Ed Harris’ Jackson Pollock Biopic: Nice Try, But He Doesn’t Pull It Off

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

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

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
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
. 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!"


Love Song
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