Splatter Fest

By Siegel, Katy | Artforum International, November 2000 | Go to article overview

Splatter Fest


Siegel, Katy, Artforum International


IT'S CUSTOMARY TO KICK OFF a review of an artist's biopic with a few chuckling asides about classic cinematic representations of artistic genius, like Lust for Life (Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh!) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (Chariton Heston as Michelangelo!). The reviewer knowingly ticks off the elements of neo-Romantic myth as they pile up--madness, creativity, rebellion, berets, work boots, poverty, and, of course, originality. Ed Harris's new movie is Pollock, but maybe we're supposed to understand it as Pollock!!!, the larger-than-life version. True to type, the film, which premiered at the New York Film Festival in September and opens in theaters next month, promises the kitschy thrill of seeing your favorite AbExers impersonated on the screen.

But Harris and Marcia Gay Harden, who costar as Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, both do a better than respectable job; in fact, they deliver quite graceful interpretations. The supporting cast is fine as well: The actors who play Tony Smith (John Heard) and Howard Putzel (Bud Cort) are particularly good in small roles, and Jeffrey Tambor's Clement Greenberg is suitably droll. Amy Madigan, Harris's wife, gives us Peggy Guggenheim as a barking bohemian, more laide than jolie. The only real clinkers are Va! Kilmer as de Kooning and Stephanie Seymour as Helen Frankenthaler; their dumbness surfaces and distracts. Former teen dream Jennifer Connelly plays luscious Ruth Kligman with appropriately manipulative faux-naivete; she's good, but a young Shelley Winters could have played the hell out of the art tart (who, according to Warhol, wanted Jack Nicholson to play Pollock). Still, more than wishing for recasting, one is grateful for the near misses. Pollock strikes a chord in every actor's imagination--was there m ethod to his madness?--and major stars like De Niro and Pacino, even Streisand, have at one time or another optioned a biography or expressed interest in the artist.

Why are actors so intrigued by Pollock? Because his is a great story, full of highs and lows, with plenty of opportunities to chew the scenery, which for the most part Harris eschews. On the few occasions he does succumb, such as the family-dinner scene in which an enraged Pollock starts banging on the table like Gene Krupa, you get the feeling it might really have been that horrible and embarrassing.

For the past thirty years or so, art-history insiders have referred knowingly to the "Pollock Myth" to which the larger culture is allegedly so susceptible. Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith's 1989 Pulitzer Prize-winning biography (on which the film is based) answers this mythmaking with exhaustive research; the book is a reference tool rather than a true life of the artist (no one who lived forty-odd years--or for that matter, ninety-odd years--requires 900-odd pages). Aside from a few persistent themes (such as the implication that Pollock was homosexual), there is little narrative shape. The film takes the opposite tack. It is spare and anecdotal, stringing together major moments from Pollock's early days in New York through his death in 1956: Here Pollock pisses in Peggy Guggenheim's hearth; there he befriends a crow. The story's rhythm suffers from too little, not too much.

As the movie follows Pollock from downtown to the Springs and down the tubes, we do pick up information. Many of the details are taken directly from primary sources; fans will recognize re-created snapshots and reviews recited verbatim throughout. The period setting of the various locales isn't bad, although inevitably cleaned up (this is a movie, after all); the tin-ceilinged East Village as much as the pastoral Springs may induce fits of real-estate envy in New York viewers. The Cedar Tavern is here, of course, hosting a short, smoky roundtable with de Kooning, Smith, William Baziotes (Kenny Scharf?!--poor William), et al. Guggenheim's Art of This Century is especially accurate and entertaining: aggressively, progressively arty, filled with geometric jewelry and largely forgotten art-world figures. …

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