Thursday, March 3, 2011

She's Lost Control: The Woodmans

THE WOODMANS (C. Scott Willis, USA, 2010, Digi- Beta, 82 mins) 

If Francesca Woodman hadn't killed herself, it's doubtful that C. Scott Willis's provocative film would exist. There are, after all, other talented 22-year-old photographers who haven't merited their own documentaries. Similarly, photographer-turned-filmmaker Anton Corbijn's Control probably wouldn't exist if Ian Curtis hadn't hung himself, and yet Joy Division was an undeniably influential band whose legacy has long outlived its lead singer.

On the contrary, I hadn't heard of Francesca until I read about The Woodmans in The New York Times. From Stephen Holden's review, I also learned about her parents, George and Betty Woodman, who have been married for over 50 years. The film wouldn't exist without them either, since Willis has produced a group portrait (as if the title didn't give that away).

The story begins in Boulder, where George taught at the University of Colorado (as a child, I lived in UC campus housing for a semester while my stepfather was getting his law degree). Tellingly, he describes children Francesca and Charlie, a video artist, as "these sort of gift calamities." 
George and Betty continued to produce art while their kids were growing up, and earned enough to buy a home in Italy, where Francesca started sketching. If she inherited their interest in art, her parents worry that they spent more time creating than parenting. Says Charlie about his mother, who was raised in a Jewish family, "She doesn't really practice a religion. Art was sort of the religion for her." George says his daughter picked up photography in boarding school (Phillips Exeter Academy, according to her ID card) and studied the subject at the Rhode Island School of Design. 

By 1979, all three artists were living and working in New York. Willis weaves Francesca's photographs and video pieces throughout the narrative. In most, she appears nude, indicating a certain comfort with her own sexuality and Pre-Raphaelite appearance. In light of her suicide, however, which looms unavoidably, there may have been more to it than that (other female and male subjects appear without clothes). 
Also, in some images, like the one at the top of this entry, she looks like a blur or a ghost. If she were still alive, that might not seem quite so eerie, but that's what happens when someone takes their own life: every move can look like a rehearsal for death. 

To add perspective, Willis interviews classmates, as well as neighbor Patricia Sawin, who found Francesca's photos "a little scary," and friend Edwin Frank (editor, New York Review of Books), who acknowledges a crush. In addition, Willis adds words (via on-screen text) from her journal to bring Francesca's voice into play. That she kept one at all invites speculation as to whether she knew it would one day become public. 
An unabashed fan, George says Francesca's work made his look "stupid," but who's to say that it wasn't also morbid and self-indulgent? I find it intriguing, but it makes me feel like a voyeur. And her parents admit that her "tragic story" adds to the allure. 
Until she moved to New York, though, Francesca's story wasn't really tragic. Unfortunately, she expected instant success. The problem isn't that she over-estimated her worth, but that her expectations weren't realistic. And that's the point at which things fell apart, despite encouragement from friends, relatives, and colleagues. 
If I sound cynical, it's because I believe Francesca was an artist in the truest sense, with all the single-mindedness and arrogance that implies. Everyone thought she was special--herself above all. Even her father uses the term "self-preoccupation." Granted, she wasn't the first photographer to make herself her primary subject, but you could hardly compare her to Cindy Sherman, who seems like an actress in comparison, since she takes on a different persona for most every print. 

Francesa Woodman died believing she was unique, and she was. Her beautiful, fascinating, intriguing work will live on, and she'll loom larger in history than her parents, despite their enduring devotion to their respective crafts. It doesn't seem fair. But I also prefer her work to theirs.   
The Woodmans concludes tonight, Mar 3, at Northwest Film Forum. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. Images from Kino Lorber.

1 comment:

  1. Most sensitive of the numerous reviews I've read on the Woodmans.
    I hope writing is your day job, for you demonstrate that rarest of writerly combinations; good craftsmanship plus depth of insight.
    Meanwhile, Francesca herself has left a tantalizing legacy. She, as in her photos, lies just beyond our ability to capture her identity.
    She must have felt in her short life that she indeed 'blended in with the walpaper.' The apparent theatricality of her social persona (as it is described by her friends) Francesca's way of stating and restating, "I do exist, I AM here; I AM, I AM, I AM.
    As art was and is the omnipresent idol in the Woodman household, over and above the endlessly more precious creation, a daughter, Francesca decided very early on that she would BECOME the art, rendering her own body image literally indistinguishable from the chaotic rooms portrayed in her photograph, rooms representing her parents' messy and overarching obsessions, rooms chronicling rather than foreshadowing the implosion of the Woodman family. Ironically SHE was the gift. Her parents were the calamity.