CLOSE-UP: A family of artists in THE WOODMANS (by R.M. Crossin)

Untitled, by Francesca Woodman

Director C. Scott Willis’s portrait of a talented young artist and examination of her family of origin are the subjects of his 2010 feature-length documentary film The Woodmans.  A family of artists, George is a professor/ painter and his wife Betty is a ceramicist.  As described by George, the couple clicked with each other upon first meeting, despite their different backgrounds (George’s WASP roots contrast with Betty’s Russian-Jewish ancestry).  Raising their two children, Francesca and Charles, in Boulder, Colorado and spending summers in Italy, George and Betty encouraged the type of experiences that would form Francesca’s, the main focus of The Woodmans, personality and art. The film is a mixture of interviews with Francesca’s family members, friends, colleagues and associates from the present day and excerpts from her old journal entries, photographs and experimental videos.

 

The Woodmans works better as a character study of Francesca and exploration of family dynamics within the grief and healing process following a tragedy rather than an in-depth examination of Francesca’s art.  Although it does do a good job of presenting many of her photographs, The Woodmans does not provide enough critical opinions to balance out the praise which friends, family and colleagues have for her art.  A more thorough critical analysis, as well as placing her art in a context of other art from the same milieu would give viewers a better understanding of what it is that makes Francesca’s photographs important and exceptional.  It would also be interesting to know the factors that led to her art getting increased recognition in the years after her death instead of simply saying that it was “ahead of its time”.  Despite this lack of in-depth critical analysis, it is undeniable that her photographs do have a haunting allure and that Francesca possessed considerable talent.  Her black-and-white photographs are, by turns, provocative, beautiful, sensual, erotic and shocking.  Including her numerous self-portraits, the subjects of her photos were often nude females.

During the process of tracing her development as an artist from childhood to adulthood, The Woodmans shifts back to present time and shows her parents as they are living now – still creating art and living in Italy.  Betty is filmed creating a huge piece for the United States embassy in Beijing. The process of creating, transporting, and installing the piece parallels the way in which her family has tried to continue living after her death.  George is also continuing to create art, although he has moved from painting to photography in a way that both evokes and pays tribute to Francesca’s photos, albeit in a somewhat disturbing way.  The process of creating art is an essential part of being in the Woodman family (Francesca’s brother Charlie is a video artist and teaches Electronic Art at the University of Cincinnati) and director C. Scott Willis shows the audience how the surviving family members continue to use art to heal their wounds and make sense of something which is innately senseless.

The interviews in The Woodmans have a confessional tone, and Francesca’s journal entries echo this tone.  The lack of face-to-face interviews with Francesca and the fact that most of the interviews are about her begins to gather an ominous and foreboding momentum.  And although her suicide at age twenty-two is not mentioned until late in The Woodmans, it comes as a shock but not a complete surprise as the film explores Francesca’s increasingly fragile mental health in the months leading up to her death.  Her sky-high ambition may have contributed to her depression as the film details her struggles with breaking into the art scene while living in New York City despite her continued efforts to make an impact.  In the process of grieving, her family and friends grapple with the guilt and the grief they experience, as well as what they have done in the years since in order to make some sense of her untimely death.

At one point her father brings up an interesting point about his daughter making herself vulnerable by doing what she loved while recalling the “psychic risk she took to be an artist” and a number of interviewees comment on the autobiographical nature of her photos.  Undeniably Francesca was mining some very deep emotional territory to create her art.  Francesca’s art seems to reflect her inner conflicts considering she is described as “an intense person” who had equally intense relationships despite struggling with loneliness, and made frequent sexual advances but separated sexuality from emotions. The Woodmans raises the question of the inspiration behind her art but stops short of delving too deeply into her private life and romantic relationships, which leaves some questions unanswered.  One interviewee hopes that “the tragedy of Francesca’s death does not overshadow her artistic accomplishments”, as it does with so many other artists who die before their time and before their work can be recognized. However, the viewer cannot help but wonder if, paradoxically, it was Francesca’s death that brought increased attention to her work in the first place.  When Francesca’s ability to cope was overwhelmed, all that was left behind was her art – a document of her struggles.

The Woodmans will be playing at Edwards Greenway Palace on 11/12 (6:45 pm) and 11/14 (9:45 pm) as part of the 2010 Cinema Arts Festival Houston. For more information, check out http://cinemartsociety.org


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