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"Yes—I don't think it's so hot," Jeffrey Tambor's Clement Greenberg opines in a superb line-reading of '40s slang. To a degree, Pollock thrives on amusing impersonation (Val Kilmer's button-bursting Willem de Kooning) and entertaining anecdote. Avant-garde grande dame Guggenheim has to twice climb the five flights to the Pollock-Krasner tub-in-kit; the painter then enlivens her New Year's Eve soiree by pissing in the fireplace. Full of arty shop talk and dated critical jargon, the movie is high middlebrow fun. "You're retreating into imagery again, Jackson," Greenberg warns. "Paint is paint."

Be that as it may, in Pollock's attempt to embody the modern, he transformed painting into psychodrama. Although Harold Rosenberg was more inclined to bury Pollock than praise him when he wrote his 1952 essay on action painting, Pollock was inevitably cast as the existential hero who understood painting as "an arena in which to act—rather than a space in which to reproduce." Thus, Harris contemplates the empty canvas as though it were a dressing-room mirror. There's an obligatory flurry of Coplandesque fanfares when, cigarette dangling, his Pollock "creates" action painting by knocking off a mural for Peggy Guggenheim in a single night. The riff is repeated later when, working in his Long Island shack, he accidentally discovers the drip. These epiphany scenes notwithstanding, Harris's painting is surprisingly graceful.

Even more unexpected, his spare direction intermittently projects the crazy excitement of people on the edge. ("We're painters, Jackson," Harden pleads proudly in her big scene.) The movie's best moments evoke the thrill of doing something new. Even if it fails to make clear how an artist like Pollock might truly have believed himself a world-historical force, Pollock convincingly retails the beauty and originality of the painter's best work—it may not be an intellectual adventure, but it does represent one.

‘‘You’re pretty damn good for a guy painter’’: Harden and Harris in Pollock.
photo: Todd Demmie
‘‘You’re pretty damn good for a guy painter’’: Harden and Harris in Pollock.

Details

Pollock
Directed by Ed Harris
Written by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller, from Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith A Sony Pictures Classics release
Opens February 16

Rhythm 'n' Bayous
Directed by Robert Mugge
Screening Room
February 16 through 22

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Opening 12 days in advance of Mardi Gras, Robert Mugge's Rhythm 'n' Bayous celebrates Louisiana as the place where the concept "oldie" doesn't exist. One-hit wonders for the rest of America, Frankie Ford ("Sea Cruise"), Claude King ("Wolverton Mountain"), and Dale Hawkins ("Suzy Q") are rockin' geezers. When Rod Bernard sings his '50s hit "This Should Go On Forever," he's speaking for the film.

Poking around northern Louisiana, Mugge records one of Jerry Lee Lewis's cousins, the gospel DJ "Jewel of the Dial," and, most spectacularly, an "Easter Rock" performance in which a young reverend leads a dancing female chorus line in a slow, eerie version of "When the Saints Go Marching In." Then it's south to New Orleans, perhaps the only place on earth where you'd find a barroom combo powered by a blues trombone. All styles coexist, the crowds are integrated, and the traditions live: Mugge winds up in Cajun country, juxtaposing the ancient Hackberry Ramblers with a teenage brother-and-sister duo. The girl, a fiddle virtuoso, ends the movie jamming with zydeco accordionist Rosie Ledet. The performances are uneven, but the spirit never flags.

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