As the 09 Oscars approach with their new format (10 nominated best pictures! Lifetime Achievements on different day!) it suddenly seems–at least to me–tougher and tougher to care. The reasons for this are reflected in a thousand shards of pop culture’s shattered mirror; going to the movies has become a ritual for couples and groups of teenagers, parents and children or single professional women heading in droves to chick flicks. Any merit in the actual film seen is purely incidental to the communal aspect. As long as it’s not bad enough to make them walk out and demand a refund, it’s a hit. Each film, if it wants to make money before going to DVD, needs to grab a demographic and woo it.
Directed by its star, Ed Harris, hewing faithfully to the biographical source material, being as authentic as possible, and even filming on the rural Long Island property of Pollock and Lee Krasner, POLLOCK (2000) gets everything right, pleases our refined artsy judgment with its taste and period decor– and yet that’s the problem. It’s trying to capture the life of ultimate termite artist Jackson Pollock in the white elephant hues of the self-congratulatory bourgeois filmgoer. Its craftmanship roots become most visible–or should I say audible– in its contemporary minor key “rhythmic” score.
Think of how many films have borrowed that instantly cliche’d sound–a didgeridoo, brushed snares and steel drum accents–and then imagine POLLOCK scored to the atonal avant garde-ism of Jonny Greenwood’s score for THERE WILL BE BLOOD. Whoa! See what happened? Jeff Beal’s cliche’d jumble of minor key instrumentation for POLLOCK is inspired in feel if not production from AMERICAN BEAUTY-SIX FEET UNDER-MY SO CALLED LIFE. It might work for emotional amplification in those circumstance, but this is Pollock!
Most stunningly wrong is the big montage wherein Pollock has a big breakthrough and starts making the famous canvas for Peggy Guggenheim’s foyeur, the free form style of which was the forerunner of his fully abstract action painting. What should be a drunken moment of brilliance that probably took place while listening to jazz or classical on the radio is given a very special Lifetime Network montage of hurrying to clean the house before dad gets home, or racing to tell your boyfriend he’s sorry before his train pulls out “contemporary” music.
Similarly contrived is the overall episodic structure of the movie, which lurches from set piece to set piece, each overdone with just-so bohemian design and craftsmanship lighting. The equivalent would be the way, for example, they ripped up a chunk of Pollock’s studio floor to display at his 1998 MOMA retrospective. Every episode seems rigidly faithful to the book (the Pulitzer-winning “Jackson Pollock: An American Saga” by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith) and the dialogue–with the exception perhaps of Jeffrey Tamboor’s savvy art critic–drips with sl0w-drying quotation marks.
I’ve hung around art people and they don’t talk like text books. When Lee Krasner describes Pollock’s creative art to potential buyers or critics it’s in a stilted, rushed way, as if she’s trying to earn a 20% commission before she gets cut out of the deal AND keep her thick long island accent in effect at the same time: “What Jacksin’s doin’ with line and cullah goes beyond abstrackshin.” Such lines coming out of Krasner’s mouth are meant as exposition so that we, the viewers, can share in her drunk husband/infant’s brilliance, but instead the feeling is kind of like when you what you go to a cocktail party and it’s really a time share pitch.
A real art lover might wish for some piece of life–a spark of danger or originality–in a film that seeks to record the birth of action painting. POLLOCK prefers to describe it all from the safety of an overstuffed armchair in a Sotheby’s reception lounge, perhaps showing you a ratty old bandanna Pollock once wore around his neck, now enshrined under glass.
This is not to rag on Harris, but to imagine that as director and star he probably trusted a bit too much in the dry authority of “the book,” which someone like, say, Paul Thomas Anderson would know to throw out the window when chronicling a drunken out-the-window-thrower like Jackson. Books are long, strive to be accurate and kind to the friends and relatives who agreed to be interviewed, passive-aggressive to those that don’t, andare generally eager to promote the myth.
Meanwhile, someone like Anderson throws all that stuff out the door with THERE WILL BE BLOOD and goes back to the symbol sets of ages gone by, which is not nostalgia as some clueless young bloggers believe, but love — love of cinema, of real cinema, where the lines between art and pop, satire and sincerity, love and fury, money and religion, good and evil, all vanish and you find yourself in a field where the purity of each moment is revealed. You may not know where to go from there, but if you feel cheated of your closures and romantic leads and mirror doubles and blah blah, instead of liberated by their absence, freed by a cinema that is in the moment and alive as the best of Nicholas Ray or Hawks then why are you even interested in old Pollock?
For a good breakdown of the white elephant vs. termite art theory of Manny Farber, I stumbled on this lovely essay from the Times by A.O. Scott, he sums up my problems with POLLOCK best in this description of a scene in Michael Mann’s own mercurial figure biopic, ALI, wherein Will Smith as the great boxer of the title is alone in his hotel room, watching a nature show on termites and making philosophical comments about them in his hotel room:
The termite sensibility is restless, improvisatory and unpretentious, yielding, in Mr. Farber’s collage of examples, an art of surprising moments, concentrated gestures and flashes of realistic insight in unlikely places. Will Smith’s ode to the termite in ”Ali” is, aptly enough, an exemplary piece of termite acting, one that is all the more vivid for occurring within a film that is, with its meticulous editing and intoxicating pageantry, a monument of white elephant cinema. In this scene, and in several others, Mr. Smith shakes off the burden of his performance — the nearly impossible task of creating, from within, one of the most visible and familiar personages of recent popular culture — and locates his character not in history, but in a particular patch of time and space. The result is not so much that you feel you understand Ali — such is the empty, posturing promise of nearly every Hollywood biopic — but that you find yourself, altogether unexpectedly, in his presence.
Needless to say there’s no such scene in POLLOCK, which opens with a scene wherein he’s being carried home by his brother and shout-slurring: “Picasso is nothing!’ as if he wasn’t allowed a single breath that wasn’t streamlined through three editors and two boards of directors to position Pollock’s artistic statement within the context of modern art.
That all said, Jennifer Connelly is memorably hot in her black and white sundress as Ruth Kligman (Pollack’s last mistress) near the end. Harris is great as he coils inward, drinking at himself, falling into a deep despair while mistress Connelly ignores his insanity, showing him off like a prize bull that’s just a little surly to her shocked girlfriend from the city. But of course by then we don’t see much of his painting.
I guess my main point here is to slam the bourgeoisie and celebrate self-destruction. I abhor the way great young artists are ignored in favor of billing and cooing over corpses from the past, whose real life bad behavior we can strip away, or reduce to a few key tantrums. Imagine if you will, Sam Mendes deciding to do the Keith Richards story, with Jude Law playing Keith as a quiet cipher in the background of dusky, beautifully-lit Carnaby Street scenes and Anita Pallenberg as a vapid but quotable fashion plate who speaks only future Stones lyrics: “Have you seen my mother, baby? Is that her standing in the shadow?”
On the other hand, there’s Julien Schnabel, a real (famous) artist cum director, who sidestepped a lot of the ballyhoo for his under-appreciated films BASQUIAT and BEFORE NIGHT FALLS. They’re both awesome. When, one day, even the stodgiest of middle-aged Oscar voters is sick of amber lighting and “condensed” exposition-laden dialogue, we’ll realize that Schnabel’s poetic detour-ridden films are the only American-made artist biopics that really understand the tragic truth of termite art, the kind that may win Oscars but is too drunk to make it to the podium, the kind of art that kills its maker and shocks the world, and later is swept up, subverted, converted and co-opted, with a quirky didgeridoo score and montage editing, for all the world to worship.