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Shhh, Mad Genius at Work

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

February 11, 2001|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a regular contributor to Calendar

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."

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