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Artists are Different from You and Me.

Woodman 1

<Mild Spoilers>

I've been on a documentary kick lately and stumbled across this wonderful film about a family of artists called "The Woodmans". The film caught my eye because the daughter in the family is Francesca Woodman, a photographer I've enjoyed ever since I saw a story about her in "Camera Arts" magazine back in the early 80's. She was very far ahead of her time and was one of those artists who just seemed born for greatness. The fact that she came from a family of artists comes as no surprise really, as the film illustrates, the artistic atmosphere of the home life only added juice to the massive talent that was already there within Francesca. What's striking to me about the film are it's subjects. Particularly their otherness. These are the sort of people I know well. People in touch with another plane. Art people. People who don't just look at the sky and see clouds, but people who see a sky full of shapes, colors, and dimensions that promise and sometimes give a glimpse into somewhere else. People who are compelled to point at things and excitedly jabber to the rest of us, "Do you see? Do you see that? Isn't it wonderful?" I was married to one of these people for nearly 30 years, and it was a gift and privilege to be that close to someone with their finger on the pulse. Someone holding hands with the Muse 24/7. This film captured the essence of that feeling of artistic proximity pretty well. I'd dare say it's not for those who just don't "get" art, although I really hesitate to discourage anyone from seeing "The Woodmans" because it's fascinating to see how the family dynamic works when every member is an artist with that peculiar creative worldview.

I found myself slipping initially into Judgment Mode because I thought the parents, George and Betty, were coldly detached about their daughter's suicide and almost relentlessly self-absorbed. Particularly Betty whom I consider to be secretly jealous of her daughter's talent and the professional success and attention it attracted. I had to mentally check myself and just let the film flow in the hopes that I would find redeeming qualities in the parents of Francesca, The Great Photographer. I didn't have to wait long - George Woodman is very eloquent when he reminisces about Francesca's burgeoning talent and even says at one point that at 17, Francesca's art made his look "stupid". And after seeing George's art in comparison to hers, I'd have to say his assessment was right. Betty's praise was more circumspect and tended to come from an emotional place rather than professional. Clearly Betty is crushed by her daughter's death and it's not hard to see in the film that part of the guilt that Betty says she can't look at, is caused by the jealousy she feels towards her dead daughter's talent and the legacy she left behind. That said, Betty is very successful in her own right making ceramic-centric pieces that are in demand all over the world. Her art's not my cup of tea, but apparently Betty and George do well enough to have a studio in Manhattan and a villa in Italy. At one point in the film I became distracted by the $5,000 camera setup that Charles was using to snap photos of a model in the style that his daughter Francesca had invented over 30 years before. It's pretty impressive when you are able to purchase that sort of equipment and lifestyle based solely upon your own artistic vision. Of course, it also helps when your daughter's catalog fetches six figures per photo on the open market. One Woodman family friend put his kids through college by selling his stack of Francesca Woodman photos one piece at a time. Betty and George's son Charlie is presented as an afterthought . We're told that he and Francesca were close, but then Charlie makes a point of relating the time in their lives when he began to drift apart from Francesca and how she became a mystery to him. Charlie seems like the family Odd Man Out. He acts almost puzzled by his sister's talent and kind of relieved that she isn't around. The snippets of his video work (he's a "visual artist") didn't look worthy of an AP art student's portfolio let alone someone who does it professionally, but then again I also hated Betty's work which evidently keeps her busy traveling the world installing her art and being feted by fans.

And then there's Francesca. The parts of the film that focus on her are almost like a documentary within a documentary. They are the best parts of the film. Francesca is represented solely by her own home videos and videos she made as part of her oeuvre. She is absolutely fascinating and I would have loved to have known her and been around her. Her talent bursts out of the screen. Her photos are beyond brilliant and her videos are brimming with unabashed, unfettered creativity. I was just delighted to find that here was a film that had captured an artist at their most elemental. Sure, all they did was piece together videos from the artist's own vault, but the film maker had to know how to put those videos together in a way that would totally immerse us in the artist's head so that perhaps even the uninterested viewer would "get" what an artist feels, how they feel it and why it's so damned important to them. After you see the beauty that Francesca Woodman methodically and masterfully portrays over the course of her short career hopefully you will, like myself, find her suicide not sinful, senseless or even tragic. You will see it as the logical conclusion to a quest by the artist to lift the veil for all to see. A veil that she herself could see through, but painfully, fatally was unable to effectively stand aside and let the Rest Of Us see as well. Faced with that perceived failure and the futility of going any further, Francesca Woodman made her way to the top of her apartment building and jumped off. Thus illustrating that some artists are people who see, touch, taste and live at a level that might seem impossible, imaginary, and imperceptible to many of us, but evidently, as we see in "The Woodmans", very, very real indeed.