Ed Harris' Jackson Pollock Biopic: Nice Try, But He Doesn't Pull It Off
Celebrity worship is such an epidemic that adding a biography of Jackson Pollock to the heap is less necessary than an understanding of his art and how it became important. Even more impressive would be an examination of how the New York art world's hierarchy and Pollock's neuroses converged to create a movement's heroic figure. Ed Harris' directorial debut Pollock almost does that. The recreation of New York's post-World War II art scene with legendary figures living in walk-up flats, popping in on each other as Pollock's future wife and executor Lee Krasner does, carries a nostalgic lift that a movie like Joe Gould's Secret failed to achieve. It's the romance of New York as a place of possible triumphs?sexual, esthetic, intellectual, urbane. But after evoking this particular American fairy tale (complete with paint-spattered plaid-and-blue-jeans at-work sequences), Harris fails its essence.
For all the scrupulous attention to Pollock's suffering and personality disorder, Harris, working from a script by Barbara Turner (who last treated the tortured artist in the Jennifer Jason Leigh saga Georgia), skirts what's most interesting about an artist's relationship to the art world. We need the sociology behind Pollock's fame; to uncover larger issues than why Pollock painted and raged, as well as the vicissitudes of New York careerism?specifically as demonstrated in Pollock's era: that dynamic cultural moment when America was becoming the new center of the art world. We want to know what comprised that success. The how-to of business/social cliques (the secret art history of white privilege, Jewish patronage, bohemian indulgence, money) is of greater interest than the painstakingly researched fashions and decor, but the movie lets all that go begging.
In its place Harris and Turner feature earnestness, portraying Pollock (Harris) as an alcoholic depressive and his wife-promoter-Number-One-Fan Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) as a Jewish bohemian Earth mother. He doesn't give her kids, so she mothers him. Turner's script goes back to the days of tv's Norman Corwin Presents bio series without Corwin's admirably concise dramatic structure. (Corwin also wrote Vincente Minnelli's Van Gogh biopic Lust for Life.) What's here?and what many undemanding viewers might find compensatory?is Actors Studio integrity. Pollock observes Pollock's psychological problems and details of the era, through the particular kind of scrutiny that actors give?meticulously emotional, high-strung. Yet, after mentioning Krassner's Russian parents and Pollock's Wyoming kin, no insight is given to the ideas behind their chosen cultural identities. They simply spring forth: legends.
So Harris plays the great artist cliche, submerging himself in Pollock's anguish. He once did this kind of thing freshly?as the Vietnam vet in Jacknife. Here, it's not much different from Matt Groening's "So You Want to Be an Unrecognized Genius" cartoon that listed "The Many Moods of the Gifted Visionary: Irked. Vexed. Crabbed. Perturbed. Glum. Surly. Snappy. Peevish. Grumpy. Sullen. Sulky. Sour. Deadly." It's Harden who more successfully etches a character, though her Krassner lacks the paradoxical tough-broad effeteness the real thing showed in a documentary. Despite her most histrionic moments ("You need! You need! You need!"?repeated later with slight variation), Harden's Queens girl warmth (she suggests a Sandra Bullock with ballast) strikes recognizable notes. (Amy Madigan is entertainingly comic as a rapacious Peggy Guggenheim, while Jennifer Connelly as Ruth Kligman, the young mistress who is with Pollock in his fatal car crash, is given cruelly short shrift.)
These psychodramatics are colorful, but they cover up the fascination of achievement and recognition?the glory of success. Aren't these the true bases of biopic fascination? Why not explore them! It's not as if Harris and Turner concern themselves with conveying Pollock's passionate concern with representational esthetics (like the art segments in Eric Rohmer's Rendezvous in Paris and Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle). Simplistically, the filmmakers use Pollock's art to justify the flaunting of legend?and of high life. Privileged living at the Springs, the Long Island retreat where Krassner runs the household and Pollock enters his most productive phrase (inspired by the surrounding nature as opposed to urban struggle in Greenwich Village), takes for granted the benefits of success. Would Pollock have had his breakthrough without money and beneficence? Pollock presents the realm of career success and a fabulous circle including critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor) and colleague Willem DeKooing (Val Kilmer) and yet a different kind of romanticism comes into play, separating the artist's well-being from his physical, emotional and social advantages. This halcyon setting provides the film's shrewdest visual metaphor?depicting both Pollock's agon and Harris' overload: Riding a bike home, Pollock-Harris balances a wooden crate of beer bottles, takes the cap off one, drinks it and smokes a cigarette. It's a tour de force until a local drives by and says, "Hi ya, Jackson!" breaking more than Pollock-Harris' enchanted spell.
You would expect turmoil in a film about Jackson Pollock, a dramatic equivalent to action painting, something that evoked the personal urgency of abstract expressionism. Instead, Ed Harris' debut offers mundane bio-dramatics. Hollywood filmmakers don't understand that artists' special drive distinguishes them from social conventions only a little. They face pressures everyone feels, but artists go on to clarify, articulate, vivify. There is genuine respect in Harris' film, but not sufficient to keep it from being predictable. Pollock may have brought a new vigor to the art world; why hasn't Harris? As a filmmaker Harris is unable to create what he has said he admired in Pollock's work: "beautiful and subtle patterns of pure form." (For that we have to wait for Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love.) He homogenizes Pollock by making him simply dull and tormented?special perhaps, yet a conventional art-freak. While an admiring Krassner declares, "You've done it, Pollock. You've cracked it wide open!" the same cannot be said for how this film shows the process by which America slots its artists/celebrities, building an enclave of cultural power and exclusivity.
Harris and Turner evade the phenomenon of how an art scene satisfies particular social yearnings. Rather than explore this, Harris has put together one more price-of-glory sob story?pinning Pollock's significance on the moment of his mainstream recognition (in the Life magazine story titled "Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States"). Yet this shrouds Pollock in the hidden doings of commerce and media and socializing?on top of the expected mysteries of psychology and artistic inspiration. Pollock's ascension and acceptance crystallized modern celebrity, the blurring of art and fame into contiguous institutions. When William Lhamon wrote of Pollock as a 1950s peer of the also revolutionary Richard Penniman ("Little Richard"), he noted that "Both the artist and [his] group remain involved with the preoccupations of the larger culture embedding them." This symbiosis isn't mystical, it's simply unacknowledged, and this is where Pollock falls short of the landmark films on painters that are also films that penetrate the social phenomena of their times?Altman's Vincent and Theo, Pialat's Van Gogh, Peter Watkins' Edvard Munch and even Martin Scorsese's "Life Lessons" segment of the 1989 New York Stories. As Lionel "The Lion" Dobie in "Life Lessons," Nick Nolte played an abstract expressionist so richly he remains a lot more vivid than all of Pollock. Working on his billboard-sized canvas while "A Whiter Shade of Pale" thundered through his studio, Dobie's wrestling with creativity and love was apparent in the way his body moved and the ever-darkening, clotted painting that mirrored his soul. ("It's not about whether it's good or bad. It's about having no other choice!") Only afterward does one realize that Dobie was the essence of the Pollock myth. Harris works very hard as director and actor, but he never achieves Nolte-Scorsese's persuasiveness. Like Cast Away, Traffic and several other end-of-the year anticlimaxes, Pollock rates only an enthusiastic "Not bad!"
Directed by Julie Dash
"Not good" was the assessment I made of Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust back in 1991. Appalled by the movie's avant-garde obscurantism and Afrocentric presumptions, I doubted Dash's implied prescriptions for politicized filmmaking and black esthetics. But Dust Never Sleeps. In MTV's first original movie Love Song, Dash has made her most high-profile feature since Dust, yet she apparently dashes those early 90s bromides. Dash has gone strictly commercial and slickly multiculti.
It's a career move, plain and simple, but from the color-tinted faces and six-second edits to its black-and-white love story, Love Song refutes everything that Dust signified. Following MTV rules, Dash advocates buppie consumerism through the film's romantic message. Cami?short for Camille?is a middle-class medical student (played by singer Monica Arnold, rising to the Whitney Houston level of dramatic arts) who forsakes her parents'-approved black fiance for white blues musician Billy Ryan (Christian Kane, an actor in the young Mickey Rourke Smiling-Jack mode). It's not interracial dating that makes Dash seem hypocritical (her peer Charles Burnett made The Wedding, a humanist near-masterpiece on the same topic) but the film's air of total inauthenticity. Showcasing bourgie lifestyles (iMacs, Benzes, mansions and Kelis hairstyles), Love Song pertains less to the actual world of cross-cultural attractions than it simply references the advertising spots (and consumerist shows like Cribs) that are part of MTV's regular programming.
Nothing about Love Song is Afrocentric or recognizably black, yet it's no wonder whose fantasy this is. It's many peoples'. Not just MTV's young, gullible audience but apparently Dash's generation, too. In criticizing Dust, I mistakenly thought the point of 90s hiphop culture was to uplift black American living and find a personal way of making movies. Dash proves it was all merely a means to an end?politics and esthetics were subordinate to success. Pollock's career was defined by drips; Dash's career by drabs.
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