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DID YOU READ

“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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Uncle-Buck

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…