Tortured misunderstood genius is a favorite subgenre of literature and film. 1950s movie star Kirk Douglas, who specialized in big historical roles (Ulysses, Spartacus, General Patton, Doc Holliday), did Young Man with a Horn in 1950 and Lust for Life in 1956. Back then they wouldn't have named these films Beiderbecke and van Gogh. The big studios liked to keep their options open; too much of a nod toward actual biography would look dry and undramatic and imply a dangerous committment to facts. A little accuracy was OK, even obligatory; Douglas really did look a lot like the van Gogh of the self-portraits, and Anthony Quinn had a pretty good likeness to Gauguin. But the idea was to use the facts, not adhere to them. History was just a story to serve the medium.
If your purpose is to make a lively film which will attract audiences this approach makes good sense. Even tortured misunderstood geniuses can be boring a lot of the time and the one thing the moviemakers wanted was to get the audience in and glue them to the screen. If Douglas's Beiderbecke wandered away from any resemblance to the actual trumpet player and turned into a whining cornball and got upstaged by Doris Day and Hoagy Carmichael (who were real musicians, after all) and if van Gogh became a grunting kirkdouglasian fruitcake those were the decisions you made and the chances you took making the movie. Us artists might go to these movies and say "that certainly does not sound like Beiderbecke" and "this van Gogh melodrama is sickening and they got the facts screwed up" but our opinion doesn't count. The bottom line is: did they buy tickets? If they did, the movie was a success.
Now we have Pollock. The movie is titled Pollock. In 1956 it would have been Strokes of Genius or some such. The movie is largely about the relationship between Jackson Pollock and his wife Lee Krasner but of course Lee and Jackson would not work because it sounds like a Civil War epic. Lee liked to refer to and address people, including Jackson, by their last name. So it is Pollock. Unlike the movie moguls of the past, Ed Harris, who directed and starred in the film and whose 10-year-long obsession it was to produce it, clearly relished the consequential obligation of historical accuracy.
The film is based on the 1989 biography by Naifeh and Smith which won a Pulitzer prize. That I have serious reservations about the book and its appropriateness as a Pulitzer winner does not alter the fact that it is excruciatingly researched and appears to have included every scrap of information about Pollock anyone could ever find including some items I rather doubt. Pollock reflects this; not only does it have the feel of accuracy in every detail - particularly physical detail - but it is accuracy so adroitly managed that some of it seems almost thrown away rather than thrown at us. Like the sculptor of the gargoyle hidden on the church roof, Harris tells us he really doesn't care if we see it, it is there all the same, even in the little things, like street signs, matchbooks, beer bottles, shoes and incidental furniture, and the jazz Pollock liked, and minor characters, such as a very young Helen Frankenthaler, who are conscientiously cast to type, and Pollock's formidable mother Stella, who could have been, for effect, turned into the Mom from Hell but hardly says a word. In fact, so many people fade in and out I kept thinking "...now, who is that?" You have to because they are all someone. A man who mutters "This is not painting" at Pollock's first show and then disappears is meant to be a real painter with a real name who really said that at the actual show. And we must be grateful for all the silly stuff Harris left out; paint dripping is not given a source in someone pissing on a rock, and the alleged homosexual cavorting on the beaches of Provincetown with Tennessee Williams is wisely overlooked.
I was a kid in the 40s and I remember what things looked like then, and I know something about Pollock and his art scene because I teach it in a seminar and have been professionaly interested in it for years. I also was very friendly with Clement Greenberg, one of the characters in the film, for some 35 years, and we spoke occasionally of Pollock and "what it was like back then". Clem had deep respect for Pollock and for Pollock's intelligence and "seriousness". Pollock was one of the few artists Clem did not disparage in some way, except to strongly condemn him for the death of the girl in the final, fatal car accident and to reprove him because he did not "take care of his gift".
So, I noticed a few things which were not right. I went looking for them, of course; when you know about something part of the fun is trying to find mistakes. The Greenberg character is fat and pompous - two things which Greenberg was definitely not - and he mouthed something about "muddiness" at Pollock's first show which was not accurate and had been written, not spoken. I don't think he would have told Pollock to his face that he had "lost his stuff", though I know he said it to others because he said it to me, much later, of course. And there is, as far as I know, no review by Greenberg of Pollock's 1955 show which in the movie Greenberg pans in print. There are a few incongruities, such as Pollock working on a 1942 painting in 1943, and the drinking with Franz Kline and Tony Smith at the Cedar Bar, which seemed to be happening a few years before it should have. I would like to have seen more of the artists and less of Lee, good as she was; the competitive, wiseass alcoholic bantering between these guys says so much about what was going on and it is neglected by the film. Discovering "The Drip" on the floor of the studio was a bit overimaginative; the idea of dripping and pouring paint was an automatist idea out of Surrealism current at the time and had been put into practice by Siqueros (with whom Pollock worked in the 30s), Masson, Hofmann and others and by Pollock himself in a couple of earlier pictures. You can see the paint opening up as soon as Pollock started painting large pictures on the floor and pouring and flinging was almost forced on him as a mechanical necessity. The photographer Hans Namuth was a much younger man than the actor who portrayed him. And I kept wondering: where is Robert Motherwell? After all, he, along with James Johnson Sweeny and Howard Putzel, was recommending Pollock to a reluctant Peggy Guggenheim long before she took Pollock into her gallery and he made collages with Pollock for a show at her gallery in 1943 - basic stuff I think. Of course the way characters wandered in and out of the action unidentified I might have missed him.
I took notes on these things. But even when something is wrong in this film it still works well enough so you don't want to fault it. Nothing, as far as I could tell, was wrong enough to disturb the impeccable surface supporting the narrative. The paintings cannot be Pollocks but they "look" like Pollocks. What else could they do? And if they couldn't find an Oldsmobile for the "death car" the Cadillac they used does just fine. Anyone interested In Pollock, Abstract Expressionionism or modern painting should see this movie. It is too rich to miss, too full of information of all kinds - literal, visual and historical. In fact I would like to see it again, in a while, when the video comes out, so I can pause and rewind and pick up some of the detail I missed. It is a slow-paced film - no shootouts and car chases, obviously - but even so, following the story and the interaction of the characters means you miss some nice visual tidbit or other and most of it is too good to miss.
OK. That said, what about the story? Well, that is another matter. Something happened to the story on the way to the movie. It is dramatically flat. Everything seems to have equal weight. The very surface which turned me on so much, the wonderful detail and the rightness, richness and faithfulness to visual and factual truth, indeed the overwhlelming sense of earnestness emanating from the film and particularly from Ed Harris as Pollock ends up like a huge oil slick on Pollock's turbulent sea. Harris pinned down Pollock every which way but Pollock got away, and what we have left is an elegant documentary, hollow at the core. The movie, and Harris as Pollock, bears the same relationship to the essential Pollock that the very well contrived Pollock paintings in the film do to real Pollocks; they look just like the real thing but the art isn't there. That's OK for the paintings; they are props. It isn't OK for the subject of the film, whose character is the dramatic center of the film.I feel bad saying this. Harris's heart and soul went into this film and it is so good in so many ways. But Pollock is missing, and missing with him is the frightening reality - perhaps an undepictable reality, certainly an indigestible one - of the raging monster of pure, naked creative genius that Pollock was. "I am Nature" Pollock said. He was, and Nature is not very nice.
Part of the problem is the very thing I have praised so lavishly above. All that accuracy! I love it. But art, and the thing that lies behind it, is not accurate, nor is it earnest, goodhearted, efficient, or friendly, and it does not easily submit to any device set out to capture it. Art in the making, like nature, is rude, wasteful, cruel, unfair, selfish, capricious and bewildering to the intellect. Art doesn't care about us or our problems or the problems of the world. It only cares about itself. It only wants to be better. Pollock was possessed by Art. He was hardly a fit human being otherwise, behaving like an ogre on booze and often off it as well, but he radiated extreme, uncompromising creative energy and those who knew him picked this up immediately. It was electric. But it is not there on the screen. Harris was true to the facts - reverently so - but in doing so compromised his own medium of film and the intrinsic spirit of his subject. By making it so right he got it wrong, giving us a literal depiction which precluded a dramatic one. I can hear Clem Greenberg saying it, in his diffident, reflective way: "Well, he tried hard, and it was a good try, I have to give him that, at least. Some of it looked so good...damn good." (pause) "But he didn't get Jackson ... Naahh, naaahhh... didn't get him, not really." (he ducks his head slightly and waves the thought away with his hand) "...nope, not really, not really."
Fortunately for him, but not for his picture, Ed Harris is not Jackson Pollock. I suspect Harris is a nice guy and he clearly is a serious, talented actor and director. The people he has cast are all good and even if they are not like the real person (I bet most of them are) they are interesting and convincing, especially Lee, even if she does keep losing her Brooklyn accent, which the actual Lee had largely lost - if she ever had one - when I met her in 1975. Harris looks like Pollock and many of the more casual scenes in the movie are uncannily "right" - part of that accuracy again. He is not a very good drunk. He does hangovers and killer depressions pretty well but like so many good actors playing drunks he rants and raves and staggers but doesn't look drunk. The painting scenes are very well staged and carried out but the intense, rhythmic "dance" and the frantic lunging we see in the Namuth photos and in actual film of Pollock painting are put on for us but are not dramatically convincing. When you look at the photographs of Pollock painting the tense poise, the mouth hanging half-open and the furrowed forehead with the downward-sloping protrusion on the outside of each eyebrow powerfully covey the desperate urgency of artmaking as a matter of life-or-death, because for Pollock it was. That isn't there in the film. And so many of the photographs of Pollock radiate such a feeling of pain! When Harris tries to look pained, as he pointedly does on occasion, he just looks helpless. I think in those moments he was.
Posted March 23, 2001
© Darby Bannard, 2001-2002