"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 22 January 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

The Artless Bastards


Great art is timeless, they say, connecting generation after generation, forming cultural touchstones, museum calendars, dirty books, and hip date movies for the ages. But that doesn't always go for the artists themselves. They age, and age fast. And three new films about artists, Pollock, Shadow of the Vampire, and Quills, do as much as they can to present their subjects in terms only our artless world could love.

Pollock, starring and directed by actor Ed Harris (who evokes solid performances and spot-on period recreation), creates an alcoholic, emotionally unbalanced Jackson Pollock whose inner turmoil, expressed as drip-style "action painting," levels everyone's perceptions of modern art in the late 1940s. Over and over, raw emotion turns into breakthrough art. Pollock was all of that and all of it happened. But somewhere between mess and masterpiece, we skip a beat.

What's missed is that Pollock was a good painter. Even the most frenzied examples of "action painting" are balanced and composed, full of dynamic color choices, but above all, designed. Pollock barely mentions that he studied with Thomas Hart Benton and sums up his very knowledgeable views on art to drinky drunk binges of shrieking "Fuck Picasso!"

Yes, there's a light-bulb-over-the-head moment when paint drips on the floor and Pollock Is On to Something. But why the light bulb went on - never mind. It's mostly Pollock entering the studio at night and his wife entering next day saying: "Jackson, you did it!" Did what? It's hard to understand a breakthrough if you don't know what's getting broken.

Passion alone knocks the art world on its collective butt, not a combination of powerful expression and brilliant execution. Where's the craft? The ideas? If being a great artist is so hard, why does Pollock make it look so easy?

But then, who wants to watch the artist at work? Experiments with color, bad choices, false starts, good choices, why they're good, why they're bad, long days of nothing, picking up paint at the store, returning it when it doesn't mix, trying it again with a thinner brush, no, a thicker one — yawn.

And even though Jeffrey Tambor appears as critic Clement Greenberg, a man devoted to putting art into context, the film chooses not to bore us with the intellectual side of Jackson Pollock. Work is dull, thinking hard, turning ideas into art means explaining them to modern day, More Than I Needed To Know us ... no wonder Pollock tosses more tables than paint. Drunken binges and overnight success are so much more movie friendly.

Shadow of the Vampire presents us with a similar shorthand in dealing with German silent director F. W. Murnau. Vampire fictionalizes the production of one of Murnau's several masterpieces, Nosferatu. Vampire posits that the film's star, Max Schrek, was not an actor at all but an actual vampire. And Murnau offers the vampire his film's leading lady in exchange for the most realistic monster performance ever put on film.

It's a clever idea for a horror-comedy — but what a disservice to Murnau. Like Pollock, Vampire strips its artist of any creative intelligence. Where Pollock can't be bothered with the creative process, Vampire denies it exists. Instead, we meet a Murnau determined to make the world's artiest snuff film. Like Harris, John Malkovich plays his man as driven, selfish, drug addicted, wounding those near him for his art. But Murnau shows no hint of imagination. The real Murnau created Nosferatu, this one merely kibitzes as an actual vampire feasts. Vampire reduces Murnau to the level of a porn director. They don't create the erotic, they film sex acts. Here, Murnau isn't creating horror, he's recording it.

These films never show us why creative choices matter, why they separate artists from hacks. Instead of genius we get goons. Scene after scene reveals them as driven sons of bitches. They're dynamic, difficult, and dangerous, so it's presumed their art is, too. And yet, dynamic, difficult, dangerous people drive busses and sit at bars every day and nobody hangs their work at MOMA. It's temperament without talent, an example of the worst It's Art Because I Say It Is performance art posing. Since both films assume these are great artists, the challenge to us is no longer in their ideas but in their shitty behavior.

Quills, Philip Kaufman and Doug Wright's story of the Marquis de Sade's days in a sanitarium, is the most extreme of the three pictures. Pollock and Murnau may have been difficult fellows, but de Sade is criminally insane. He sits in a cell writing porno pocketbooks as art therapy, exorcising demons of sexual fantasies from his head onto the page. He's driven. He's dangerous. He must be an artist. And like Pollock and his wild drips, de Sade literally spills his fantasies onto the page, sometimes in ink, sometimes in blood, eventually in his own excrement. And like Pollock, de Sade always gets it right the first time — no revisions, editing, or erasers needed.

Most likely, de Sade was simply a brutal head case full of violent porn (if he was more, Quills doesn't burden us with it). Pollock and Murnau were more than that. Yet, these films bring them down to de Sade's level, or raise him to theirs, reducing all their work to the same level of self-absorbed personal expression — questioning the idea that art exists at all.

If biographies by nature recast their subjects into contemporary times, then these films do the job. As sincere, well-intentioned, and ambitiously executed as they are, they remove the true challenge these men posed to us and replace it with bad table manners. In an era when the First Amendment justifies more art than talent, when Extreme! content replaces craft, when really meaning it (man) means you really matter, these films reintroduce Pollock, Murnau, and de Sade to us in terms they might not appreciate, but that only we could. That is, that the true challenge these artists pose to our standards is, apparently, that they had them.

Smear your own excrement
all over today's Plastic discussion.