by Melanie Reed
We love them, we hate them, we fear them, we want to be like them, we want to be unlike them, we want them to love us. These thoughts about our parents shape our lives. For their part, they love us, they neglect us, they compete with us, and they retain a memory of when we were still in diapers. Why make a film about one’s parents? Documentary “tributes,” as appropriate as they may be if the parents are aging or famous, become more interesting when family connections are also explored, in ways that let a complex shape unfold. These kinds of film treatments approach a suspenseful mystery story that, in including many angles, is often only partially revealed.
In Alan Berliner’s 1996 documentary Nobody’s Business we find not only a hilarious and brutally honest portrait of father and son, but a memorable example of eminently watchable documentary that engages the viewer audibly, visually, emotionally and intellectually. Unflattered but grudgingly compliant, Oscar Berliner querulously submits to his son’s direct but neutral questions about the family history, but persists in disparaging the whole intent of the project, and refuses to be emotionally engaged. Unfazed, Alan uses these conversations wholesale, cleverly intercutting a variety of related, symbolic or evocative footage and sound effects, with repeating motifs that ground and engage the viewer while pushing the pace along. The most memorable motif is that of an old-time boxing ring, accompanied by a bell, to punctuate the “bouts” of father/son conflict. Another good sports metaphor (though not one that appears in the film) is tennis, and the verbal matches continue, with Alan persistently extracting records from the vast Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, interviewing first, second and third cousins, and all the while lobbing more query balls to Oscar for him to slam back in typical Scrooge-like spirit.
It isn’t obvious what exactly Alan is looking for, and maybe at the outset of the film he doesn’t know himself. But the interview and research process, as painstaking challenging as it may be, forces him to deal with the material he finds, as much as he makes his father “face up to things.” By the end of the film we learn: 1) that both character and circumstances shaped the family line, 2) that both he and his father were devastated by his father’s divorce, 3) that he himself had a direct hand in his mother’s marital options, 4) that he likely inherited his father’s strong will and tenacity, 5) that his father, in the words of his sister Lynn, will “never be the person you want him to be,” and 6) that Alan will likewise continue to disappoint his father, who sees his hard-won film career and grants as a life of laziness.
These kinds of revelations conjure up even larger revelations about love, death, acceptance, and human connection. In a particularly good example of symbolic footage pairings, an early shot of Oscar standing alone in sharp focus amidst a fast-moving and unfocused street crowd contrasts tellingly with a much later street scene shot where he is simply walking with the crowd.
In Mark Wexler’s 2005 documentary Tell Them Who You Are, the father-son relationship is also affected by the family’s marital strife, but complicated even more by dual film careers and social/ political limelight. Recently deceased two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer, producer, and director Haskell Wexler was in his early 80s at the time of the film and still working. Perhaps as a reaction to his rich and privileged background, a liberal and social justice agenda pervaded the work of this cinema verite pioneer, including such notable left-wing activist films like The Bus, Medium Cool, and Latino.
Though Mark Wexler started as a photojournalist, he also turned to documentary films, including My Matchmaker, and How to Live Forever. But despite their shared career, Mark and Haskell are political opposites. Likely overwhelmed by his father’s unstoppable drive, prodigious work portfolio, and famous/infamous standing, Mark admits that when he “found out the U.S. government was mightier than Haskell Wexler, I embraced it,” and photos of him prominently displayed with both Republican and Democratic presidents lend credence to this theory.
The film’s structure mainly alternates between father and son conversations and interviews with subjects who knew Haskell. The former present a tensely humorous demonstration of his strong will and direction, as he suggests shots for Mark, films him simultaneously, refuses to be in some shots, pressures Mark to go on a possibly illegal shoot, slants Mark’s scenes more politically, and refuses to even sign a release until he himself approves the final cut. The other interviews candidly present a picture of a man who had creativity, passion and skill, but was critical, analytical, did not take direction well, and was more than once simply fired from a set.
Unlike dogged Alan and unyielding Oscar Berliner, the Wexler combination is more of a tentative dance. Although Haskell feels that the making of a documentary is appropriate, Mark is surprised by his willingness to include personal information and “more profound” family issues. But despite this soul-baring intention, Haskell is less open after the two go on a peace march, and Mark poses the question, “If he’s not his work, who is he?”
Ironically, Haskell’s “cause before people” agenda was probably a dual response to his own father’s wealth and disapproval, and like the fathers and sons in Nobody’s Business, we see that judgmental and withholding traits can be traced through the male generations. Although Haskell’s father invested a million dollars in his son’s film career, he stated that his son “should have been a chemist” because he “could take good money and turn it into shit.” About his own childhood, Mark reports that Haskell undermined him, accusing him of stupidity and “just acting” his emotions, while at the same time having Mark hold up a peace march sign to create a stronger effect.
As in Nobody’s Business, the gist of Tell Them Who You Are is that fathers and sons may arrive at some degree of understanding, but will not get the other to change. In the film itself, Haskell is at best only capable of pointing to his personal trainer’s kids: both “intellectual and good at sports,” and admitting that if he’d known then what he knows now about fathering, Mark “wouldn’t have turned out to be such a mess.”
Interestingly, both father and son admit that the camera allows them to be part of the world, but from an observer’s standpoint. To paraphrase Jane Fonda’s wise observation, this combination need not eliminate empathy, but isn’t conducive to intimacy.
In Lucia Small’s 2002 documentary My Father the Genius — the product of a father who actually asks his child to document his work — we see another portrait of a creative man more concerned with his work than his family. Forgotten visionary architect Glen Small just wanted his life’s work to be recorded, and believed that the most emotionally neutral family member would be the best one for the job. But Lucia turns out to have a less neutral agenda — a film about Glen’s life.
Famous (by those few who remember him) for his design of the revolutionary and ecologically sustainable “biomorphic biosphere,” Glen’s ideas dovetailed perfectly with his ‘70s era’s ideas, and were instrumental in the creation of the earth-friendly “Green Machine” housing structure and the founding of SCI-ARC, a multi-disciplinary architectural school and design studio. At 60, he has as many ideas as ever, but his refusal to compromise or “schmooze,” has made him almost unhireable, putting him in debt and alone. Throughout the course of the film, he ends up selling his house, moving in with Lucia’s sister Christine, relocating from California to Oregon where he is more apt to find work, and getting two new “interesting” commissions, only one of which gets built: a house he ends up moving into himself.
Agreeing to record the life of a larger-than-life father who is basically a stranger can be tricky. Lucia was 5 when her parents divorced, and thereafter seldom saw him. Her voice and presence in the film is cautious and curious in contrast to her more emotional mother and sisters. Then there is Glen’s voice and presence: a strange combination of physical relaxation, emotional disengagement, and wry intellectual bitterness.
As a filmmaker who has undoubtedly inherited the creative gene, Lucia pulls the film’s disparate energies together with cleverly edited and sometimes collaged drawings, paintings, photos, architectural models, and home movies, accompanied by her own or others’ voiceovers. As information accumulates, we learn that unlike the Berliner or Wexler fathers or grandfathers, Glen’s father “doted on” and “lived for” his smart son, paying his way through college and giving him the freedom to explore. But perhaps this support, for a “boy genius” son, may have spoiled him for others who wouldn’t be quite so supportive. Although most of the interviewed family members, friends, ex-wives and fellow architects agree that Glen is a genius, many of them concede that (similar to Haskell Wexler) he had “no genius in personal relationships,” and that he “burned his bridges.” Although little is mentioned of Glen’s parents, it seems likely that the nurture of a genius nature may not be something of which even the most loving fathers are completely capable. Like probably every other young college-educated male of his day, Glen believed he could have it all. But when the architectural climate changed in the 80s, his unwillingness to adapt contributed to his dismissal from SCI-ARC – the organization that he himself had co-founded. It’s also likely that Glen’s enthusiastic endorsement of the “free love” ethos of the 70s played havoc with his marriage. A “big picture” thinker, his utopian vision of his own studio in the biomorphic biosphere with a beautiful woman waiting for him on a bed was a far cry from the earlier simpler dream of a family and children he’d previously shared with his wife.
Originally simply wanting his life’s work documented, Glen seems unexpectedly affected by his daughter’s willing presence. The roles are reversed, as he now needs the kind of attention he was less willing to give in the past. By the end of the film, a poignant, precarious bond is forged between father and daughter, with Lucia seeing him in a more appreciative light, admitting she agreed to the project to get closer to him, and becoming his new “favorite daughter,” while Glen states that the film process has helped, admits he wasn’t “the best dad in the world,” and tells her that he loves her, even while maintaining his view that women are “controlling and yappy,” and that family “come and go.”
Doug Block’s 2005 documentary 51 Birch Street also features late-life parental changes, but with a related marital strife element that didn’t actually affect the filmmaker son until mid-way through his film. Doug states that because his parents were “not exactly ordinary, but not people you’d make a documentary about,” he was “simply trying to capture them for posterity, until things took an unexpected turn.” This turn was his mother’s Minna’s sudden death and his father Mike’s marriage three months later to his secretary, Kitty, from 35 years before. Around this time, 30 years’ worth of Minna’s diaries showed up, which, in combination with the sudden marriage, set Doug’s mind reeling with new thoughts and speculations about his parents’ marriage.
The situation — a passionate, energetic, intellectual city woman mismatched with a strong, silent “typical 50s male” and stuck in the suburbs with kids – is not a new one. But the film’s use of progressive simultaneous reveal for both viewer and son, conveyed through a judiciously spaced sequence of well-chosen diary entries and intelligent interview and narrated voiceover selections makes the story subtlely compelling and suspenseful. More profoundly, this film examines reality vs illusion – a theme particularly resonant for families, parents and children. “You’re looking for direct?” says Minna, “Nothing is direct. Everything is circuitous.” The illusion of weddings, the illusion of marriage, the illusion of straightforward child-raising, the illusion of parents as nurturing, and the illusion of the face you present to others are all placed under the microscope, revealing that many of this film’s subjects, well-intentioned though they were, struggled with and regularly passed these illusions back and forth amongst each other.
Unlike Lucia’s parents in My Father the Genius, Mike and Minna’s marriage survived their 70’s experimentation all the way to their 50th anniversary, but at a cost of Minna never feeling simultaneously known and loved, while Mike, who refuses to dwell in the past, snatches a late opportunity to enjoy the woman he perhaps should have had all along. Interestingly for Doug, Mike’s new marriage makes him more forgiving and more emotionally open – with new honesty and openness about Minna and surprising warmth towards Doug. In a poignant pair of almost identical shots towards the film’s beginning and end, we see first Minna and then Kitty framed through the doorway at the top of the stairs in Mike’s house, as if to frame Doug’s new awareness of his father’s new partner choice.
Why do children film (or write about) their parents? Revenge, competition, awareness, connection, homage, separation, and freedom. The ultimate benefit, both for viewer and filmmaker, is the simple knowledge that these “giants” are human.
Melanie Reed is a writer, artist, dedicated Scarecrow volunteer and devoted fan of all forms of visual and literary stories.