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.”