Very Good, Mr. Wexler
In an 2012 interview he gave to film journalist Trevor Hogg at www.flickeringmyth.com, Haskell Wexler, who died Sunday at age 93, was as simultaneously plain-spoken and eloquent as ever describing his work as a shooter of both probing documentaries and acclaimed Hollywood movies. “I’m interested in learning about people, the world, interactions, and I’m excited looking at things through a camera and transmitting all of my excitement to other people. I hope that dedication translates, and that gives me pleasure. If you have pleasure then the possibilities of enjoying your life is good,” he said, concluding, “And if you’re lucky enough to have someone pay you money during that time than you can have what is called a career.” Wexler’s 60+-year career has been rightly called influential and important, with viscerally exciting work in black-and-white (Angel Baby, America America, The Loved One and his first Oscar® winner Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and textured and enveloping imagery in color (In the Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Coming Home and his second Oscar® winner Bound for Glory). Director Hal Ashby’s Bound for Glory (1976) is a special case: Wexler actually knew poet/songwriter/activist Woody Guthrie and struggled to get a movie adaptation made of the troubadour’s same-titled 1943 autobiography but was frustrated by his inability to find a writer who could shape a worthy script from it. When Ashby (hot off the 1975 hit Shampoo) expressed interest in directing the project, screenwriter Robert Getchell (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) came aboard, and Wexler selflessly stepped away from the director’s chair to become director of photography. In his assessment of what he called “one of the best-looking films ever made,” Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times wrote, “Ashby and Wexler recreate the Depression years so well, see them so faithfully, that the movie actually becomes a historical document. If we want to know what that decade looked like, this is the film to come to.” Wexler could also delight in simple, less grandiose praise. In a 2001 Los Angeles Times article about the great cinematographer James Wong Howe (1899-1976), for whom Wexler worked as a camera operator on Picnic (1955), a sold-out Twilight Time Blu-ray title, Wexler remembered: “In [director] Josh Logan's book about Picnic, he has a section about me because I did the last shot of the film – the helicopter shot. In those days, the only helicopters were military helicopters. There were no things like camera mounts. So I sat on a piece of wood that was attached to the helicopter [and I shot the scene]. I remember sitting next to Jimmy Howe when they saw the dailies. My heart was pounding. After he saw it, he said, ‘Very good, very good,’ just like that. Until this day, when I do a good shot, I hear Jimmy Howe saying, ‘Very good, very good.’" Bound for Glory, a showcase for a cinematographer who combined a documentarian’s hard-charging passion and an artist’s light-bending sensibility, debuts on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray January 19; preorders open January 6.