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The Woodmans

Dir: C. Scott Willis

Rating: 2.5/5.0

Lorber Films

80 Minutes

With the recent spate of documentaries (Exit Through the Gift Shop, Catfish, I’m Still Here, et. al.) being greeted with varying degrees of “hoax!” by viewers and critics alike, questions concerning the theoretical underpinnings of the documentary-as-such have been pushed to the forefront of the cultural conversation. Sustained exposure to “reality” television has perhaps awoken in the general public a skepticism about the documentary form that has been bandied about since at least the time of Robert Flaherty – it is now common practice to question the veracity of what’s presented as unmediated fact, and few who consider themselves to be media savvy can be taken in by wholesale deception any longer. Certain forms of documentary presentation have lost all efficacy – the “fly on the wall” style, for example, has been co-opted and parodied to such an extant by shows like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation” that it’s doubtful whether this method of presenting “true reality” can be used in a nonfiction context. It’s just another way to make us laugh. But however hip we are to the ins and outs of media manipulation, we must always be on the lookout for ways in which the documentary form can be used to obfuscate rather than illuminate its ostensible subject matter.

Take C. Scott Willis’ The Woodmans for example. A straightforwardly-presented “talking head”-style documentary, nothing about the film itself should arouse our initial mistrust. The facts as presented are in the public record: ferociously talented photographer Francesca Woodman, born into a family of artists, creates a number of searingly beautiful black and white images, frequently featuring herself or other young women in the nude. Blurred, hidden, faces often obscured, bodies either melting into landscape or else frontally presented: the fact of nudity. The female form. Teachers and fellow students at the Rhode Island School of Design shocked by her young talent. Great things are expected. In 1979 she moves to New York City and by 1981 she is dead by suicide, age 22. Interest in her work has grown exponentially, her reputation as a groundbreaking and far-thinking artist perhaps fueled by morbid fascination. Yet there’s no doubt that her body of work stands alone – she has definitively entered into the canon of late 20th century photographers.

So, why now? Why has the family of Miss Woodman authorized a film about their daughter’s life at this time? A look at the title might provide an answer – what we have here is The Woodmans, not Francesca. One can almost see the many rounds of heated negotiations that must have occurred between George and Betty Woodman and any director who came to them with the idea of making a film about their famous daughter. It is highly unlikely that Willis was the first to make such a proposal. The reason the film exists at all is that he must have been the one most at peace with compromise. I imagine that the Woodmans were not keen to allow an authorized version of their daughter’s life – it would be about all of them, or not at all. Betty, George and son Charles are all accomplished and successful artists to various degrees, but so much of the running time of The Woodmans is given over to their egoistic gratification that Francesca’s story is at times as blurry as her self-portraits.

On a meta-level, the Woodmans’ obliviousness to the reason why people would want to see a film about them is paralleled by their own obtuseness when it came to their troubled daughter’s work. They are incapable of seeing any autobiographical content in Francesca’s art, at most being slightly disturbed by her degree of self-involvement. The fact that her body is often effaced and obscured is of little interest. The nudity was apparently not an issue, either – her perhaps obsessive fascination with her own sexuality thought unremarkable. This is in no way to blame the Woodmans for failing to prevent their daughter’s death. Suicide is notoriously difficult to prevent and signs are often extremely subtle. But the fact that through much of The Woodmans I was preoccupied with notions such as these; with thoughts of how and why the film came to be at this time and not others; with wishing that the family of Francesca Woodman could have put aside their own competitiveness and allowed their daughter’s life to be celebrated unadorned; with teasing out the strands of a life left vague; all of this is a problem.

For on the one hand, the frustrations encountered during my viewing highlight certain fascinating questions about the documentary form largely left unexamined in the hoax vs. truth debates. Questions of background and motive, finance and “life rights,” ego and interfamilial power dynamics – all are issues that prevent engagement with the subject of the film (and Francesca is the subject of the film) while at the same time being highly diverting in themselves. On the other hand, what is present on screen is much less interesting. The undoubted power of Francesca’s art lends the film a vicarious weight – each time her work is shown a little “shock” is felt, a jolt of vitality, tinged with mystery. Yet each is swiftly replaced and none are studied in any detail. This is a problem I find with many documentaries about artists, but here it only compounds the general sense of vagueness concerning Francesca herself. Extremely brief diary excerpts show a self-aware and engaged young woman with a pithy and haiku-like prose style (sample entries: Maybe I like Thursdays the way I used to hate baths/Today I came from Newport, seething with ideas and a new hat.) I wish that more of this had been included. Also, very few of Woodman’s friends and colleagues were interviewed, and those that were, only briefly. The bulk of the film was filtered through the powerful personalities of Betty and George, leaving the tragic life of Francesca even more tragic in death, overshadowed as it is by her own parents.

Francesca Woodman was a great artist and she is the reason why The Woodmans exists. Fans of her art should seek it out, as any opportunity to encounter her photography (as well as her fascinating video work, brief snippets of which are included) is a good one. But the film may be of more interest to film students, as the lessons it indirectly imparts about the documentary genre is important. But for the merely curious, I’d say skip it – engage with Francesca Woodman’s artwork on its own terms first. It’s the least she deserves.

by Shannon Gramas

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One Comment

  1. Martin

    January 27, 2013 at 1:07 am

    This critique is shockingly harsh and conjectural, and all of it is founded on nothing more than self-led speculations by Shannon Gramas, who does not appear to be at all inhibited by her ignorance of this family she has never met.

    It is stunningly presumptive. Gramas tries the Woodmans and sentences them with no knowledge of them. Her speculations are enough. This amounts to nothing more than yellow journalism where a serious documentary is set up for a hatchet job by opening with irrelevant musings about reality television. The intellectual dishonesty is disgusting.

    “One can almost see the many rounds of heated negotiations that must have occurred between George and Betty Woodman and any director”. Can one, indeed? How? Based on what actual evidence?

    “It is highly unlikely that Willis was the first to make such a proposal.” Any evidence for that? Any at all?

    “The reason the film exists at all is that he must have been the one most at peace with compromise.” The casual ease and willingness to insult the filmmaker in the absence oof supporting evidence is more hostile fantasy.

    “I imagine that the Woodmans were not keen to allow an authorized version of their daughter’s life”. Yes, you do like to imagine, don’t you?

    “so much of the running time of The Woodmans is given over to their egoistic gratification”. This is a very twisted misrepresentation of the Woodmans and their contribution to the film. I begin to question why Gramas takes this tack. Well, maybe I will play Gramas’s game and speculate without evidence, just to see what it feels like. Maybe Gramas is half in love with Francesca Woodman and cannot bear that the other Woodmans get to tell the story of somone who no longer can, someone they cared about and lost. But perhaps I don’t know what I’m talking about and should have the decency to keep my trap shut about people I do not know.

    “They are incapable of seeing any autobiographical content in Francesca’s art…” Is that why Betty Woodman said clearly, when considering her dead daughter’s photography, that all art is autobiographical? “…at most being slightly disturbed by her degree of self-involvement.” They were more than slightly disturbed: they showed by their remarks on this issue that they had a keen insight into the self-focus of Francesca’s photography, before she began to use other models.

    “The nudity was apparently not an issue, either – her perhaps obsessive fascination with her own sexuality thought unremarkable.” Self appraisal and appraisal and exploration of one’s sexcuality is normal and of especial interest to an artist. Why make a federal case out of nothing, unless you have decided the parents deserve to be attacked, of course.

    “wishing that the family of Francesca Woodman could have put aside their own competitiveness and allowed their daughter’s life to be celebrated unadorned”. But the richness of the film is that it is about the Woodman family (hint: it is called “The Woodmans”) and the family life context, and the context of personal aesthetic development within an artistic family richly informs anyone’s understanding of Francesca’s art, if anyone is open to what the film is, instead of being so unimaginative and churlish in one’s close-minded response to it.

    This review of the film is a sickening malicious attack on the Woodmans and Scott Willis.

    Reply

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