Shhh, Mad Genius at Work 

'Pollock' is the latest portrait of a tormented artist--which, in films, is the only kind there is. 

By Scarlet Cheng

Myths don't die, they just get recycled in the movies' dream factory--especially when the myths have some basis in reality and, even more so, when the myths make rousing good parables about the human condition. 

One of cinema's enduring myths is of the artist as a kind of savage messiah--indeed, Ken Russell named his 1972 biopic of French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska just that--that is, a creatively blessed but emotionally cursed soul who lives outside the norms of society, one who may take glee in thumbing his (or her) nose at conformist bourgeois mores. 

Sometimes the films are about real artists--recent ones include James Ivory's "Surviving Picasso" (1996); Julian Schnabel's "Basquiat" (1996), about Jean-Michel Basquiat; or John Maybury's 1998 film, "Love Is the Devil," about Francis Bacon--and sometimes about make-believe ones, such as Lisa Cholodenko's "High Art" (1998). The newest entry in the genre is "Pollock," about gifted but tormented American artist Jackson Pollock, played by Ed Harris, making his directorial debut. The Sony Classics film, which played briefly in limited release in December to qualify for the Oscars, opens in wider release Friday. 

In a straightforward, rather unadorned manner, the film traces Pollock's meteoric rise and fatal stumble, starting with his meeting Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) in New York in the early 1940s. An astute judge of art as well as an artist herself, Krasner quickly set her mind to promoting him as the great artist she believed him to be. Soon Pollock came to the attention of art maven Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan, Harris' real-life wife), who featured him in her swank New York gallery, Art of This Century. 

In 1945, Krasner and Pollock married and moved to East Hampton, and it was there he began his famous poured paintings. The film shows him experimenting and then mastering the techniques that are now his signature--pouring paint from a can, dripping with a brush, squeezing from a tube. With a naturalistic intensity, 

Harris adeptly re-creates Pollock's methods, modeling himself after what was recorded in real-life footage by Hans Namuth (also a character in the film). 

By 1949, Pollock had hit the pages of Life magazine, which ran this banner headline: "Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" 

Despite the success and recognition that followed, Pollock was plagued with self-doubt, fought violently with Krasner and succumbed increasingly to heavy drinking. He died in a car crash while under the influence in 1956. 

In film, artists often have a predilection for drugs and alcohol, as if their sensitivities have made them incapable of dealing with the slings and arrows of real life. In "High Art," photographer Lucy Berliner is a heroin junkie, as is Basquiat in the film about his life. They somehow manage to produce great art between bouts of drug-hazed stupor, but in the end the real world gets to them. 

Harris chose not to try to explain how or why Pollock got to be the way he was, although it is generally accepted that the artist was a manic-depressive. 

"I never wanted to make it a psychoanalytic kind of trip," Harris says. "First of all, you can conjecture, you can guess what he was like in his youth growing up, but he was also just born differently. It's like I don't want to try to explain that." 

Because Harris had won the confidence of Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton, he was allowed to shoot outside the house, now a museum. (Interiors were reconstructed in a studio.) Furthermore, "she put in a good word for me when I went to meet the gentlemen who ran the Pollock-Krasner Foundation," Harris says. "I assured them I wasn't interested in exploiting this person, that I was just trying to make a film about him as honestly and straightforwardly as possible." 

Thus, he was able to use images of real Pollock paintings, images that convey the breakthrough nature of his work. Of course, the paintings are far too valuable to be draping a movie set, so Harris commissioned three painters to make faithful replicas. 

This was a major coup, considering that three recent films about late, great artists--"Surviving Picasso," "Basquiat" and "Love Is the Devil"--could not get that permission. To get around that problem, Ivory and Schnabel had painters conjure up works "in the style of" their subjects, while Maybury simply avoided showing any completed works. 

* * * 

Several ingredients seem to define the genre of "great artist" films, and "Pollock" follows the recipe. First, of course, there is the genius of the artist--someone who sees what others do not, be it great beauty or great truth or both. At one point, Krasner praises Pollock to a friend by saying, "No one else is doing what Pollock is doing." At another point, Pollock declares in a moment of megalomania, "I am nature." 

In an early gem of the genre, Carol Reed's "The Agony and the Ecstasy" (1965), the artist of all artists, Michelangelo (played unflinchingly by Charlton Heston), actually receives his inspiration for the Sistine Chapel akin to the way Moses (also played by Heston) received the Ten Commandments in the film of that name. Standing atop a mountain, the artist sees the clouds unroll before him into the shapes of God and Adam reaching out to one another by their forefingers--thus the source of the central image of his masterpiece. 

Secondly, the Great Artist is an outsider, generally disdainful of convention. As mentioned, they may be alcoholics or drug addicts. They also have love affairs on a whim. Rudeness is often a calling card; urinating in inappropriate places is one way of showing their disdain--Pollock in a fireplace, Basquiat in a friend's staircase. 

Then there is the artist's difficult, even self-destructive, nature. Harris' Pollock is taciturn and moody when sober, abusive and violent when drunk, but he finds meaning and reprieve in his work, which is revolutionary in the postwar art world (though we don't really understand this through the film). 

"He felt very insecure, very afraid, or else very confident and very bold," observes Harris, who embarked on the project a decade ago and began reading everything he could about the artist. "I think that when he worked, he was so involved in it that life was not tormenting to him. I think at times it was probably peaceful, [and there was] some grace, some knowledge of belonging somewhere, of having a purpose." 

* * * 

Van Gogh is, of course, the quintessential artistic mad genius (the subject of Vincente Minnelli's "Lust for Life" in 1956 and Robert Altman's "Vincent & Theo" in 1990), what with cutting off his ear, then shooting himself. In Schnabel's film, Basquiat is alternately charming and completely irresponsible, and even fame and fortune cannot save him from death by drug overdose. Thus, the very gift of creativity carries with it the curse of psychological torment, if not outright psychosis. 

Meanwhile, these artists, innocents in their own way (at least when it comes to the rough and tumble art world), are surrounded by pretentious and predatory dealers, promoters and collectors. The smarmy art dealer in Wim Wenders' recently opened "Million Dollar Hotel" declares, superciliously, "The line between art and garbage is very thin." And, of course, it is for him to decide which is which, and who will get richer and who will remain poorer for it. 

In other recent films, the New York art scene gets a hefty share of trashing and bashing. Even Schnabel, himself a high-profile artist who bulleted to fame in this milieu, had a field day showing such scuzzy types in "Basquiat," with the poor drugged-out artist caught between the twin devils of greed and vanity. 

In "High Art," the editor of an art magazine is delighted to "rediscover" photographer Lucy Berliner, but simply as the current novelty, to be disposed of when the next issue is due. 

There is some truth to the stereotypes. Recently, for example, Sol LeWitt, who is enjoying a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, said in the New York Times that "'being an artist seemed to be a way of rebellion, an assertion of individuality, a chance to deal with the world in more radical ways." 

But not all artists, even great ones, are like Van Gogh or Pollock. The similarity of the artists we see on film is probably because those who outrageously act up and act out are far more entertaining to watch than, say, plodding, bourgeois ones, no matter how gifted they may be. 

"You probably have a film about Pollock because he fits the cliche," says Lynn Zelevansky, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "You're probably not going to have a film about Barnett Newman," she adds, referring to another early Abstract Expressionist. Newman, she says, was "a very important artist, nearly as important as Pollock, and a very interesting man, but you don't have that kind of romantic drama around his life." 

Zelevansky finds that most films about artists fail to convincingly show them at work, playing into the stereotype that artists don't really work, just mess around. "It's a very difficult thing to depict the artistic process on film. and that's the problem," she says. "Americans tend to see artists as mad geniuses like Van Gogh or as fools and shysters. It's very rare that you see Hollywood transcend those stereotypes." 

* * * 

Even allowing for the narrative limits of film, Zelevansky wishes "Pollock" had given audiences more background and context for the artist. 

"The problem with the cliche of the mad genius is that it decontextualizes artists completely," she believes. "They become a kind of outsider artist--their careers are robbed of their intellectual content and their historical moment. It's very hard to be an artist, they do live on the edge, but they also have an intellectual life and a social life." 

But perhaps, as Harris suggests, the myth of the artist as savage messiah persists because of the vicarious thrill it provides for audiences and filmmakers.

"It's voyeuristic on some level," Harris says. "It's also that a lot of people wish they were that passionate about something but just aren't." 

- - - 

Scarlet Cheng Is a Regular Contributor to Calendar

Los Angeles Times, Sunday, February 11, 2001 

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times 

<< book:  Steven Naifeh Jackson Pollock: An American Saga

video: Portrait of an Artist - Jackson Pollock

video Jackson Pollock (1992)  [Amazon.com review:] not actually the movie Pollock - a 40 minute biography/precursor to the movie with several interviews with friends, fellow artists and other misc. aquaintences]

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