Film - Philip Kerr on a biopic that's as drippy as its subject
This isn't Welsh. No, this is action writing. As a writer for the new-look New Statesman, I've been striving for an unstudied, spontaneous freshness of statement. It doesn't matter how the letters are put down so long as something is said. Because, as Jackson Pollock once said, "Technique is just a means of arriving at a statement." The statement arrived at is, at the same time, the record of the creating process itself, which arrives at something, rather than aiming intentionally. With that in mind, I wrote this review against the wall of my studio. I wanted to look directly at the paper, in order that I might see the landscape of my words unfold in the same way that I see a card covered with strange letters when having my eyes tested. The expression of my whole being is contained in that first sentence; it was directed, not as you might think by the accident of my leaning on a computer keyboard, but by mysterious inward forces. There was nothing accidental about it. I thought of using this new action writing for the whole review; but then my editor would probably have sacked me. Did I say I was drunk when I wrote it? I think that helped.
Jackson Pollock seems to have spent most of his life drunk. He was hospitalised on a number of occasions. He had more nervous breakdowns than Mick Jagger. He shouted a lot at his no less rebarbative wife, Lee Krasner. He also had sex with Peggy Guggenheim, but this was hardly remarkable; Peggy Guggenheim had sex with nearly everyone, and many of the daubs she bought for her hatbox on Park Avenue look like nothing more than expensive sexual trophies. Pollock smashed a lot of furniture, too. If only he had thought to keep the pieces, I dare say little Damien or perhaps little Tracey might have been able to find a profitable use for them. These and the car he crashed, killing himself and a young female passenger. If all of these bits - broken furniture, crashed car, dead girl - wouldn't make an interesting Turner Prize-winning installation, then I'm Charles Saatchi.
Pollock stars, and is directed by, Ed Harris. I suppose it's just possible poor Ed is thick enough to admire Pollock's work. But I think it's more likely that Harris chose the project because he had looked in the mirror often enough to be aware that his own robust muscularity, square jaw and male pattern baldness lend him a similarity to the man Time magazine once dubbed Jack the Dripper.
I'm bound to say that Pollock's abstract paintings usually remind me - all of them - of the forest of thorns surrounding the enchanted castle in Walt Disney's animated feature Sleeping Beauty. About the only good thing I can find to say about the paintings is that I'm quite sure Adolf Hitler would have hated them; and certainly this film does nothing to cause to me to revise that opinion. I suspect that it's merely the presence of these house painters' dust sheets on the house and contents insurance policies of various Long Island billionaires and big corporations that gives them any currency as art today. It's not just American energy companies that go bankrupt, it's American artistic movements, too.
In a way, Pollock was the first truly modern artist in the sense that he had very little talent but lots of attitude. He believed he was a great artist, in part because his wife kept on telling him he was. And not least of the faults in this dreary film is the unquestioned assumption that Pollock was a genius. Naturally, this hardly matters to the film-makers beside the fact that he was a tortured American genius. The guy suffered for his art. He may not have been a dwarf, or someone who cut off his ear, but he did the next best thing: he died young, and in a nice Cadillac - Pollock was just 44 when he was killed in 1956. Genius is always more easily defined in Hollywood than in De Quincey or Carlyle.
My own impression of watching Harris as Pollock, staring for weeks on end at an enormous blank canvas, was that most of the artist's existential angst stemmed from the realisation that he really couldn't paint for toffee. And the almost mandatory "inspiration sequence" with celestial music, when Pollock discovers that the tin of Dulux he has purchased from the local hardware store is not non-drip, is almost risible. I was reminded of Tony Hancock in The Rebel, playing a downtrodden city clerk who goes to Paris and becomes leader of the Infantile School of Painting. The sequence where our Tone "paints" a picture by pouring paint on a canvas and then cycling over it looks as if it was inspired by abstract expressionism. Hancock's work contains something of the mystique of the materials motivating the painter . . .
Help. I'm talking Pollocks again.
Pollock (18) is released on 24 May