Thirty years, three generations, and a lifetime later, award-winning filmmaker Ralph Arlyck returns to San Francisco in search of Sean, the boy who was the subject of his controversy-sparking 1969 documentary.
This strange documentary summarizes the lives of avant garde photographer Francesca Woodman and her artistic parents Betty and George. We know from the beginning that Francesca commits suicide and so we're alert to clues. Why do people commit suicide? It's very difficult to know, really, but in some cases we're able to see glaring contradictions in a person's family dynamic. The movie is mostly interviews with the parents. The mom, Betty, in particular, presents a strange and forbidding presence, goggling through thick brightly painted glasses, she seems arrogant and fragile at the same time. A narcissist, of course, but aren't most artists narcissistic?
A major clue is revealed near the beginning of the interview where the mom declares that she has dedicated her life to art and that she couldn't imagine living with a person who wasn't an artist, "I would come to hate that person!" she states. reveling her prejudice and intolerance for non-artists.
The mother's art is mediocre at best, large pottery shapes splotched with crude patterns in primary colors. Perhaps the mother envied the daughter's obvious talent for visual expression.
Most suicides by youngsters are the result of them feeling intolerably pressured by their parents' expectations. In Francesca's case there was a unquestioned directive: be an artist...or else! Francesca created her own style of art: pictures of her own, very attractive, nude body posed against shabby, desiccated interiors or wrapped in old wallpaper. The photographs, many of which are shown in the film, are stark, compelling and ironic. She was obviously very talented. She achieved some notice as a photographer, an artist in her own right, but as any artist must she experienced moments of self doubt. Since Francesca's expression was primarily visual and enigmatic her inarticulate diary excerpts, though quoted throughout, provide little insight into what she was going through. In any case her narrow though striking artistic style was bound to run our of new ideas, being so restricted in subject matter.
At some point Francesca thinks about giving up art and suggests maybe trying another course in life. Her mother is quick to put a stop to that: "That was ridiculous, of course; I told her, 'You can't DO anything else.'" I can only speculate, but the clues are pretty obvious. The talented but unhappy daughter must continue with a course that even she can recognize is a dead end, or face the hatred of her mother. Her therapist, a necessary accessory to people of that class, is useless, and her father, whose art is not at all bad, is a passive participant in the family drama.
As a whole the film is a downer like a slow-moving train wreck. It showcases Francesca's photography and is a sort of introduction to her work, but the intrusion of the parents, who may have been the motivation behind her success and eventually her downfall, is unwelcome except to provide clues to the mystery of her life and death. This film is just too long, it could have expressed the same material in half the time.
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