The Arrogance and the Insecurity: Pollock’s Not-So-Sordid Story

Ed Harris’ Pollock

is swarming with multiple credits, including a screenplay by Barbara Turner and

Susan J. Emshwiller, based on the book, Jackson

Pollock: An American Saga , by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.

Nonetheless, Mr. Harris was reportedly the driving force behind getting the

picture made-and yet, all in all, the end result cannot be attributed simply to

an actor’s ego trip. To put it bluntly, Jackson Pollock (1912-1956) was a great

painter and an obnoxious human being, particularly in the last spectacularly

irresponsible act of his life, when he caused the death of a woman in his own

drunken-driving suicide. Still, it seems that artistic greatness alone is not

sufficient to make one a desirable movie subject, which may explain why there

is a movie about Van Gogh and not about Monet, about Picasso and not about

Matisse, and, currently, about Pollock and not about de Kooning.

With all the biographical sources at his disposal, Mr.

Harris has chosen to impart two crucial impressions to the audience: The first,

and most important, is that Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) played an

indispensable role in nurturing Pollock’s artistic talent (by moving him from

New York to East Hampton, and thus away from his heavy-drinking bohemian

companions); the second is that success brought out the worst in him, with the

result that he brooded toward the end about the perceived decline in his work.

Mr. Harris plays Pollock with a mumbling intensity that is

expressed mostly through his eyes. He is no provincial innocent on the New York

scene, and he can recognize a big break when it comes to him-as it did in

August 1949, when Life magazine ran a picture spread on his unorthodox method of

splotching paint on a canvas from above. The banner headline asked

rhetorically, “Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United

States?” The philistines leaped on the “action painting” Pollock espoused with

as much zeal as they had expended on the perceived ridiculousness of Picasso’s

eccentrically profiled faces. Much later, Pollock’s New York school was

“exposed” as an instrument of the C.I.A. in its Cold War cultural plot to shift

the center of art from Paris to New York.

Poor Pollock, as Mr. Harris plays him, is so unimpressed

with his global responsibilities that he turns down an invitation to be honored

at the Venice Biennale. Mr. Harris seems to enjoy indulging the boorish side of

Pollock, whether he is impotently inflicting himself on a

not-entirely-unwilling benefactress, Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan), or

urinating in her fireplace in the midst of one of her elegant cocktail parties.

Still, the team of Pollock and Krasner prevailed in keeping him at least

minimally presentable to the museum-and-gallery crowd and the public at large.

Pollock’s mother and brothers appear periodically to indicate a past life for

the artist, but they never shed much light on the demons that eventually

consume him. Pollock doesn’t reveal much to anyone, not even to Lee

Krasner-who, early in their courtship, shrugs off his sexist praise of her as a

good woman painter. From that moment on, it is clear she is unconditionally

committed to his genius.

What is most exciting about Pollock , as it was about Shakespeare

in Love , is the visual rendering of artistic genius, and the effect it has

on us and the other characters in the film. Mr. Harris is especially graceful

in introducing celebrities without seeming to be name-dropping or

circle-forming. The very delicate relationship between Pollock and art critic

Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor) enables Mr. Harris to talk knowledgeably

about art in the 40′s and 50′s without sounding pompous or pretentious. Indeed,

one can chart the rise and fall of Pollock from Greenberg’s decision to begin

celebrating other contemporaries of his. Mr. Harris also suggests very astutely

that all celebrities-even the authentic giants among them-are always walking in

quicksand as the clock keeps ticking away mercilessly on their time at the top.

Mr. Harris, himself a highly respected actor who never

achieved stardom, seems to have identified with Pollock’s perpetual insecurity

without letting himself be engulfed by it enough to let Pollock off the hook

morally. This is an admiring portrait of Pollock, warts and all, and is well

worth seeing by anyone with a feeling for art.

The Shoot Must Go On

David Mamet’s State

and Main , from his own screenplay, creates a schizophrenic vision of

filmmaking from the point of view of a hard-nosed, cynical director, played by

Mamet regular William H. Macy, and an idealistic playwright-screenwriter,

played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. With whom does Mr. Mamet identify? After all,

he has been on both sides of the filmmaking divide. I suspect that what he is

ultimately saying is that the shoot must go on-regardless of how many bodies

and egos are strewn across its path.

Mr. Mamet has transformed his elliptical stage-writing

technique to his editing of scene. Hence, he often cuts on a provocative line

of dialogue without waiting for the response. This keeps his pacing brisk to

the point of dramatic deadpanning, but after a while you wonder if any of the

characters are capable of a witty comeback line. His setting is a folksy New

England town in which the natives freely interact with Hollywood invaders.

You’ve seen this city slicker–country bumpkin routine many times, but Mr. Mamet

pulls off enough switches on the standard formulas to provide very witty

entertainment.

State and Main is

the beneficiary of a blue-ribbon ensemble headed by Mr. Macy and Mr. Hoffman,

and including Alec Baldwin as a screen heartthrob with a weakness for an

underage local girl played by the subtly stylish Julia Stiles. Then there are Charles Durning and Patti

LuPone as the movie-struck local citizens who almost bring the picture to a

halt when they are stood up for dinner by the director, the producer and the

rest of the crew. Sarah Jessica Parker plays the female star who threatens to

walk out if she is called upon to appear topless. This crisis, unfortunately,

is Mr. Mamet’s one major lapse into tastelessness and witlessness. Rebecca

Pidgeon plays the town bookseller who falls for the screenwriter and stiffens

his resolve to do the right thing. David Paymer plays the hard-as-nails

producer with his usual fiendish panache.

One of the film’s running jokes is the “inspiration” the

screenwriter gets from the random witticisms of the local yokels. In satirizing

Hollywood’s colonization of its real-life locations, Mr. Mamet suggests that

the exploitation is a two-way street, with the locals capable of striking a

hard bargain with glamorous strangers. The whole premise of the movie is based

on the disastrous experience of the production in a New Hampshire town that

drove them all the way to Vermont. The movie that is being made is a period

movie from which we are given a few lines about purity and virtue, just enough

to indicate that this is not a picture to be taken seriously. Indeed, I cannot

remember a Mamet enterprise on stage or screen with so little malice and so

much sweetness as is to be found in State

and Main . The writer-director is drawing upon a tradition that goes back to

the theater of the 20′s and 30′s in its innocence and amusing desperation.

Innocent and amusing: These are the key characteristics of State and Main , not biting and hilarious, and certainly not dark

and bitter. Mr. Mamet is fully at peace with himself and his career, and it

shows on the screen. If nothing else, it is a surprising piece of work that

should be seen for its deft craftsmanship.

The Real Footage of

Ryan and Crowe

Taylor Hackford’s Proof

of Life , from a screenplay by Tony Gilroy, inspired by the Vanity Fair article “Adventures in the

Ransom Trade” by William Prochnau and the book The Long March to Freedom by Thomas Hargrove, turns out predictably

to be two movies in one. The first concerns Alice Bowman (Meg Ryan), the wife

of Peter Bowman (David Morse), who has been captured by Marxist terrorists in

the fictional South American country of Tecala. After a few false starts, Alice

becomes deeply attracted to Terry Thorne (Russell Crowe), a professional

hostage negotiator. What is unexpected about the movie is the restraint shown

by Alice and Terry in the course of the romance, and the very long duration of

Peter’s captivity-what amounts to the second movie in Proof of Life -before he is successfully rescued by Terry, his

comrade Dino (David Caruso) and a hand-picked band of mercenaries.

These days, when a man and a woman are not slobbering over

each other at every opportunity, they are said to lack chemistry. In this

respect, Ms. Ryan and Mr. Crowe are clearly lacking in everything but common

decency, and no one cares about that

anymore. Actually, as the film develops its curiously split narratives, the

major protagonist is not Alice or Terry but Peter, a male chauvinist and naïve

political idealist who thinks he can build dams for an oil company (for the

“good” of the impoverished local populace) and not be tainted by his employer’s

cynical motives. Peter slowly evolves in captivity, and it is his spiritual

awakening that provides the dramatic movement of the film. Alice and Terry

perform efficiently and nobly on their end of the ordeal, but in the film’s Casablanca ending, they are little

changed from what they were in the beginning.

This is not to say that Alice and Terry are uninteresting

characters. Ms. Ryan and Mr. Crowe project a growing awareness in Alice and

Terry of each others’ competence and intelligence. Alice has never before met a

soldier-of-fortune type like Terry, and Terry has never found time in his

globe-trotting professional life to develop a relationship with a woman like

Alice. Watching them interact in a crisis situation is suspenseful enough

without having them betray the very reason that has brought them together.

But that is not all there is to the movie. Through Terry’s

world-weary eyes, we are shown an international tapestry of terrorism,

treachery and betrayal. Terry is a hero in the modern mold, and it is not meant

for him to live happily ever after. His nerves have been polished to too sharp

an edge. He is a little sad when he sees Alice reunited with Peter, but he

doesn’t overdo it. After all, this is his job, and he has done it well. Peter

knows better, of course, what Alice and Terry are giving up, and that knowledge

will complete his reformation.

Proof of Life is

better than most people say. See it.