Truth is Fiction

The Work of Haskell Wexler, Part 1

by David Charpentier

17 November 2011


The Illusion of Reality and the Art of Seduction

Movie audiences of the ‘60s and’70s were privy to a group of auteurs that pushed the boundaries of cinematic form and content. Just as post-WWII Hollywood focused on docu-dramas, psychological noir and social conscious to reflect growing American unrest so did the filmmakers of the Vietnam Era. Added to this were concerns of disenchanted youth and the role of the media. Influenced by the New Wave, they searched for a new realism that reflected reality and moved beyond the spectacle pictures of the studio system.

Cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler was key to the stylistic development of this movement. Among his credits are America, America (1969), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), In the Heat of the Night (1967), Faces (1968), Medium Cool (1969), American Graffiti (1973), The Conversation (1974), Days of Heaven (1975), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Bound for Glory (1976) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1977). His work in cinema verité brought a new style to Hollywood that attempted the wedding of documentary and feature. A new realism, a sense of being there was instilled into features. Enhanced by naturalist Method acting and existential narratives, Wexler’s filmmaking style blurred the lines between truth and fiction.
Wexler’s career as a documentary filmmaker began in the late ‘50s. Having dual interests in film and social issues, he sought to bring forth the true nature of people and their predicaments. A man of paradox, he was heavily engaged in bouts of struggle for the lower classes while driving in around in classic cars and living a playboy lifestyle. In the early ‘50s he led a protest against working and wage conditions at his father’s factory. A few years later, his father bought him a studio and became his business partner.

Wexler’s first film, A Half Century with Cotton, examined the family and social life on a cotton farm. While the film received some praise, the owner of the farm was upset with the finished product. He had thought Wexler was going to be filming the cotton process, with a special focus on some large harvesters he had recently bought. Wexler was forced to use the documentary’s profits for reshoots. In addition, he was pressured to hire union workers, something he had originally wished to forgo. The unions would continue to hound him for the rest of career, as Wexler would often attempt to skirt the rules while shooting quickly with a skeleton crew on low budget projects.
After Cotton’s financial loss, Wexler was forced to close his studio. He continued to work on industrial and social documentaries in his hometown of Chicago, although he was forced to make commercials to pay the rent (a recurring theme throughout his career). His documentaries began to develop a verité style, popularized by Frederick Wiseman in such works as Titicut Follies and Warrendale. In these films, the presence of the camera displays guard and prisoner, principal and student, stripped down to bare relationships of force and will. The reflection renders a societal framework, based on power and obedience. Verité required a sparse crew, the use of available light, and a handheld camera style. The attempt is to capture people acting naturally, as if the camera is not there.
Verité is based on long cuts, letting things unfold. Whereas Hollywood features would often cut on a dramatic moment, verité—and most documentaries after—keep rolling. Even when things seemed to have stopped, the camera stays on to record the subjects’ reactions and emotions, the catharsis of the piece. As Wexler notes in an interview with Film Quarterly (Vol. 21, No. 3), “you would see that change happening, and then something would start again. When you get to that moment, I don’t think there is anything in films that I have seen that can match it. You never know what is going to happen. So by the nature of it, you shoot a lot and hope that your instincts and their instincts take you to the right place.” It’s this unpredictability, of waiting for the drama to unfold, which holds interest for Wexler and other documentarians. The precedence of this technique shifted to a style of longer takes that focus on character. The emphasis of features via verité became actors working their way through reaction and emotion.
Wexler’s documentary The Bus presents verité as process and product. It follows a group of African-Americans on a road trip to a civil rights march in Washington. Initially, the people featured almost appear to acknowledge the camera. They are self-conscious—aware they are being filmed. In general, whenever there is a camera, people are on; they feel a need to perform. After a while the need withers. They begin to ignore the camera, move freely, act naturally. The camera is just a fly buzzing around, a minor annoyance that fades into the background.

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