WCS 2011: Portraits of the Artist as a Suicide: And Everything is Going Fine and The Woodmans

The Woodmans
USA | 2010 | Dir. C. Scott Willis | English | 82 mins.

Francesca Woodman was 22 when she jumped to her death from the window of her New York City loft apartment on January 19, 1981. She left behind a stunning body of work—mostly revealing nude self-portraits, the style of which is now being poorly imitated by various hipster clothing company catalogues—that continue to provoke viewers and attract critical and popular acclaim to this day in exhibits around the world. Her parents George and Betty are themselves artists, and interviews with them make up the bulk of C. Scott Willis’ brief, nicely-photographed documentary discussion of Woodman’s work. Unfortunately, the director has allowed their own artistic lives to totally overshadow Francesca’s: the film becomes, in its final segment, more about a (hideous) piece of her mother’s commissioned for the US embassy in China than about Francesca’s compelling legacy or the details of her too-short life, which only elliptically fills the frame through melodramaticised excerpts from her diaries, heard in voiceover and seen, scribbles and all, as animated titles across the screen. Had Willis interviewed Francesca’s parents about merely their daughter’s suicide—with perhaps brief narrated mention at the head of the film of their own success as artists—he would have allowed himself more space and time to delve into the circumstances of her depression and suicide. As such, a number of questions about her life and death remain unanswered—at least by this film, momentarily entertaining (and it turns out, aptly titled) as it is.

And Everything Is Going Fine
USA | 2010 | Dir. Steven Soderbergh | English | 89 mins.

Steven Soderbergh, one of the best directors of our time, has cut together 90-plus hours of performances, interviews, home-movie footage, and other video and audio material to create a wonderful portrait of the late American monologist, actor and playwright Spalding Gray which serves as both a loving tribute and an excellent introduction for those unfamiliar with his life or work. Gray is probably best known for two monologues: Swimming to Cambodia—about his experience making The Killing Fields—was made into a film by Jonathan Demme in 1987. Gray’s Anatomy, about the onset of an ocular disease, was filmed by Soderbergh in 1995. Soderbergh was a student of Gray’s before he began directing films, and his admiration for his subject shines through in this new biography. Soderbergh’s major talent as a director has always been his chameleon-like ability to adapt to various different styles, modes and tones—evident in a recent string of films which run the gamut from historical biopic (Che) to light farce (The Informant!) to semi-improvised drama (The Girlfriend Experience).

In what may be one of his final films, the director knits together a vibrant picture of the writer-actor-performer from various interview segments, including the expected (Phillip Lopate; Charlie Rose) and the unexpected (the E! channel; MTV), as well as heretofore-unseen interview footage recorded shortly before Gray’s death. The image we get of Gray is multi-faceted: he treated different reporters and interviewers differently. He is sometimes very candid, sometimes reticent—but always voluminous. The film looks at his life and work, and is most interesting when examining his (sometimes rocky) relationships with his parents and children. His intense neuroticism, candour and lightning-fast wit were the two engines that animated everything he wrote, and shone through in all his performances—and many interviews.

Gray killed himself in early 2004, at age 62. It is assumed he jumped from the Staten Island Ferry. His suicide casts a pall over Soderbergh’s film from the first frame to the last, imbuing it with at times intense emotion—but it is never mentioned aloud. The final scene nudges toward an explanation, or perhaps at least reflections upon his death from loved ones—but, fittingly, none is given; we simply hear Gray remarking on a dog incessantly howling on a neighbouring property.

And Everything Is Going Fine and The Woodmans screen in the World Cinema Showcase, which runs in Auckland until the 18th of April and begins in Wellington this week.