Monthly archives of “December 2014


The Woodmans, C. Scott Willis (2010)

710tNVz1QVL._SL1077_I suppose this might seem quite exciting and exotic if you didn’t go to Sarah Lawrence. If you did, you will likely be reminded, as I was, of everything you loved and hated about dear old Sadie Lou, and beyond that everything you still love and hate about art and artists.

The Woodmans are white and privileged and care passionately, in the Romanticist manner, about making art. They are all of them — father, mother, son, daughter — ambitious, insecure, massively narcissistic, and mildly talented. The daughter, Francesca, the sine qua non of this movie and the family’s small, self-gnawed niche in art history, is not necessarily any more talented than any of the others, but she is, we are led to believe, the most ambitious, the most insecure, the most massively narcissistic, and — the documentary seems to want us to make a causal connection — the most successful.

Though not in her lifetime. The poor young woman killed herself at 22. She was upset a boyfriend, upset her work wasn’t being seen, upset about not getting a grant from the NEA. So she killed herself, at 22, and then became successful.

We’re reminded of Sylvia Plath and think forward to Sarah Kane, but may I say out loud what I hope I’m not the first to think? We’d be reading Plath and watching Kane even if they hadn’t killed themselves. Do we know that about Woodman? If she hadn’t self-mythologized and been effectively marketed by her craven and jealous parents, and had instead lived to a ripe old age making emo self-portraits in beautifully empty studios in Tuscany, would anyone remember these photos except the RISD professors and students who thought she was so cool and intense and enviable at 21?

I’ve seen a lot of contrasty nude self portraits made by incandescent from-money up-all-night white girls with dirt in their hair. The broken furniture casting Caligari shadows under hot lights, the Man Ray motifs, the double exposures symbolizing this, the long-exposure blurs symbolizing that. In college in the 80’s those photos seemed revolutionary and way better than Titian. But then I grew up, and some of those girls did too, and we learned that making art isn’t about passion, and it sure as hell isn’t about whether or not you get an NEA.

I am not blaming or belittling Francesca Woodman. She was a talented and vibrant young woman and her death was a tragedy, and she may have become a good artist had she lived. I am a little bit blaming her parents, who obviously instilled in their daughter early on and in dangerously concentrated form the shibboleths of Romanticism. I am additionally blaming the 20th century for conceiving of the idea that a young woman making nude self-portraits is always to be read as self-empowering and never as self-objectifying. I am mostly blaming Western culture in general. It’s amazing any of us get out of it alive! Oh wait.


Under the Skin, Jonathan Glazer (2013)

11178828_800They call this sci-fi, but there aren’t any ray guns or warp drives, just so you know. There is possibly an alien, but we never find out for sure.

The movie is OK, I guess. The music is terrific, and the Scottish highlands are beautiful. Edinburgh looks like a dump and everyone who lives there should be sent immediately on mercy flights to the Costa del Sol and be caused to eat salad.

There’s a fine line between genuine intensity and fake portentousness, and this movie’s at least half an inch over that line, but there are things to like here, too. I appreciate above all the complete refusal to explain any of the odd things that happen. It’s not even a refusal, actually; it’s just a near-pure indifference. Odd and remarkable things just happen. That seems to me a pretty honest representation of how the world actually works.

In keeping with this spirit, early on there’s not much sense of what the main character’s motivations are as she goes about doing the strange things she does. Later, she seems to take a turn, and become suddenly interested in developing a sense of human intimacy instead of continuing to play her diffident part in a very slow and inefficient program designed to rid the earth of Scotsmen. These later movements reminded me a bit of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire, where the angel decides he’d rather be a mortal human than an immortal angel. This is sort of like that, except the angel isn’t very nice.

Or maybe she is nice? It was hard for me to tell whether the main character’s actions, which seemed to involve luring men to oblivion, were being performed out of malice or mercy. Some of the fellows seemed to me to be thinking that getting naked with Scarlett Johansson, walking toward her as she backs away, Grecian-urn style, and then preserving the moment for eternity (in a manner of speaking) is perhaps not a bad way to go.

And yet, someone should tell Scarlett Johansson that staring at things and people with a blank look on her face isn’t acting, it’s boring. I’m reminded of another movie that I liked looking at but not thinking about, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, where Johansson is similarly vacant a lot of the time. Is it her own styleless style, or are her directors asking this of her? Why would they do that? It almost feels like a form of radical objectification: Here, beautiful woman, just stand here as stilly as possible and stare at this tree (or housefly or karaoke singer) like you don’t have a thought in your head, while I run my camera all over your body. Look at her up there on the poster. Is she cruel, kind, smart, stupid, violent, gentle, happy, sad, angry, content? No clue, and aside from maybe three or four instants of tiny character developments, the movie itself also keeps her interiority a near-perfect mystery. I would have liked to get a little bit more under that skin.