In 2009, one might assume there's no urgent need for a documentary that ponders the modern tribulations of women artists. The numbers put forth in Pamela Tanner Boll's "Who Does She Think She Is?" tell a different story. At the most preeminent museums, in the United States and England, the amount of shows devoted to women is a fraction of those devoted to men. And from these figures you could expect an intriguing work of critical investigation. The movie buries that lead.
Rather than creating a work of lament or complaint, the filmmakers embark on a series of feel-good profiles of working women artists - in such places as Providence, Cambridge, and Taos, N.M. - who also happen to be mothers. We see them make lunch and make art, sometimes with a child at their feet. One woman mentions that she wants to be a mom without being June Cleaver - she wants kids; she wants a career. The idea is that the history of art is full of great women who also happen to be childless - a clip from a Bill Moyers program lists the names.
But the movie is so intent to emit positive energy, to celebrate rather than explore, that you keep watching interesting questions of personal choice and class evaporate with each coffeehouse platitude. ("I felt like I had given birth to this art!" says Maye Torres, a sculptor and mother of three in Taos. "I began to discover the power of living on purpose," says Angela Williams, a singer, actor, and mother of two in Providence.) The most nagging problem with the film is that Boll, who shares a codirecting credit with her editor, Nancy Kennedy, has too many interesting movies eddying around a conventional one.
Every once in a while the movie bares teeth - a clip, say, from Max Ophuls's "Letter From an Unknown Woman" of Joan Fontaine crouched in exhilarated supplication at the legs of Louis Jourdan while he plays piano is hilariously recontextualized. And the radical feminist art activists, the Guerilla Girls, who are here for a moment, remain worthy of respectful study. Torres's pursuit of art with a steady limited income is discussed more as a spiritual choice than a real economic hardship. Things appear to be going pretty well for her.
The most compelling work comes from Janis Mars Wunderlich, a wholesome-looking mother of five in Columbus, Ohio. She sculpts alluring female grotesques. In many of them, gnomic children climb over a woman's giant head. Her stressed, harried nightmare art seems like a fascinating X-ray of her domestic life. But, in its aggressively uplifting way, the movie doesn't have anyone in her life strongly react to it. The point is that Wunderlich, like any of these mothers, is making any art at all.