As a writer who focuses on Hollywood, I’ve been very lucky. In 2008, for over two hours, I had Haskell Wexler as a sparring partner. Wexler, the eminent cinematographer who died Sunday at age 93, was widely known to be opinionated, even cantankerous. He had a strong social consciousness, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. When I was researching Hollywood films of the late 1960s, I badly wanted to discuss with Haskell his first directorial effort, 1969’s Medium Cool. It’s about a news cameraman (played by Robert Forster) covering the violence surrounding Chicago’s 1968 Democratic National Convention. Shot in the style of a cinéma vérité documentary, it explores one of Wexler’s favorite philosophical themes, the overlap between fact and fiction. As he sees it, “There are no facts. Just people’s fictions.”
I had plenty of questions when I showed up at Haskell’s airy Santa Monica condo. At first he was polite but rather cool, giving rambling philosophical answers with the air of someone who’s quite accustomed to being listened to. He made sure I knew that Hollywood movies, even those with an idealistic political bent, are first and foremost all about making money, which is why they take great care not to give offense. A good example from the seminal year 1967 is In the Heat of the Night, the Oscar-winner on which Haskell served as cinematographer after turning down an opportunity to shoot The Graduate. (His previous collaboration with director Mike Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, had won him his first Oscar. He wanted to work with Nichols again, but had taken a principled stand against doing projects he didn’t like, and The Graduate fit into that category.)
My real breakthrough with Haskell came when I asked about Blow-Up, the surrealistic Antonioni film which like Medium Cool has a photographer as its protagonist. As a lover of European art films, Haskell confirmed that Blow-Up was hugely important to him. But, always skeptical about conventional American tastes, he lamented that this film had never gotten its due in Middle-America. I disagreed, noting that Blow-Up was a big box-office hit. “Yes,” said Haskell, “but a big hit in what circles? Not in Ames, Iowa. Not in . .” That’s when I dared to cut him off, pointing out that the film’s bold use of frontal nudity had Americans of every stripe flocking to their local cinemas. Said he, “I stand corrected.”
After I locked horns with Haskell, he seemed to truly appreciate me. I ended up being filmed with him by documentarians Joan Churchill and Alan Barker, and even got to stay for lunch. He introduced me as someone who, like him, had started with Roger Corman. Yes, the great Haskell Wexler too was a Cormanite. As a union cameraman, he couldn’t be credited on a non-union Corman film. But he shot Stakeout on Dope Street as Mark Jeffrey, creating a pseudonym from the names of his sons. He told me, “I’m fascinated by you, because you worked very closely with Roger Corman, for a long time. Roger Corman was not on the barricades. Roger Corman was a man of the system, but like an independent businessman up against the corporations. And how Roger --- you say he saw himself as an independent guy doing things that the system didn’t or wouldn’t do -- is part of the American ideal of the little guy pulling himself up by his bootstraps and becoming a success. Because we still accept the definition of a success, as Roger did, as making money.”
By any standard, Haskell Wexler was a success. Hail and farewell.