Af­ter Francesca

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IThe Wood­mans, doc­u­men­tary, not rated, CCA Cine­math­eque, 3.5 chiles Those look­ing for a self-lac­er­at­ing sense of guilt from the Wood­mans, a fam­ily of artists whose pre­co­cious daugh­ter Francesca leapt to her death from a New York rooftop in 1981, will not find it in this prob­ing and ab­sorb­ing por­trait, though they may be in­clined to judge the par­ents. The doc­u­men­tary by vet­eran TV jour­nal­ist C. Scott Wil­lis of­fers the viewer that op­tion, but it does not make the case.

“How did I deal with the guilt?” Betty, Francesca’s mother, re­flects. “I tried to stay away from it. Be­cause I think there’s no way of deal­ing with it.”

The loss of a child is a pain that never goes away. We see it in the eyes and hear it in the voices of Ge­orge Woodman, a pain­ter/pho­tog­ra­pher, and his wife Betty, a pain­ter/ce­ram­i­cist. They are both now in their late 70s. Francesca, a pho­tog­ra­pher whose work was largely ig­nored in her life­time but who achieved su­per­star sta­tus af­ter her death, took her own life 30 years ago at the age of 22. If this doc­u­men­tary had been made then, or five years later, or even 10, it would doubt­less have had a dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­ture.

But in 30 years, the pain and the loss be­come wo­ven into the fab­ric of lives that go on liv­ing. And so Ge­orge and Betty can deal with the mem­ory of their fa­mous daugh­ter in a way that ad­mits el­e­ments of com­pet­i­tive­ness and even re­sent­ment as well as love and re­gret. Ge­orge re­flects that though

he and his wife have been work­ing artists all their lives, they are now known pri­mar­ily as Francesca’s par­ents. “I’m an artist too!” Betty protests in a can­did out­burst. And their son Charles, an artist, an­i­ma­tor, and col­lege pro­fes­sor, ob­serves that his par­ents prob­a­bly spend a lot more time think­ing about Francesca than he does. black shape that emerges out of a sur­round­ing white back­ground. It’s a pho­to­graph that lends it­self to all sorts of an­guished in­ter­pre­ta­tion — neg­a­tiv­ity, loss, the ab­sence of self. Betty tells how it came to be taken, and we see Francesca’s ac­com­pa­ny­ing video of the mo­ment. Francesca had scooped up flour from a gro­cery truck ac­ci­dent out­side her build­ing, and came up with the inspiration of dust­ing her­self with it as she lay on the floor, and then get­ting up and tak­ing a photo of the sil­hou­ette. In the video she seems de­lighted. “It’s not about loss,” Betty ex­plains. “It’s about, Look what I did!”

Of course, the ques­tion re­mains whether her mother’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion, or the crit­ics’ in­ter­pre­ta­tion, or even her own in­ter­pre­ta­tion, are ob­jec­tive truths about Francesca’s work. Or whether ob­jec­tive truth ex­ists. Her friends from the Rhode Is­land School of De­sign re­mem­ber her as a self-as­sured girl who “re­ally knew what she was about.” “There was a real rock-star qual­ity to Francesca,” one of them re­calls. And yet she reached a level of de­spair that sent her off a New York rooftop just five days be­fore what was to be the big­gest mo­ment of her fa­ther’s artis­tic ca­reer, his open­ing at the Guggen­heim.

Her par­ents re­acted ar­tis­ti­cally in dif­fer­ent ways. Betty gave up “prac­ti­cal” pot­tery and turned to ab­strac­tion, cul­mi­nat­ing in an enor­mous wall in­stal­la­tion for the Amer­i­can em­bassy in Bei­jing, a com­bi­na­tion of paint­ing, wood, and ce­ramic that we watch her cre­ate over the course of the doc­u­men­tary. Ge­orge switched from paint­ing to his daugh­ter’s medium, pho­tog­ra­phy, and in a pur­suit that reads as vaguely creepy (and that he must know reads this way) he has pur­sued and echoed her sub­ject mat­ter, fo­cus­ing on nude young women.

Why did Francesca com­mit sui­cide? No­body re­ally knows. Her de­pres­sion was partly chem­i­cal, partly pro­fes­sional, per­haps driven by a fam­ily ethic that took art as a re­li­gion and brooked no apos­tasy.

Early in the movie, Ge­orge muses “The idea that art ex­presses your­self, that your self is what it’s all about, is re­ally dis­tant for us. When we look at some­one else’s work, we don’t think, ‘This is telling us about that per­son.’ I don’t know. What does a work of art say? For­get the artist.”

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