Monday, January 17, 2011

Art & Parenting: C. Scott Willis' THE WOODMANS opens at Film Forum

Thirty years ago, Francesca Woodman -- a young and very up-and-coming photographer from a highly artistic family -- killed herself. Some of us will remember the commotion the event set off at the time. Since then, the suicide, along with the remaining Woodman family has mostly faded from gossip, chatter and public view. Francesca's parents George (a painter/photog-rapher) and Betty (painter/ceramic sculptor) and her sibling Charles (now an assistant prof. of electronic art at the Univ of Cincinnati, whose recent works involve video, live performance, musicians and dancers) have gone their own way, continuing -- as they did prior to and after Francesca's death -- with the most important thing in their lives: their art.

Who are these people? How much responsibility did/do they shoulder for the demise of their family member? Did Francesca ever have a chance at what we might call a "normal" life? Should artists ever procreate their own kind or simply stick with what they do best (or even not so very well, depending, of course, on the taste of others)? These questions and more may pop into your mind while watching THE WOODMANS, the new documentary by C. Scott Willis, who is shown at left. Don't expect many answers, however -- at least not the kind that result in what we, these days, love to call "closure." This movie raises many more questions than it probably could, or would even care to, answer. Which is most likely what the director wants, and which is, I think perfectly all right, as far as it goes. I just wish the film had gone a bit farther.

One wonders why, thirty years later, a movie would be made about all this. And yet, why not? The mystery of family -- one of the great and enduring mysteries of all kinds and all times -- can always use another chapter, another viewpoint. Mr. Willis takes us back to Francesca's early years and her ground-breaking art. She used herself as her subject, often nude, in strange and revealing (of both mind and body) ways that shocked then, and still have that ability today.

Ellis interviews family and friends (even an old boyfriend) about the past and the present and comes up with some fascinating stuff.  "I could never live with anybody who did not love art the way I did," says mother Betty at one point.  (That's she, above, in her younger years.)Which leaves one wondering: How could anybody ever love art in the same way that any other person might love it? Are we not all quite different? "Distant as parents" does seem to describe George and Betty, but that's hardly all of it. Oh, yes -- and Betty created functional art: ceramic tableware that was used at home for dining. Remember how all of us in our younger years broke a dish or pitcher now and then? This kind of event, I suspect, was perceived and handled somewhat differently in the Woodman household.

Betty was Jewish, George a  Christian. To this day, certain of his family members have still not crossed the threshhold of his "new" married life. The Woodmans have another home in Italy, in a glorious mountain area that looks like Tuscany. Visiting here, as we do now (and as the family did in times before the suicide: that's George, above, in his studio in Italy circa 1960) is a treat. As is seeing Betty's recently completed commissioned piece for the U.S. Embassy in China. Life goes on. Art goes on. And so do egos. As someone notes, along the way: This was a house full of artists. It was all about "Look what I did!"

Toward the finale, just when we begin to want something more (oh, no -- do I mean closure?!), the movie seems to trail off. We're left with plenty to consider but the whole thing looks like a mess of puzzle pieces, some of which were inadvertently left in the next room. In the press materials for The Woodmans, the director notes that this is "a film that taught me to be patient, to appreciate the beauty of the world it inhabits and above all to listen carefully -- so the story could reveal itself."  Hello: I'm still listening. And waiting for that revelation.
The Woodmans opens this Wednesday, January 19, at Film Forum for a two-week run. Click here for the performance schedule. Note: There will be a Q&A with Filmmaker C. Scott Willis on Wed, January 19, at the 8:10 screening.

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