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Genius or con? That was the question implied by the three-page color spread Life published in August 1949 under the title “Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”

The market has long since rendered such speculation irrelevant. Now it’s Jackson Pollock hot, Jackson Pollock cool, or Jackson Pollock: the Movie? Reopening after its one-week Oscar-qualifying run last December, Ed Harris’s self-directed vehicle has as its very first image a copy of Life thrust forward for an autograph as subliminal flashbulbs illuminate the artist’s haunted visage. It is a gallery opening—or, rather, a “premiere.” The art star has been born.

Pollock follows the Van Gogh paradigm, up until a point. The artist is misunderstood and tormented; he has sexual problems and is haplessly self-medicated. But unlike Van Gogh, Pollock achieved celebrity in his lifetime—and then died. He’s an American who, as with the subject of Julian Schnabel’s underrated Basquiat, could handle neither failure nor success.

More than any previous American painter, Pollock was his personality. (Even better, he was a personality with a trademark: “Jack the Dripper,” Time dubbed him.) But he also auditioned for a role on the stage of history. Pollock’s dreams of art-world domination were focused on a struggle with a powerful adversary. After the opening scene, Pollock immediately flashes back eight years to show the hammered painter collapsing in a tenement stairwell, shouting, “Fuck Picasso!” at his sleeping neighbors. No one tells him to pipe down.

As Pollock was himself a sort of method actor playing a genius, Harris’s emphatically pas mal movie is itself a multiple performance. Star and director in this hall of mirrors, Harris is working every moment. (The most complex example comes with his re-creation of the Hans Namuth movie of Pollock painting and the artist’s subsequent explosion—thus we have the actual filmmaker harassing the actor playing the filmmaker with the mantra “I’m not the phony, you’re the phony!”) Alternately swaggering and staggering, Harris’s Pollock is a selfish lout, obnoxious and sullen between manic outbursts as well as one of the least charming drunks ever put center screen in an American movie. In one unforgettable scene, the artist employs a knife and fork to beat time along with a radiocast of Gene Krupa—prelude to a bender after which he wakes up screaming in a Bowery flophouse.

The brutish Marlon Brando who galvanized Broadway in the 1947 production of A Streetcar Named Desire reminded more than one member of the New York art world of Pollock; two years later, Life introduced Pollock to America as something like the Brando of abstract art. Harris, of course, is a product of the same Actors Studio epitomized by Brando; there are multiple Marlons in his inarticulate, tormented, highly physical, man’s-man performance.

The uncanny resemblance between the actor and the acted in Pollock suggests that anatomy is destiny. So too, the screenplay, written by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller, albeit in a different way. Brand-name title and star turn notwithstanding, Pollock is what Variety calls a two-hander. The movie is a portrait of a marriage. Pollock the painter is introduced when fellow artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), a humorless noodge with a Bettie Page hairdo, drops by his East Village apartment studio uninvited. “I thought I knew all the abstract painters in New York,” she muses in rich Brooklynese, having discovered that this lout of mystery is exhibiting alongside her in a group show. Some weeks later, Pollock reciprocates her visit and thereafter, until the movie’s coda, they are unhappily inseparable. When he slowly runs his hand a half-inch over the surface of her canvas, she’s receiving his most sensitive caress. When he tells her that she’s “pretty damn good for a woman painter,” the overdramatized reaction shot given to Harden’s wince is only the first of many indignities that her Krasner will suffer.

Carter Ratcliff described Pollock and Krasner as “an intense and dreary couple.” Harden more than matches Harris with her wide-eyed determination. Krasner takes charge of Pollock’s career—introducing him to the man who introduces him to patron Peggy Guggenheim (wittily played by Amy Madigan). Squeezing paint directly from the tube to the canvas, Pollock is totally intuitive; Krasner’s free association is largely verbal. She’s the earnest, somewhat badgering intellectual who provides Pollock’s theory and plays culture to his nature. She explains his work when even critic Clement Greenberg deems it pretentious “mud.”

Scarcely the “allover” blitz of a Pollock canvas, Harris’s movie is carefully schematic. The first act—four years of the barely mentioned World War II in claustrophobic New York City—is followed by six years by the beach on outermost Long Island (among other things, Pollock and Krasner invent “East Hampton”). During the good times, nature takes root in nature. Pollock communes with animals, plants a garden, listens to Billie Holiday. It all comes crashing down when he suggests to Krasner that they “make a baby.” As she makes clear, in Harden’s show-stopping scene, he is her baby.

The brief final act is suffused with pain. Pollock, fat and bearded and living in a house full of Pollocks, is a raging bull ready for the crack-up. He argues with Greenberg and curses Krasner, taking up with a gorgeous groupie (Jennifer Connelly) who, as part of the spooky prelude, is first seen handing him Life, which is to say death. The film overwhelmingly suggests that, as much as he may have resented her, Pollock literally could not live without Krasner.

“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.

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.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 13, 2001

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