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“The Woodmans,” Reviewed

“The Woodmans,” Reviewed (photo)

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It’s one of the fundamental questions of art. Who is a work of art ultimately about, the artist or the audience? In film we have the auteur theory, which argues that a movie is the creation of a single author, and that to understand that author is to better understand that movie. Our interpretation of Alfred Hitchcock’s filmography and its recurring theme of wrongful imprisonment is enhanced by our knowledge of a story from Hitchcock’s childhood; his father had him locked up in a local jail for a couple hours to teach him a lesson. Hitchcock was scarred for life, but that scar produced some wonderful movies. So that brings in a second fundamental question: are the best artists the ones who are the most emotionally damaged?

Both of these questions are at the core the new documentary “The Woodmans,” a thought-provoking look at one troubled family of artists and their need to express themselves. Francesca Woodman committed suicide at the age of 22 after producing some of the most fascinating photographs of the 20th century. Was her work a cry for help or simply a darkly beautiful point of view of the world? Did her need to compete with her parents, both artists themselves, compel her need to create? “The Woodmans” by director C. Scott Willis offers no simple answers to these questions. He isn’t interested in absolving or indicting this family, but rather uses them as a case study to try to understand what makes an artist an artist.

Husband and wife George and Betty Woodman have been married for 54 years. George is an abstract painter, Betty a potter. They had two children: Charles, who grew up to become an experimental electronic artist, and Francesca, a photographer. Francesca, arguably the most talented member of the family and inarguably the most emotionally troubled, killed herself in 1981.

“The Woodmans” is filled with Francesca’s photographs, which are moody and surreal images of nude women, many of whom were portrayed by Francesca herself. Betty believes her daughter’s work was not autobiographical, but “The Woodmans” uses Francesca’s photographs as the visual accompaniment to the story of her life up to and including George’s recounting of his daughter final, tortured months, and they do not seem out of place in that context. But perhaps that’s my interpretation, and not Francesca’s intent.

When Charles and Francesca were young, the Woodmans consumed art the way most families consume food: creating and studying it was absolutely essential to their existence. We imagine children’s lives enriched by early exposure to culture. But maybe this particular family’s zeal for art pushed past love into something closer to obsession. When the Woodmans would go to a museum, George says, Charles and Francesca would be given a notebook and a time and place to meet so he and Betty could enjoy the art “without the children around our necks.” Director C. Scott Willis cuts between George and Betty’s interviews and footage of the pair working on their art, juxtaposing their babies with their “babies.” We see how incompatible an artist’s life can be with a parent’s life: the artist must be devoted entirely to one’s self and one’s impulses, which can leave little time or room for loved ones.

Am I suggesting George and Betty neglected their daughter and are therefore responsible for her death? Absolutely not. But George and Betty have clearly wrestled with guilt over Francesca’s suicide; in their darker hours, they may still wrestle with it (“Maybe I’ve been an absolutely horrible mother. I can’t go back and rewrite it,” Betty says at one point). Throughout the process Francesca herself remains something of a mystery, but that’s appropriate given the fact that “The Woodmans” is about her family and friends reflecting back on her life and her work and trying to make sense of her decisions. Francesca’s words, taken from her journals, leave nearly as large — and nearly as ambiguous — an impression as her photographs (“I am so vain and I am so masochistic. How can they coexist?”).

Perhaps the most moving part of “The Woodmans” is George and Betty’s creative reaction to Francesca’s death. Both changed dramatically as artists — maybe even improved as artists — in the wake of the tragedy: George took up photography after years of abstract paintwork while Betty abandoned functional pottery for more whimsical creations. Now she has an enormous mixed media piece hanging in the new American embassy in China. Betty says the most common reaction she gets to her work these days is joy; when people talk about her art with her they say it makes them feel “better.” The Woodmans may not believe in autobiographical impulses in artists’ work. But that doesn’t mean I can’t see them in theirs.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.