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Ever since the glory days of Paul Muni, who played Emile Zola to the heroic hilt in 1937, bravura acting has been a signature of the artist biopic. Kirk Douglas made himself into an icon of suffering for his famous performance as Vincent Van Gogh in the paint-by-numbers classic Lust for Life. José Ferrer got down on his knees and stayed there for his beauty-and-the-beast rendition of Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge. Charlton Heston gave the artist an imprimatur of righteous masculinity in The Agony and the Ecstasy, playing Michelangelo without a pederastic boner in his body. Now, in Pollock, Ed Harris gives us a riveting re-creation of the man who generated the myth of the modern American artist.
Swooping over supine canvas, rattling the china (literally) in a rage, railing at his codependent wife, Harris represents Jackson Pollock as a lost and loutish drunk who is fully integrated as a personality only in the act of painting. Not to be outdone, Javier Bardem tears your heart out as the gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas, whose hold on life crumbles under the weight of political oppression, sexual dysphoria, and finally AIDS. Last week, both Bardem and Harris received Oscar nominations for their work, a well-deserved homage but also a nod to the tradition of honoring actors who play artists in high-toned films.
It's not just the performances that stand out in these two art pics, but the type they create. Despite the evident differences in their temperamentsPollock the bastion of butch, Arenas the soul of fragilityboth artists are strikingly alike in their introversion, their incompetence at life, and their alienation from intimacy. Both are randyor, to use the therapeutic description of such behavior, they "act out sexually." Both lead brief lives of brilliant narcissism. These films, reverent and realistic as they may be, deal with the mystery of creativity the way so many human mysteries are solved these days: by locating the artist on the ever-expanding map of pathology.
How true to life is this image? Only in the broad strokes. Many artists are introspective and obsessive, but they are rarely as helpless as the two men in these films. If they were, they'd be crushed on the cobblestones of SoHo. The art and literary worlds both demand a keen eye for functioning as well as form, and Pollock certainly met that standard. He may have been as wild and crazy as this film contends, but he was hardly an infant. "That seems like an authorial idea of Harris's," says Pepe Karmel, associate professor of art history at New York University and a consultant on the film. "Pollock was a lot savvier than most people believe. There's a romantic notion of him as an idiot savant that this movie, to some extent, supports."
In life, Pollock was a master of branding. He had himself endlessly photographed, filmed, and interviewed, accommodating journalists like any celebrity. But in Pollock, it's the people around him who do the image building. To suggest otherwise might challenge the popular idea that artists are incapable of playing the game of life. As for Arenas, he hardly had the chance to promote himself, but he did manage to connect with the right patrons in Havana, Paris, and finally New York. Still, the ability to be famous and seem indifferent to fame fits the profile of a narcissist. So perhaps these films are mythic-ally realistic, after all.
They certainly do capture their subjects. There are moments in Pollock that feel like an electric-train set of the postwar New York art world (though the movie also bears an uncanny resemblance to The Honeymooners). But this passion for verisimilitude isn't limited to surface and texture. Both films are dedicated to representing the process of making art. Bardem incants Arenas's writing with an aching intensity that justifies its reputation, and Harris gives an astonishing rendition of Pollock creating his most iconic action paintings. Yet the most memorable thing in both films is not the art but the ache. They are sagas of rise and fall. So the real question is not whether these filmmakers are faithful to their subjects, but why they chose their subjects to begin with. Why these particular artists now?
For the painter Julian Schnabel, who directed Before Night Falls, the question is easier to answer. The gripping similarities between Arenas and Jean-Michel Basquiat, the subject of Schnabel's previous film, suggest that this director is pursuing a personal vision of the artist as a man on the brink of emotional rupture. It's a powerful image of the injured child within, but it hardly reflects the reality of Schnabel's career. This rough-and-ready master of the gallery universe has always made the right gesture at the right timeexpressive but not overly eccentric, eclectic but not carelessly so. For Harris, the motivation might have more to do with craft than with cunning. But his investment has paid off handsomely. Winning an Oscar nomination for a film that has legs only among the legions of Evian is a singular sort of recognition. It all goes to show that Ezra Pound was right: "The artist is the antenna of the race." In this case, however, it's the biographer who has reached out into the behavioral ether to locate and illuminate a new social type. Harris and Schnabel have closed the loop that Jackson Pollock created, by reconciling the myth of the modern artist with the postmodern age.