Monday, March 6, 2017

Pollock: A Film About Artistic Process

This year the Duluth Art Institute is once again sponsoring a film series featuring art-themed films at the Zinema here in Duluth. Saturday we saw Pollock, the Ed Harris feature film that was released to the big screen in 2000. As in the past, a local "expert" gave a preview of the film and facilitated a discussion afterwards. This week's facilitator was Dr. Nathan Carroll, professor of communication, theater and art at the College of St. Scholastica.

Amber White of the Art Institute welcomed us and reminded the audience about upcoming events, which you can check out here at their website. A highlight for me will be the Community Forum at the Underground on Wednesday evening, 5:30 p.m.

After Dr. Carroll was introduced, he briefly made several remarks to put the film in perspective. Ed Harris, the central character in the film and its director, grew up in New Jersey and has performed in a lot of great films. He met his wife Amy Madigan in the Sally Field film Places in the Heart. Madigan plays Peggy Guggenheim in this film. Marcia Gay Harden plays the longsuffering Lee Krasner, Pollock's partner and wife.

Ed Harris took an interest in making the film when a friend told him he looked like Jackson Pollock. Harris proceeded to read Pollock's biography, becoming acquainted with Pollock the drunk and Pollock the painter. His aim was to focus on the artistic process itself more than the source of Pollock's demons. "We don't have to like the artist to appreciate the art," he stated. This question is at the heart of many discussions about art, though.

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The film itself tells the story of Jackson Pollock's drivenness to produce art important enough to be noticed. It begins with a major art opening after Pollock has been featured in Life Magazine. He's "made it" to the big time. And then we flashback to 1941, the struggling artist in his New York apartment, striving not only to survive as an artist but also to gain recognition for his work. (He is the youngest of five brothers and not drafted to fight in the new war because he is 4F.)

When Lee Krasner enters his life his fortunes begin to change. His abstract expressionism begins to get noticed. Unfortunately, he is severely alcoholic and gives the appearance of being a manic depressive. As Dr. Carroll noted, "It's a pretty intense little film."

Pollock, the film,  conveys a number of key themes. One of these is the new challenges fame can introduce into a life. He craved attention for his work, but once he got it he didn't know what to do with it.

Like many such films Hollywood seems to enjoy recreating moments that have been documented in Life or other media. The Aviator, with Leonardo DiCaprio re-living Howard Hughes, comes to mind. I remember seeing the old Life magazine spread that featured Pollock. In another lace Harris re-enacts making Hans Namuth's attempt to capture Pollock's painting technique to document it and share with the wider world.

In the discussion afterwards one woman noted how Hollywood frequently presents artists as troubled human beings, giving the impression that madness is almost an essential feature in great artists. I wrote a blog post about this based on a quote from Dorothea Brande's Becoming A Writer (1934). She wrote, "The picture of the artist as a monster made up of one part vain child, one part suffering martyr and one part boulevardier is a legacy to us from the last century, and a remarkably embarrassing inheritance. There is an earlier and healthier idea of the artist than that, the idea of the genius as a man more versatile, more sympathetic, more studious than his fellows, more catholic in his tastes, less at the mercy of the ideas of the crowd."

A favorite pastime of mine is to read reviews on in order to decide whether a film is worth my time, or afterwards to see what other thought about what I just experienced. Quite often the divergence of opinions is itself fascinating. In the case of Pollock that is exactly what you find. Remarks like "boring" and "I hated it from the beginning" are strange to me. I'd seen the film when it came out. It's not boring, especially if you've ever been serious about your art, whatever form that might take.

One reviewer at stated that artists and the general public perhaps view this differently based on where they're coming from. This is probably the case with most films.

As for the artists reading this, the question preeminent in my mind after watching Pollock was the one regarding who we're doing art for. Is it for the approval of others? Or because we ourselves love the act of creation and want to see what will happen next? How important is it to have critics, or the general public, love your work? What is the ultimate aim of what were are striving for?

When all is said and done, Ed Harris can be commended for what he achieved in producing this film.

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