MOST MOVIE RETROSPECTIVES focus on a director or actor; to build one around a cinematographer is to argue that a movie's look is as important as what it looks at. "Cinematographers are really underappreciated, which is surprising knowing how visual a medium film is," argues Michael Seiwerath of the Grand Illusion, which (along with Scarecrow Video) is hosting just such a retrospective. "The whole auteur theory [which argued that the director was solely responsible for a film] has been thrown out the window at this point, yet people always do directors series. Basically, I wanted to celebrate what I think is an equally important role on a film set. I chose Haskell Wexler because he's kind of my hero."
Haskell Wexler, ASC: A World of Work
Seattle Art Museum, February 12
Grand Illusion, February 12-25
Little Theater, February 11-21
Wexler's impressive r鳵m頩ncludes everything from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? to The Secret of Roan Inish (both part of the Grand Illusion's series). He's also directed several politically progressive documentaries, some of which will be shown at the Little Theatre on Capitol Hill. "He's really carved out a position of respect in the film community as a consummate professional," Seiwerath continues. "He's made some amazing films, but also worked on politically and socially conscious films that are both not preachy and extremely beautiful, which almost no one else manages to do. So I think he's pretty much an amazing person."
The retrospective opens with one of Wexler's only fiction films, Medium Cool (screening at the Seattle Art Museum on February 12). Originally given an X rating for its political content, Medium Cool follows a hip, self-absorbed cameraman's relationship with a homespun single mother from West Virginia, set against the turmoil surrounding the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. It's one of the few movies that starts out with a broad polemical point—that the media callously exploit violence without giving it meaning or context—then grows more complex as it goes along. Though the movie's fashions and soundtrack may be dated, its themes are dismayingly current.
Moreover—a testament to Wexler's talents as a cinematographer—Medium Cool is vibrant with the kinetic possibilities of life and how to capture them on film, whether in a flight of homing pigeons, a political demonstration, or a mother and her son walking on a tenement rooftop. The movie breathes; it is loose, casual, but never sloppy or meandering. Robert Forster (whose career was recently revived by Jackie Brown) gives a sexy but also scary performance as the cameraman; sometimes he seems intelligent and conscientious, other times demanding and even brutal. The movie's contrast between the large-scale chaos of the protests and the characters' individual lives captures a more acute sense of its time than the Forrest Gump approach of stringing together as many big events as possible.
BY WAY OF EXPLAINING a cinematographer's craft, Seiwerath says, "A cinematographer basically controls the light and the framing of a shot. People use phrases like 'painting with light' or 'sculpting with light'—that's really what they're doing. Less romantically, but equally important, they're translating the director's vision into reality. . . . You can see his stamp on a lot of films, but I think he really is flexible, which is an equally important gift. Probably more so in Hollywood, because not many directors are going to let you do whatever you want. Maybe that's why he's made so many great films. There's a film that we're not showing called Days of Heaven, a Terrence Malick film. It was initially photographed by Nestor Almendros, another pretty well-known cinematographer, who had to leave two-thirds of the way through shooting because he had some contractual obligation. So they had to scramble to find somebody, and Haskell Wexler picked it up and finished it off. It was particularly hard because Almendros was shooting almost without any light; half the movie is shot during the magic hour, right at twilight, and Almendros wouldn't use filters or lights—he was a real purist. To match something like that is really hard, and Wexler did use some lights and filters—but when they later watched the dailies, they had trouble telling who shot which scenes. Technically, that's an amazing accomplishment."
Wexler himself will introduce the screenings of Bound for Glory and Mulholland Falls. Seiwerath had recently spoken with him on the phone and reported, "Some of the films he was most excited about were ones that surprised me, like Mulholland Falls and Blaze, which aren't usually considered some of his better films. And when I told him we were playing Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, he was like, 'Oh, OK—but you've really got to play this Mulholland Falls!'" Seiwerath smiles, musing on the difference between general critical opinion and Wexler's own enthusiasms. "Like most people in Hollywood, he's struggling with money vs. art. He's just succeeded better than most."