Live Work

04.21.10

Left: Bobby Sheehan, Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy, 2009, still from a color film in 35 mm, 96 minutes. Right: C. Scott Willis, The Woodmans, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 82 minutes.


AT THIS YEAR’S TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL, three documentaries about artists display varying degrees of denial and acceptance about a fact of life and art: ego. It’s a perennial bugaboo for the documentarian: How to render (or at least admit) the conflict natural to strong voices and petty disputes alike? The standard solution is celebration, and Chuck Workman’s Visionaries fits the bill with its group hug of the avant-garde film scene, mostly the New American Cinema. Presided over by Anthology Film Archives founder Jonas Mekas, the film is a warm and welcoming introduction to Brakhage, Deren, Snow, Anger, Kubelka, and Cornell, among others. Film critics (including Artforum’s own Amy Taubin) and spotlit filmmakers (a restrained Anger, a delightful Kubelka, Su Friedrich for a slightly more recent voice, and rather a lot of Robert Downey Sr.) testify to principles and influences. Pitched to a casual viewer, the profusion of clips admirably puts the goods in front of us, and also brings Visionaries the closest to any sort of comment on the boundaries of the avant-garde by citing the likes of Night and Fog, Blue, even Julien Donkey-Boy.

Barring Ken Jacobs cracking about Mekas’s taste, this wandering history is comically inert for so spirited a scene (consider the protective backbiting over, say, the 2006 Tribeca doc Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis). In the end, if the fulsomely scored montages bring to mind Oscar reels (with discussions hewing to friendly tropes such as lyrical beauty and role-playing), perhaps this makes sense given Workman’s résumé––he’s known for editing several “In Memoriam” sequences for the Academy Awards.

A critic sounds churlish in these cases, but a takedown seems downright irrelevant to Bobby Sheehan’s Arias with a Twist: The Docufantasy, a tribute to the New York cabaret singer (or the “E.T. of drag”) Joey Arias. Feted with often interchangeably hyperbolic superlatives by 1980s downtown veterans and resplendent in clips of performances and appearances in television and movies, he’s a heartwarming force of nature who “wears his body like a robe,” such that his versatile singing can seem underrated. The film’s title comes from a feverishly imagined joint project between Arias and acclaimed puppeteer Basil Twist, whose artistry abruptly takes center stage for a while after the first twenty-five minutes. Both share lively creativity and an embrace of channeling and shape shifting across artistic boundaries, but the fertile tensions of collaboration are lost in the film’s wash of mutual appreciation.

What remains under the surface in Visionaries and Arias is what becomes an increasingly dolorous undertone to C. Scott Willis’s The Woodmans. A summary of the movie might already take sides: Is it about the tragic spiral of photographer Francesca Woodman viewed through the eyes of her parents and friends? Or is it about married working artists Betty and George coming to terms with their talented daughter’s death? Willis doles out Francesca’s boxed room, nude tableaux, and melancholic journal entries, while giving a sense of her self-consuming precocious genius and unashamedly illustrating her life through art (some might say reductively, and less vigorously than Elisabeth Subrin’s more experimental 2000 film The Fancy).

Several moments of the interviews—Betty’s impatience with glimmers of her spritely youth, and mellifluous George’s pleasing but perhaps devastating WASP poise—shade in a darker narrative limned with resentment and self-absorption. Their refrain of “work ethic” and focus on art paint an emotional landscape of potentially conditional love. (George cryptically muses on Francesca’s death as he himself ages: “I may not be getting a great deal of attention, but I’m alive . . .”) While Willis (a former Nightline producer) flirts with voyeurism in following Francesca to the brink of her final journal entry (albeit illuminating the decision-making involved), he gets at the struggle of wills that can emerge from the artistic pursuit, via the familiar doc template of dysfunctional family. Although withholding judgment, it’s a refreshing acknowledgment of conflicted feelings and ego-jostling.

Nicolas Rapold