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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs.The Woodmans


The Woodmans (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: C. Scott Willis, 2010 (Kino Lorber)

One problem with being a great artist, or a hugely gifted artist, is that the temperament isn’t always easy to live with — especially for the artists themselves. Another problem: You have to depend on perceptive critics and audiences to earn your living or win recognition, and they aren’t always available.

The Woodmans is a fascinating documentary about Francesca Woodman and her family. The Woodmans are all artists: father George, mother Betty, son Charlie and daughter Francesca. But Francesca is the reason the story is being told. She was a prodigious young photographer of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, who killed herself by jumping from a New York City loft at 22, in 1981.

Her photographs were mostly black and white, of herself, nude, in sparse backdrops (apartments, lofts, beaches, fields, walls with windows), given a slight surrealist tinge by blurring or off-center composition, or Francesca’s odd, unashamed full-frontal or curling fetus-like poses. She shot pictures from a very young age (her father taught her), grew up in Boulder, Colorado and Italy with her family, and moved to New York City in her late teens, planning to earn a living in fashion photography. She wasn’t hired. She missed out on an NEA grant. She was rarely exhibited. She had an unhappy love affair. At the end, she’d given up photography, given up art, given up on herself.

But she did enough in her short life to become, starting about ten years after her suicide, one of the stars of 20th century photography. Whoever didn’t hire her and whoever didn’t give her that grant, probably felt like idiots. And they were idiots. The boyfriend who made her unhappy, should have felt terrible, and maybe he did, maybe he does. Her family, as we can see, still ache, though they all discuss her with an artist’s sometimes unsettling objectivity.

An irony. Francesca, in her short, unhappy life, achieved what every artist really wants: some kind of immortality. Meanwhile George, Betty, and Charlie, in their longer and relatively happier lives, missed the gold ring she posthumously snatched — even though they functioned productively, made art, were paid for it. Betty, maybe the most successful of them, made ceramics, and then fine arts ceramics, and then huge art works, like the one we see her doing, commissioned for the Beijing Embassy. (She says she wants her works to make people feel good.)

George was an abstract artist of that often sterile postwar smudgy school I don’t much like, and his first major recognition, a joint show at the Guggenheim, came five days after his daughter’s suicide. Charles is a professor of electronic art who makes a kind of fool of himself, by expressing unhappiness on camera that his work isn’t as highly regarded as he thinks it should be, as maybe his poor dead sister’s was. (He gets points for candor anyway.) Betty and George love their daughter, love her work. So, probably does Charlie. So did Francesca.

Death is a hard road to immortality. And obviously, it’s Francesca’s despairing jump from the loft that fed her later cult status — like Sylvia Plath’s posthumous post-suicide fame, in literature. But director C. Scott Willis, an ex-Nightline TV producer, rightly perceives that this is a family story. It’s also a tale of the pain and glory of American success and romance and art and self-salesmanship. (If this were a novel, instead of a documentary film, its spareness, lyricism and power — and its subject matter —  might suggest F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.)

There were roots to all this. George and Betty were a love match, but his snobbish, arrogant upper-class WASPy family rejected them. (She was Jewish.) They had  a very happy marriage, passed their love of art, their skill and dedication down to their children. Somehow, though — and this is the true core of the film‘s melancholy — they may not have given Francesca what she needed to survive.

It seems to haunt them all. They all, in some way, went on to at least a little of the success and recognition Francesca never had in life (but won afterwards — and now they‘re in a prize-winning movie, because of her. George, in a weird way, almost became Francesca — or tried to. Instead of his mostly failed abstract painting, he took up photography, shooting black-and-white pictures of nude young women, not unlike his daughter’s haunting shots of herself.

Betty, George, and Charlie — and many of Francesca’s friends and classmates — all talk on camera, holding back, it seems, little. Francesca talks to us too, from her diaries, her journals, and, most of all, from those strange, beautiful monochrome pictures of herself.  (How, she wonders at one point, can she be both so vain and so masochistic?) I kept thinking as I watched and listened to this beautifully told, sharply edited chronicle: Poor Francesca. Brilliant Francesca. Sad Francesca.

And, despite everything, Happy Francesca. She made the world a gift of herself, and of her art, but the world ignored it, the first time around. The world can be funny that way. She would be sold and marketed and profted from only later. In life, she laid herself open for punishment by making her art’s main subject her own naked body. She was daring, brash, maybe narcissistic. But any rejection of her work also became then in some way a rejection of herself.  It must have hurt more. Poor Francesca.

Works of art are as mysterious as the artists themselves. Francesca’s photos take root in your mind; that’s part of what makes them art. So does this movie, which is a tribute to art and artists, and to their families, and to what remains behind when they’re gone, the record of their passing.  And to Francesca.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon