Haskell Wexler was always in his own category

By Tom Weinberg

In Hollywood, he was the go-to cameraman for the most accomplished directors and most influential movies for decades. He has an incredible 80 credits as cinematographer over 63 years, on features, commercials, and his love—documentaries. Haskell shot (and wrote and directed) many of the most politically and socially relevant progressive documentaries in history. He was justifiably proud of his two Oscars and countless other awards, but he was so much more than “a legendary cameraman.”

Haskell was the hardest-working and most reliable and durable craftsman/artist/moviemaker I’ve ever known. He was the model for a generation. He was always able to create the visual images to complement and blend with the words and music of any film.

But what stood him apart from almost everyone in “the industry” was his passion for life and his unbending beliefs in the causes of peace, justice, and freedom.

The first feature he ever produced, directed and wrote was Medium Cool. I was more excited about the unique genius of it than any movie I had seen up to 1969, maybe ever. By intertwining his powerful scripted story with the reality of the police riot during the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Haskell broke new ground. I had never seen anyone else capture the involvement/detachment/mysteries of “becoming” a camera and the ambiguities of being a chronicler and a participant at the same time.

He understood and lived by one absolutely honest belief that he expressed in his acceptance speech for the 1966 cinematography Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?:

“I hope we use our art for peace and love.”

If anyone ever did, it was Haskell Wexler.

When Haskell was 86, he spoke at the memorial service for his dear friend, Studs Terkel. This stunning clip from the Media Burn Archive captures the raw and emotional Haskell Wexler.

If you have time, watch this magnificent 15-minute film with Haskell and dozens of clips from Medium Cool.

For a page about his life and work, go to his blog at haskellwexler.com.

Haskell Wexler at the University of Chicago, 2014Haskell kept going until almost the very end. Here he is (second from left) behind Judy Hoffman at her master class at the University of Chicago in 2014. His wife, Rita Taggart, is next to him. I cherish spending that time with Haskell, Andy Davis (far right) and Peter Kuttner and the students. (I’m squeezed between them in back.)

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