A superficial and probing documentary profile

The Woodmans

on January 21, 2011 by Vadim Rizov

A journeyman-like investigation into the life and legacy of photographer Francesca Woodman, C. Scott Willis' The Woodmans is a conventional talking-heads-and-clips documentary. Willis, a regular director for PBS' Nova, infuses the doc with a dullness, but that isn't why The Woodmans is uncomfortable to watch (in all the wrong ways). The documentary repeatedly argues that Woodman's photographs, autobiographical or not, are being wrongly outshined by her suicide and posthumous discovery. To argue this, it spends most of its time interviewing family and friends about her life, but to little effect. Privileging the examination of her life over that of her work yields results that are unsatisfying in many ways. Commercial prospects are limited, as the uninitiated will find little to interest them here.

Francesca was the second and last child of George and Betty Woodman; the former was an abstract painter, the latter worked in the medium of pottery and ceramics. Along with her brother George (who works in electronic art), Francesca entered the family business with an interest in photography. As a child she drew crude pictures of women in elaborate dress, but graduated quickly black and white photography, inclining towards examinations of the nude body (frequently her own). After time at RISD, she moved to New York City to establish herself as a photographer. Struggling with depression and a lack of recognition, she leaped to her death on January 19, 1981. Her fame and influence came later, with photos selling for thousands of dollars.

It's a classic (or just sadly familiar) artist's tale. With only about 120 photographs ever exhibited or published, it's not as if there wasn't a sizeable cult interest in learning more about Woodman. What's offered here isn't a primer so much as a mish-mash of morbid biographical swooning and occasional photos. The parents, through no obvious fault of their own, come off badly. Both seem certain their daughter's end had nothing to do with them, and frankly (if disconcertingly) discuss moments of jealousy that their daughter's work has eclipsed their own.

Over the opening credits, the camera examines photos and cranes over paint-splattered tables in close-up, swooping over these gigantic objects with the same reverence that Peter Jackson showed New Zealand in the Lord of the Rings films. It's a quick way of emphasizing how important art was (and is) to the entire Woodman clan, though it's a subject the film rarely bothers with otherwise. Woodman's photography receives the most attention, though analysis is rare; her videos are treated merely as biographical footage, while her books are almost entirely unmentioned. For all the interviewees who tearfully speak of her work, the film does anything but. When claims are made for the lasting value of Woodman's work to present-day viewers, the only support we hear comes from RISD classmate Sloan Rankin, who says Woodman's work anticipated the present-day Urban Outfitters catalogues; surely there are more convincing arguments. Least helpful of all: extracts from Francesca's diary, presented one line at a time as if they were precious poetry ("I am so vain/and so masochistic/How can they coexist?"), valorize her emotional problems even as it tries not to.

Distributor: Lorber Films
Director: C. Scott Willis
Producers: C. Scott Willis, Neil Barrett and Jeff Werner
Genre: Documentary
Rating: Unrated
Running time: 82 min
Release date: January 19 NY


Tags: C. Scott Willis, Neil Barrett, Jeff Werner

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