September 26, 2016

Documentarian/Cinematographer Haskell Wexler Honored at SCA

Wexler remembered as pioneer, inventor, and humanitarian

Clockwise from Left: Chairman Frank Price, Dean Elizabeth M. Daley, Provost Michael Quick, and Haskell Wexler Endowed Chair Michael Renov

On September 25th, friends, alumni and supporters of the USC School of Cinematic Arts (SCA) gathered to honor the late, legendary Academy Award-winning cinematographer and documentary filmmaker Haskell Wexler, and to dedicate the Haskell Wexler Endowed Chair in Documentary. Michael Renov, professor and Vice Dean of Academics at SCA was installed as the first chair holder. The Wexler Chair in Documentary was graciously funded by the George Lucas Family Foundation.

Speakers at the event included SCA Dean Elizabeth M. Daley; Frank Price, Chair of SCA's Board of Councilors; USC Provost Michael Quick; honoree Renov; and Wexler’s wife, actress Rita Taggart Wexler.

“Having Haskell’s legacy at this School is very appropriate,” Dean Daley told the capacity crowd. “The worlds of cinematography and documentary are very well represented at the School. Because of the generosity of the George Lucas Family Foundation in endowing this Chair, Haskell Wexler’s work and memory will continue to be a primary inspiration for the young media makers at the School.”

Provost Michael Quick spoke about his childhood love of cinema, which included Wexler's work. “As a fan, I never wanted to direct. I wanted to be a cinematographer," said Quick. "I can still remember going to see [Wexler’s] Days of Heaven and thinking I had never seen anything so beautiful in my life. This one is a big one for me. I couldn’t be more happy that USC is honoring Haskell Wexler in perpetuity.”

Honoree Michael Renov spoke about his personal connection to Wexler's work, especially the film Medium Cool.

“I still teach Medium Cool. I’m teaching it this semester,” said Professor Michael Renov. “It’s one of the most challenging and consequential films in post-World War II America. More than that, Haskell Wexler was a man of principle who acted on those principals regardless of the consequences. He was constantly ahead of the curve.”

Board of Councilors Chairman Frank Price has worked with Wexler on Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip. He spoke with great fondness of making the film.

“Haskell Wexler was talented, passionate, skilled and professional,” said Chairman Price. “I worked with him on an unusual project Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip. The first night was a disaster because Richard couldn’t remember his lines. We got nothing. Most concert films are very hard to capture. This one was different. It came alive. Because of Haskell’s work, it made everyone feel like they were there at the concert. Having his name at the School will serve as an example for our students to skillfully communicate their ideas.”

The last speaker of the evening was Wexler’s widow Rita Taggart Wexler who gave an emotional tribute to Wexler as a luminary and as a man of conviction.

“Two of the most fundamental things you must know about Haskell are that he was fearless and tenacious” said Rita Taggart Wexler “He was considered an anti-fascist. He was known for his support of anti-lynching laws. He was harassed. Audited annually. He lost his passport. All of this told him he was following the right path. His fearlessness and tenacity only got stronger when he held a camera to his eye.”

“He sought justice, peace, and understanding of humanity. He used his camera and his compassion that weren’t always available through our media. With Haskell, the art and his heart were one.”

Renov with his commemorating plaque

Haskell Wexler was one of filmmaking’s most innovative and acclaimed cinematographers. He won the last Academy Award designated for black-and-white cinematography for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). He earned a second Oscar for Bound for Glory (1976) and was nominated for his work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Blaze (1989) and Matewan (1987).

Wexler’s legacy also extends to influential work as the director of 40 documentaries. IncludingIn Medium Cool (1969), Introduction to the Enemy (1974), and Latino (1985).

The first holder of the Haskell Wexler Endowed Chair is Professor Michael Renov. Michael Renov, professor in the Bryan Singer Division of Cinema & Media Studiesand Vice Dean for Academic Affairs, is the author of Hollywood's Wartime Woman: Representation and Ideology and The Subject of Documentary, editor of Theorizing Documentary, and co-editor of Resolutions: Contemporary Video PracticesCollecting Visible EvidenceThe SAGE Handbook of Film Studies and Cinema’s Alchemist: The Films of Peter Forgacs.

In 1993, Renov co-founded Visible Evidence, a series of international and highly interdisciplinary documentary studies conferences that have, to date, been held on five continents. He is one of three general editors for the Visible Evidence book series at the University of Minnesota Press, which has published 27 volumes on various aspects of nonfiction media since 1997. In 2005, he co-programmed the 51st annual Robert Flaherty Seminar, a week-long gathering of documentary filmmakers, curators, and educators, creating 20 screening programs and filmmaker dialogues on the theme "Cinema and History."

In addition to curating documentary programs around the world, he has served as a jury member at documentary festivals including Sundance, Silverdocs, the Buenos Aires International Independent Film Festival, Brazil's It's All True, the International Environmental Festival of Film and Video, also in Brazil, and DocLisboa in Portugal. He has taught graduate seminars at the University of Stockholm, Tel Aviv University and Central European University in Budapest, Hungary and has led documentary workshops in Jordan for the Royal Film Commission and in Cyprus. Renov's teaching and research interests include documentary theory, autobiography in film and video, video art and activism, and representations of the Holocaust.