At the heart of Scott Willis’s The Woodmans is a tragedy that forever changed the lives of its world-renowned subjects Betty and George, a ceramic sculptor and painter and photographer, respectively, and their video artist son Charles. In the press notes, critics are gently nudged to refrain from revealing the exact nature of what happened to the couple’s even more famous photographer daughter Francesca at the age of 22 “so that the audience can see her images without that filter.” Which gets to the heart of the problem with The Woodmans.
Besides the fact that this unnamed tragedy is easily apparent from the first frame, Francesca—who photographed herself obsessively, often in the nude—has a cultish following that owes much to what happened to her, not unlike other tortured souls such as Sylvia Plath or Kurt Cobain. Sure, she created brilliant pictures so striking as to make the film’s images pale in comparison, but so did a lot of other photographers whose fame she eclipsed. In other words, Willis most likely wouldn’t have even made this film if it weren’t for the sensationalist aspect of Francesca’s tragedy so there’s something gratingly disingenuous about the documentary’s downplaying of the issue.
Instead we get a picture of a scarred but still-together family for whom art is the center of their lives, a nearly religious calling. But take out this aspect and what’s left is a film about a fairly predictable couple that have been married for over half a century—and married to their jobs for even longer. They’re workaholics who practice their craft every day. Up until the loss of Francesca, no-nonsense Betty only created functional art like plates and teacups in arresting colors that match her exotic clothing style. George discusses never going to the studio and says, “I don’t have any ideas today. If you don’t have any ideas you sharpen pencils. Sharpen enough pencils you’ll have an idea.” But Willis never digs beyond this high-achieving careerist cliché, a fact hammered home with the many shots of gallery receptions and museum openings. George talks about the “psychic risk” in being an artist, especially for a fragile person, but the director never follows up on his point. Betty says the comment she most gets about her work is that it makes people happy yet the filmmaker never asks why she’s always been so desperately upbeat.
As opposed to a truly wondrous documentary like Jeremiah Zagar’s In a Dream, a portrait of Zagar’s mentally-ill artist father by a director who is a film artist himself, The Woodmans is a doc helmed by someone who doesn’t seem to understand the language, who is forever trying to get at the subjectivity of artists by attacking his subjects objectively. It’s like staring at the sun to understand its makeup. By his focusing exclusively on the family and an inner circle of Francesca’s childhood friends and RISD classmates via talking-head interviews, without adding any larger context, we get no sense of Francesca as a flesh-and-blood being at all. The broad, unimaginative filmmaking—when George reminisces about talking to Charlie’s fifth-grade class, the director cuts away to the actual school—practically kills the art. And numerous un-cinematic shots of Francesca’s journal with certain passages written on screen over the image are more tedious than poignant. (Not to mention the score, which seems to exist separately from the shots of the family’s pieces to which it’s wedded, and comes across as artsy rather than artistic.)
The Woodmans soon becomes a stale exercise in futility, leading one to only wonder about this compulsion to delve directly into an artist’s life for answers to the art when it’s all mere speculation in the end. As tight-wire provocateur Philippe Petit said when he finished his infamous World Trade Center walk, it’s such an American thing to ask why (he did it) when the reality is “there is no why.”