia about an expert wiretapper (Gene Hackman) who becomes convinced that the couple that he is performing surveillance on are in danger of being murdered. Wexler was fired by the director after the first few days of shooting and replaced by Bill Butler, who wound up reshooting most of what Wexler had done. There are various explanations for the firing, depending on who is telling the story, but it should be noted that the one sequence shot by Wexler that remains in the film is the brilliant and wildly complex surveillance sequence the entire film pretty much hinges on. After this, he began filming “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (May 4 and 15) for Milos Forman and once again, he was fired and replaced by Bill Butler—in this case, the two of them were nominated together for the Best Cinematography Oscar, though Wexler claimed that nearly all of the finished film consists of stuff he shot.

A happier and more fruitful collaboration developed when he was hired by Hal Ashby—the editor on “The Loved One,” “In the Heat of the Night,” and “The Thomas Crown Affair"—to shoot Bound for Glory (May 7 and 31). The film is a biopic on the life of folk singer/activist Woody Guthrie, who Wexler had actually met during his Merchant Marine days. Although the resulting film may not have been especially accurate from a historical perspective, it was still widely praised when it was released in 1976, most consistently for Wexler’s stunning and innovative cinematography. For this project, he used the services of camera operator Garrett Brown and his then-new creation, a camera stabilizer mount that allowed for consistently smooth movements even over rough surfaces. This was the first time anyone used the device, better known as the Steadicam, in a film. The results were so striking they earned Wexler his second Oscar for Best Cinematography and helped make the Steadicam a regular tool of the trade before long. The film also served as the first of several projects that he shot for Ashby, including “Coming Home” (1978), “Second-Hand Hearts” (1981) and the underrated Vegas-set comedy-drama “Lookin to Get Out” (1982).

Wexler himself was called upon to serve as a replacement around this time when the shooting of Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven” went so long that its original cinematographer, the great Nestor Almendros, had to leave to honor a prior commitment to shoot Francois Truffaut’s “The Man Who Loved Women” (1977). Making a conscious effort to approximate the film’s already established visual style, Wexler’s contributions were so seamless that even though roughly half of what's in the finished film was shot by him, it is impossible to detect any significant difference between his work and Almendros’ and it is considered one of the most beautifully shot films ever made. However, much to his chagrin, Wexler only received a credit for “additional photography” while Almendros would get both the credit and the eventual Oscar.

In 1985, Wexler released his first dramatic directorial effort since “Medium Cool” with “Latino,” another politically charged work that this time dealt with the conflict in Nicaragua between the Sandinista government and the U.S.-backed Contra rebels trying to overthrow them. Although George Lucas served as an uncredited producer on the film, a movie speaking out against American involvement in Central American affairs was not going to find favor at that particular time and it barely received any distribution and remains obscure even today. From there, Wexler moved to the last of his great extended collaborations, this time with another filmmaker whose sense of social conscience could be acutely felt in his films, John Sayles. Their first project together was “Matewan” (May 15 and 23), a passion project from Sayles that told the true story of a coal miner’s strike in the small West Virginia town of Matewan in the 1920s that eventually descended into violence. Although it might have been tempting to give the film a kind of mythic look in order to heighten the story of the struggle of the workers against the mine owners (the kind of look that was applied to “Bound for Glory”), Wexler instead employed a more restrained approach that embraced the humanism while still having a poetic feel. Wexler’s cinematography was one of the elements singled out for praise when the film opened in 1987 and it earned him his fourth Oscar nomination. Over the next few years, he worked again with Sayles on the gorgeous fantasy “The Secret of Roan Inish” (1994), “Limbo” (1999) and “Silver City” (2004).

More lasting than any tributes or awards is the legacy of his work. As an artist and as an activist, Wexler was without equal and, as the Siskel Center retrospective clearly shows, his efforts in both areas continue to stand out even to this day.

For information on tickets and screening times, click here. Note: “The Thomas Crown Affair,” “Faces,” and “Bound for Glory” will be presented in 35mm.

Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a contributor to and Magill's Cinema Annual and can be heard weekly on the nationally syndicated "Mancow's Morning Madhouse" radio show.

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