Self-Portrait of the Artist as a Suicide


Family dynamics examined through the prism of art: “The Woodmans,” C. Scott Willis’s compelling documentary study of an artistic clan whose comfortable life was shattered by the suicide of its youngest member, asks profound questions to which there really are no answers.

What caused Francesca Woodman, a prodigiously gifted 22-year-old photographer to throw herself out of a window in 1981? The daughter of George and Betty Woodman, respected artists who have been married for more than 50 years, she killed herself only five days before the most important show of her father’s career, a group exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum[1]. Francesca became posthumously famous for her ghostly black-and-white pictures of herself[2], often nude, her face blurred so that she seemed to merge with the objects around her. Those pictures, augmented by shots of her journal on which quotations from it are printed (“I am so vain and I am so masochistic — how can they coexist?” reads one) run through “The Woodmans”[3] like a countermovie. This sketchy anthology of her work is a silent rebuke to the homey atmosphere of the rest of the film, in which the surviving Woodmans tell their story to the camera. (The interviewer is unheard.)

Francesca’s pictures and quotations evoke an ambitious, driven young woman impatient for recognition, who is cursed with that volatile combination common to artists: a voracious ego and a fragile psyche. The word frequently used to describe her is “intense.” Making herself the center of so much of her work could only magnify that intensity. As a precociously brilliant student at the Rhode Island School of Design, she arrived there already knowing exactly what she wanted to accomplish. One fellow student recalls that she exuded a “rock star quality.”

Her story suggests the perils of becoming the subject of your work. As long as your creative fires burn, you are propelled forward. But if you are consuming yourself in the process, what is left when the fire begins to sputter?

That her posthumous celebrity now overshadows the reputations of her parents is inescapably rankling to her father, although he acknowledges her superior talent. If she hadn’t been so gifted, he confesses, he would resent it. In an earlier scene he says her photos “made my work look kind of stupid.” After her death he took up photography, and using young female models, made work that closely resembled his daughter’s.

Francesca’s tragedy casts a shadow over the larger portion of the film, in which the parents recall their family history, with Francesca’s older brother, Charles, a video artist, offering only a few disengaged comments.

George is a dour, prickly man born in 1932 in New Hampshire to an “ultra-WASP” family (his words) that never accepted Betty because she was a Jew. Their love began as the attraction of opposites; he found her “exotic.”

A stern believer in the Puritan work ethic, George states his belief that you should go to your studio every day, and if inspiration doesn’t arrive, “sharpen pencils” until it does. Art to him is an almost sacred calling. As you watch scenes of the parents at work and play in their homes in Italy and the United States, their shared creativity is obviously the glue that has kept them together.

After settling in Boulder, Colo., the couple never consciously decided to have children. These “gift calamities,” as George describes the appearances of Charles and Francesca, just occurred. Betty, two years older than George, devoted her energy to making “useful functional objects.”[4] After Francesca’s death, Betty rejected mere functionality. She is shown in the film working on an enormous, brightly colorful installation for the new United States Embassy in Beijing. The most frequent comment that she hears about her work is that it makes people feel good.

Would “The Woodmans” have been made if Francesca hadn’t killed herself? Probably not. Does it exploit her tragedy? Of course it does, but not in a cheap, sensationalistic way.

If its message can be boiled down to one sentence, it is George’s stoic observation: “There is a psychic risk in being an artist.”


Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan.

Directed by C. Scott Willis; director of photography, Neil Barrett; edited by Jeff Werner; music by David Lang; art direction by Ekin Akalin; produced by Mr. Barrett, Mr. Werner and Mr. Willis; released by Lorber Films. At Film Forum[5], 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. This film is not rated.


Watching “Zenith,”[6] a self-described “retro-futuristic steampunk thriller,” can make you feel like the confused hero of “Memento”[7] — that is, someone unable to form new memories. Skittering back and forth between two time periods and a small group of nut cases, this bewildering collision of noir narration and purple paranoia may be long on atmosphere but is woefully short on sense.

This is probably by design, as viewers are encouraged to supplement the pitted story through a number of Web sites[8] for a putative “transmedia experience.”[9]

Those of us who prefer to enjoy one medium at a time must make do with a skeletal tale of brave-new-world dystopia, where the eradication of human suffering has given rise to a black market in agony-inducing drugs. Exploiting this, an epileptic dealer (Peter Scanavino) peddles expired pharmaceuticals — until mysterious videotapes from his deceased father persuade him that conspiracy hunting is much more fun.

With a creator, Vladan Nikolic, who bills himself as “Experiment Supervisor” and lards the screen with denials of responsibility should you be harmed by “illegal material” and stroboscopic lighting, “Zenith” comes across as oppressively gimmicky. But as the dealer navigates a plot dense with incest, bioengineering and a heart-of-gold hooker, the cinematographer, Vladimir Subotic, transforms sections of Brooklyn and Queens into a gritty wasteland. Whether or not you choose to visit the film’s online hub, Mr. Subotic works hard to ensure that you won’t regret visiting the theater.


Opens on Wednesday in Manhattan. Written and directed by Vladan Nikolic; director of photography, Vladimir Subotic; edited by Milica Zec; music by Luigi Colarullo; production design by Brian Goodwin; costumes by Vera Chow; produced by Mr. Nikolic, George Lekovic and Jason Robards III; released by Cinema Purgatorio. At the Kraine Theater, 85 East Fourth Street, East Village. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is not rated.

WITH: Jason Robards III (Ed A. Crowley), Peter Scanavino (Jack), Ana Asensio (Lisa), David Thornton (Berger), Raynor Scheine (Dale), Jay O. Sanders (Oberts), Zohra Lampert (Ms. Minor), Bernie Rachelle (Schleimann) and Didier Flamand (Rich Man).

1. ^ More articles about Guggenheim, Solomon R., Museum (
2. ^ Francesca’s work (
3. ^ A trailer (
4. ^ Betty Woodman’s work (
5. ^ More articles about Film Forum (
6. ^ “Zenith,” (
7. ^ “Memento” (
8. ^ One of the sites (
9. ^ A trailer (

Excerpted from Francesca Woodman, Artist, and the Family She Eclipsed –

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