Bengaluru International Film Festival

Celebrating the way Wexler saw films

Catch the phenomenal works of cinematographer Haskell Wexler at the 9th Biffes

A four-minute unbroken shot in Bound for Glory (1976) directed by Hal Ashby is still remembered by cinematographers the world over. “The legendary Steadicam moment in the film is shot from a crane overlooking the makeshift migrant camp that the crew constructed near Stockton, Californa. The shot continues uninterrupted as the operator smoothly lands on the ground behind David Carradine (who played Woody Guthrie) and follows him as he makes his way among the 900 extras. This seamless, unbroken shot lasts an incredible four minutes. The man behind this legendary Steadicam moment was none other than Haskell Wexler, who got his first Oscar for this work,” says ace cinematographer G.S. Bhaskar, known for his aesthetic visuals.

Wexler was the first to use the Steadicam for hand-held shots in a feature film and his initiation later provided cinematographers the mobility to capture an intimacy that camera cars, track dollies and cranes could never provide.

The 9th edition of the Bengaluru International Film Festival (Biffes) offers something spectacular to film makers, especially cinematographers, who firmly believe that “the camera is like art itself, it’s not just a means to an end”, observed Bhaskar, who held the camera for films including Sai Paranjape’s Papeeha, Saaz and Disha and worked as a second unit cameraman for Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. Bhaskar, an ardent fan of Wexler, along with Vinod Raja, have curated a documentary film section of Wexler’s works at Biffes. Vinod Raja is responsible for bringing a retrospective of acclaimed cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who passed away last year.

Wexler is a two-time Oscar winning cinematographer from the USA, who fought for the rights of working men and women throughout his life. Wexlerr, also a film producer and director, was judged to be one of film history’s 10 most influential cinematographers in a survey of the members of the International Cinematographers' Guild, according to Bhaskar.

Wexler’s camera work for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? got him the first Academy award in 1966; it was also the last film which got the award for black and white cinematography. It is not easy for film buffs and cinematographers who have watched Elia Kazan's America, America, In the Heat of the Night, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and John Sayles's Matewan to forget Wexler. Bound for Glory by Hal Ashby was Wexler's second film, which won him his second Academy award. His many accolades include the American Cinematographer’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992.

But Haskell believed that filmmakers were much more than f-stops, hi-hats, focus-pullers, and Steadicams. The gear, like the art itself, was just a means to an end.

Wexler produced, directed and cinematogrpahed numerous documentaries. He is known for his use of the documentary style in his films. He incorporated documentary-style footage he shot during the civil war in Nicaragua in Latino which won the special award at Cannes. At the time of his death, Wexler was working on a documentary. To his fellow cinematographers, Wexler was known for his aesthetic innovation.

Bhaskar, who held camera for many aesthetic films made in Kannada, says Conrad Hall, Haskel Wexler and Gordon Willis were three phenomenal artists who wielded their influence on him by the sheer power of their ingenuity, audacity and the ability to evolve a new visual language.

Bhaskar recounts the finer details of Wexler’s life. Born in 1922 in Chicago, Wexler became a merchant seaman during World War II. He survived two weeks in a life boat after his ship was torpedoed by a Nazi submarine. He spent two weeks in a life boat. Haskell remembered the U-boat commander standing on the deck of the surfaced submarine shooting the bobbling life boat with a small movie camera. Never did he forgot that experience.

After the War, Wexler opened a film studio with his father in Des Plaines. When that was closed, he went on to perfect his craft shooting industrial and educational films and later forming a television and commercial production company with Conrad Hall in mid 70s. Striking unionists during the great Depression was the first photograph taken by Wexler. He was in 8th grade at that time. He used a wind-up 16 mm camera to shoot his first film when he was just 12 years old.

Wexler, along with Conrad Hall and Gordon Willis and Vilmos Zsigmon ushered a revolution in American cinema. Along with them, Wexler rebelled against the accepted norm, broke the conventions, upped the bench-mark and indulged in creative cinematography to invent a new visual vocabulary altogether. While Wexler is credited with having pioneered the hand-held shot, it is worth noting that he did not use it as an acrobatic feat or just to prove a point. Instead, he utilized the tool to bring to fore the power of the visual in narrating a story in the most effective manner, says Bhaskar. Medium Cool (1969) was his first feature film as a director. It was an outstanding experiment in the ‘Cinema Verite’ style.

Among contemporary visual artists, Haskell Wexler stood out because he not only excelled in his artistic endeavour, but also contributed in a great measure to the evolution of mankind. He was committed not only to his art but to his ideology in social life as well. He sought to blend both of them into a single stream. Working towards this goal, he chose documentary as his tool and succeeded in creating several masterpieces. Highlighting the role of documentaries, Wexler used to say that, “We have a responsibility to show the public the kind of truths that they don’t see on the TV news or the Hollywood film.”

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 6:56:10 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/Celebrating-the-way-Wexler-saw-films/article17128003.ece

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