The Fish
for 30 January 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.
 
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Tim Cavanaugh
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Terry Colon
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Heather Havrilesky
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Joey Anuff
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The Artless Bastards

You were really on to something today. Harris' interest in Jack the Dripper is as a laconic, Sam Sheperdized western character, caught in a snotty east coast milieu. I loved the painting scenes, and I did feel that the movie communicated how hard it is to be a serious artist, in the scenes of Pollock heading off wordlessly into his studio in the snow. But I left the theater thinking that the movie was a lock without a key. The key is, I think, in the 900 page bio by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, the source for Pollock. The book suggests (with a lot of convincing evidence) that the reason why Pollock took it out on himself with boozing and fighting was because of his bisexuality. Ed Harris, stern actor that he is, wasn't about to get into that matter. Also, it can be strongly argued that de Sade was much more than just a head case; and if you don't have the time or inclination for some of the arguments (especially Angela Carter's witty, pro-porn book The Sadean Woman), it should be noted that De Sade was actually very funny at times, just like his spiritual disciple William S. Burroughs. De Sade does repeat himself a lot — maybe he didn't use an eraser after all.... It's the way the writer's life is treated in the movies that really makes my blood boil, though. It was bad enough to go into Finding Forrester and discovering that it actually wasn't the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 movie. The writing scenes in Finding Forrester are action writing, and what good comes out of that? Did you ever get a sense of what it was that Connery's Forrester had written? (His famous novel was called "Avalon Landing", which ought to be subtitled "Estate Homes from $250,000"). Movie shorthand (vide Forrester and State and Main) has it that real writers use manual typewriters; the rest of us fakers have computers. And when was the last time you saw a writer in a movie reading a book? Rant, rave, snarl...

Richard von Busack
<regisgoat@earthlink.net>

RVB!

Are you related in anyway to the ECW former TV heavyweight wrestling champ Rob Van Dam, who goes by the moniker RVD?

Maybe movies about artists fascinate movie directors because, unlike Pollack or de Sade, the movie director is so dependent on everyone around him.

My main point about Pollack and the rest is context. Why was the work important at that time? A bunch of responses I've seen to "The Artless Bastards" assume it would take hours to explain and be painfully dull, but as Ken Burns' Jazz is showing, Wynton Marsalis can illustrate the difference between pre-Armstrong trumpet and post-Armstrong trumpet in about thirty seconds. My main complaint with these films isn't watching them dab paint, but simply, show me a little of the world before and after them. Why bore me with all the temper tantrums, booze, and violence if you can't give me one minute of enlightenment? They should have just called these movies "VH-1's Behind the Muse" and be done with it.

Bertram Blaht

 
[Mr. McFeely Speedy Delivery My Ass]
 

While this gent's no Terry, the point illustrated in the attached is a good one.

If the movie misses the point of Pollack, you and the critics seemed to get it. I recall David Lee Roth kvetching about the critics and how they liked Elvis Costello better'n him, but Diamond Dave et al. sold more records than Elvis and Slim Whitman combined.

Sometimes the critics know best, other times it's the public. Is it ever Hollywood?

Hope all is well. Stay off the motorcycles -

Steve McNally
<steve@ultradigital.com>

Thanks, Steve.

That's probably my favorite Rockwell in the whole wide world. Pollack wasn't such a bad abstracter himself. I think the David Lee Roth line was something like "The reason most rock critics better than me is that most rock critics look like Elvis Costello," or something to that effect.

Bert

 
[Mr. McFeely Speedy Delivery My Ass]
 

Dear BB:

Quills — At least in the original stage play, where I saw it — wasn't actually about the historical deSade at all. Rather, it was a wonderfully violent, intensely theatrical argument about the appropriate limitations society may put upon art and the artist. Very much Grand Guignol, it dramatized that which it argued. Unfortunately, film is a much more literal medium than is live theater (odd, that...you'd think having real people close enough to spit on you would make it the other way around, but it ain't), and something got lost in the movement to the screen, even though the playwright did the moving. Poetry, as they say, is that which is lost in translation.

But I really want to talk about Pollock. There was an enormous retrospective of his work a few years back at MOMA, and it provided an opportunity to see the work that led up to the drip paintings and the work that followed them. It was instructive. Up until the drip paintings, Pollock was a competent, smart, arrogant, derivative painter, doing skillful and attractive work that really was no better than a dozen others working at the same time. His work was getting steadily better and better, but you could still walk up to almost anything he worked on and say "nice, but Miro/Picasso/Matisse/Braque/ whoever did it better."

And then it changed. The drip paintings are so much better than what went before that if you couldn't see how the earlier work informed the later you would swear they were done by a different painter. While one can look at the work done just a few years before the drip paintings and see logical consistencies, you just can't imagine that the same guy could be good enough to create the beauty of those paintings.

Sure, one can argue that a new technique merged with a limited talent to create something totally new and wonderful. It's probably true. You still can't believe it. I don't think Pollock could either. I believe, without — to be sure — a shred of evidence, that Pollock was as amazed, stunned, and confused by what he had created as was anyone else.

It gets worse. Pollack — again, judging only by the artistic evidence — really didn't have much to say, and the drip technique wasn't (and isn't) all that flexible a tool anyway. In a very few years, he had exhausted it and stopped doing drip paintings. Go ahead and look at what he produced then...art every bit as competent and as boring as the stuff before the drip paintings.

The story of Pollock isn't that of a mad genius inscrutably creating great art...as you say, that's an idiot and trivializing cliché. But neither is it the story of a skilled, educated, artistic master carefully building on his skills: the work won't support that version either. No...it's the story of a competent artist on whose shoulder an angel chose to sit for a few years and then went away. Imagine what it felt like to be Pollock when the angel left. It's a tragedy. Somebody should make a movie out of it.

Alan Kornheiser
<askornheiser@prodigy.net>

Kornheiser?

Aren't you the same Kornheiser who wrote me recently kvetching I should change my name because you didn't like the other BB? Now you write in to talk about your love for creeps like Pollock and de Sade? Boy, you must really hate old Brecht!

I agree, Pollock might have been a limited talent compared to Picasso, but then, who isn't? Pollock's breakthrough concept reminds me of three-chord punk bands I grew up loving. As my friend Paul likes to say, maybe they can only play three chords, but they're the best three chords. Pollock is technically accomplished in some areas, all of which he used perfectly in the drip work. The idea drove it all, just like concept more than anything else drove Godard's Breathless or Kerouac's On the Road. Looking back we can see their limits, but each was a jolt in their day. And it's the why of that jolt that I missed in each of these films.

Bertolt Blintz

 
[Mr. McFeely Speedy Delivery My Ass]
 
No Cerveza, No Trabajo

Liked the piece — good punchline, but perhaps inaccurate? "Maintain the standard" probably means "Maintain the flag," that of the U.S. or of the Army.

Chris Klick
<cklick@mindspring.com>

Nah, it's a really common army usage. The motto at officer candidate school — two buildings down from PLDC — is "Standards, No Compromise," and the 2/29th Infantry has a sign outside their command offices that proudly says: "Second Battalion trains TO STANDARD."

So, yeah. That's what kind of standard they're talking about. Like 2Lt. Crevey says: Hey, god forbid we set out to exceed the thing. TO STANDARD it is, then.

Standardized and regimented,

Ambrose Beers

 
[Mr. McFeely Speedy Delivery My Ass]
 

Nonsense.

The idea that the U.S. military is going into the crapper because it has repetitive, demeaning tasks (this is new?) rather than because it's been gendered-down for political correctness (yes, a very new concern) violates the rules of logic. And yes, PC IS a bad thing, despite being the polluted intellectual sea that liberals much like to swim in (better go — starting to mix my metaphors).

Ralph Ward
<rward@boardroominsider.com>

Well, you've managed to notice a grand total of one of the reasons why I argued that the military has become mediocre (again) — but, again, what can you say about the many, many, many times when we haven't been ready when war broke out? Or maybe you think I'm just making all of that up, I guess.

And, by the way, every time I ever write anything that was critical of the military, I get email accusing me of being, oooh, a "liberal" (or a peacenik, or a pacifist, or blah blah blah.) I'm not. And I'm in the Army — enlisted infantry. So. Yeah. But labeling saves on the thinking, doesn't it?

Ambrose Beers

 
[Mr. McFeely Speedy Delivery My Ass]
 

Mr. Beers:

Hi. Nice article. You neatly captured several of the issues and brought a no-nonsense outlook too their discussion. Too many people buy into that political-correctness-is-the-problem line. Those hot-blooded pilots will exit the Air Force (or Navy) and go get better-paying jobs as pudgy guys flying 747s for United.

I must put in one thing, however: you missed the point about maintaining the standard. That is, in the Army at any rate, how you achieve excellence, and not a sure sign you're not achieving excellence. I don't mean how you get noticed and get ahead, though that's somewhat true. Maintaining the standard means making sure everyone is physically fit, follows orders, can fire their weapons, can don their gas masks in the appropriate amount of time, etc. It means you can do the minimum daily requirement of soldiering.

But doing the minimum daily requirement doesn't lead to standardized half-assed robots. People tend to focus on the minimums and things like haircuts and shoe shines, but the system is deeper than that. For instance, while the standard for push-ups might be 50 (or whatever), the standard for PT is doing it three times a week in a manner designed to prepare soldiers for battle. So if you maintain the training standard the actual testing standard is easy to the point of being silly. The same for common task training (using a radio, NBC gear, doing first aid, etc.) and Sergeants Time training (job-based skills). It's long and involved, but the point is that the whole system is designed so we don't have any more Task Force Smith disasters.

I first came in the Army in 1975 and spent my first enlistment watching people get fat, smoke hash and tell sergeants to fuck off. We don't have that kind of Army anymore. People don't like the fact that it takes attention to detail and maintaining a set of standards, but that's what does it.

Anyway, if you're read this far I'm amazed. Nice article.

Thanks,

Joseph Ferrare
<jferrare@mac.com>

I read that far, so be amazed. Thanks for some worthwhile insight.

Maintaining the standard,

Ambrose Beers

 
[Mr. McFeely Speedy Delivery My Ass]
 

Monsieur Beers —

An excellent trouncing of silly neo-conservative Stephanie Gutmann. By her own admission, much of her work comes from the guilt she feels at the slights she perceives she (and her peers in Ann Arbor) heaped upon military folk in the '70s, '80s, and '90s. That military personnel got a raw deal from "elite civilians" might well be conceded; in those days, as now, lots of people who actually work for a living have caught hell from America's upper crust (ah, how well I remember the days of Reagan--which seem to be back upon us...). As is common with buzzword-happy bestseller-wannabes like Gutmann, however, she overlooks a more insidious and possibly more threatening trend: elite military members who feel that their primary allegiance is to their branch of service and their immediate comrades, rather than to the civilian government. This group has popped up in the professional journals of the services from time to time, and had its biggest brush with the media when Bill Clinton was warned that his safety could not be guaranteed is he visited certain military bases. There have been writers who have commented on the rise of this neo-Praetorianism, but none come to mind at the moment--might just be the drugs, but it certainly might be because Gutmann's ilk is treated to much more media exposure.

Yrs,

Michael Treece
<nonwhiz@earthlink.net>

Yes, and I know that at least Thomas Ricks has written about that very thing — and about the general politicizing of the military. Two generations back, senior soldiers considered it inappropriate to be seen as partisan — Eisenhower never voted until he left the army and ran for president, Ricks has written (if I'm remembering this correctly, duh), because he didn't think it was appropriate for him to be taking sides on the question of who his commander-in-chief was supposed to be. Annnd now the officer corps is becoming much more closely aligned with the positions and politicians of the Republican party. How much of that has to do with Bill Clinton, I don't know, but we'll see if the trend continues now that he's gone.

Ambrose Beers

 
[Mr. McFeely Speedy Delivery My Ass]
 

My own theory is that the military is pissed about political correctness not so much because it has no taste for it — quite the opposite, in fact — but because it's not their brand of political correctness. The same operative explains why, in the seventh grade, Steve Ropczyky could tell all the Polack jokes you ever heard and then some, but God help you if you ever told one yourself. It's one thing to have your own martinets (your examples were mid-ranking officers) enforcing idiotic orders, but it's quite another when an outsider orders the He-Man Girl-Haters Club to admit skirts into the treehouse.

I have a suspicion that Gutman may have a valid point or two hiding betwixt the covers of her book. In the end, homocidal mania (the good kind) is a guy thing. Unlike the Israelis, we do not need a kick-ass military as a matter of national existence. And this is probably Good: the salient feature of good soldiers is the ability to kill, efficiently, on command, not something conducive to peacetime. But feminizing the military for the sake of keeping Hillary Clinton smiling is a bad idea, the same as with any other kind of political correctness.

Rob McMillin
<rlm@pricegrabber.com>

So Steve Ropczyky goes into a bar, right, and he says to the bartender...

But, yes: Stephanie Gutmann does have a couple of valid points hiding in her book, buried in the pile of stupidity. But she's not smart enough to make them.

Susan Faludi actually waded into this same water with Stiffed, but Susan Faludi is smart and insightful and a careful observer. Much better book, that one. There's even a good deal in it that I don't particularly agree with, but she argues it so well that it's difficult to really raise much of an objection.

So, I mean, I think maybe a fair part of my disgust with Gutmann has to do with her dumbness ("the six-level imperious tower"), rather than her outlook. Uh, as if those weren't connected in any way. But I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's much more pleasant to disagree with interesting smart people.

(And Steve Ropczyky replies, "no thanks — if six don't kill the taste, nothing will!")

Ambrose Beers

 
[Mr. McFeely Speedy Delivery My Ass]
 

The Artless Bastards

while many would agree that "art" has shedded its "-ifice" in recent years, your criticism of "pollock" is predicated on a puzzling assumption: that jackson was some kind of technical virtuoso. harris makes explicitly clear that when it came to putting together a painting, pollock spent his early career in a creative fog, conceptually sheltering his work with vague references to jung, to the raw honesty of materials, to the subconscious — to anything that might draw attention from the fact that his paintings were execrable.

pollock did study under benton (not a conceptual heavyweight, himself), and the rhythmic, pulsating structure of his paintings reflects this influence. benton also resembled pollock in his quickness to fisticuffs, rudeness, misogyny, and emphasis on the visceral over the conceptual (benton, having made tentative and unsuccessful forays into progressive modernism, retreated into a xenophobic pastoralism that, while danged pretty, was not particularly thoughtful). basically, they both loved to assault the canvas (with a zeal equal to that with which they assaulted walls, crockery, and humans), and that's what the movie shows pollock doing. of course, there is an elemental beauty to pollock's work, and he does make good decisions on occasion — but he ain't no breughel or picasso. you too would hurl epithets at pablo the great if the canyon between your respective talents was as yawning and unbridgeable as it was for pollock. if there is any doubt at all about pollock's patent inability to draw, witness his pitiful feints towards representation at the beginning and end of his career.

sure, most movies about artists aren't about art. "pollock" is an exception. more screen time is devoted to the scrutiny of the artist's work than in any other movie i've seen. but pollock WAS an action painter. he invited cameras into his studio and relished the public perception of his process as a physical oscillation between the feral and the balletic. it was fast and furious. and that's all in the movie, too.

had harris attempted a biography of de kooning, there may have been problems. his was a deeply intellectual, iterative pursuit — of the sort to which movies never do justice. such a film, ideally devoted to time-lapse depictions of willems works-in-progress, would probably have been all about wife-swapping. but pollock, especially compared to other artists of his time (to say nothing of those of other times), was more shaman than scientist.

poopod

Puzzling? You're working under some assumptions yourself, bud, like the one that a painter equals a draughtsman, an area where Picasso certainly excelled and Jackson didn't. You write, "Of course, there is an elemental beauty to Pollock's work, and he does make good decisions on occasion — but he ain't no Breughel or Picasso. " Yeah, "elemental," a specific effect Pollock sought that you have to be pretty good to create so perfectly so many times. Like a great stand-up comic, actor, or musician, capturing a sense of spontaneity (or "action," in Pollock's case) intentionally, repeatedly, on canvas after canvas or show after show, shows a technical brilliance if the composition and bounce of Pollock's image aren't technical proof enough.

And as far de Kooning's wife swapping goes, that's another unfair comparison, since it's doubtful Pollock would have got much for Lee.

Bert

 
[Mr. McFeely Speedy Delivery My Ass]
 

So the article wasn't so bad, until I got to the end, where there was a completely unexplained slandering of The Marquis de Sade

''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.''

yes, well, I'm not refuting this because I know little of visual arts. However, I know literature and I can tell you that Sade was a good author. Even his most frenzied examples of pornography are balanced and composed, full of dynamic prose, but above all, well-written.

''Vampire fictionalizes the production of one of Murnau's several masterpieces, Nosferatu.''

Why is Nosferatu a masterpiece while 'La Philosophie dans le boudoir' isn't?

''Most likely, de Sade was simply a brutal head case full of violent porn''

And maybe, Pollock was simply a brutal head case full of violent colour choices.

'' (if he was more, Quills doesn't burden us with it). ''

if he was more, you wouldn't know it, Blecht, because you haven't read anything he's written.

"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 art isn't self-absorbed personal expression, then what is it?

''In an era when the First Amendment justifies more art than talent,''

In an era where again, again someone like you, Blecht, is ridiculously pretentious enough to think he knows what art is, perhaps it was asking you too much to try to stretch your brain enough to remember that there are standards other than your own. No one knows what art is : it is defined by it not being defined.

''when Extreme! content replaces craft,''

And the brilliance of the first amendment is that it does NOT claim to know what art is, and so does not try to limit expression no matter WHAT the subject matter.

Next time, try not to be limited by your own prudishness. Since when does being crazy reduce the importance of an artist?

morganlefae

I must be "ridiculously pretentious" if someone signing their name "morganlefae" thinks they can get away with calling someone named "bertolt blecht" "ridiculously pretentious" in public. Talk about glass houses. Look, you say I slandered de Sade (if such a thing is legally possible ...), by dismissing this demented froggy perv as a "brutal head case full of violent porn" (not that you offer anything to make anyone think differently). Yet you also quote me saying that "if he was more, "Quills" doesn't burden us with it." So why are you angry at me? From beginning to end "Quills" dismisses/celebrates de Sade as a First Amendment case and that's it. He's a Napoleonic Larry Flynt, portrayed as offensive and nothing but. What craft, philosophy, or greater purpose he has other than writing stroke books as art therapy is ignored. You're right, I haven't read much of his work because I don't like it. People who do like de Sade have always struck me as preciously in love with themselves for defending his work, somewhat like people who drive around with "Question Authority" bumper stickers on their cars. *Yawn* — yes, you're outrageous and rock my bourgeois "prudishness" with your not-at-all ridiculously pretentious letter that assumes your opinion alone justifies the Marquis.

Bert

 
[Mr. McFeely Speedy Delivery My Ass]
 

 The Shit
Physical Strength and How to Obtain It, by Eugen Sandow
Bamboozled, A Spectacular New Film by Mr. Spike Lee
G. Beato's all-new Soundbitten
William Demarest, Sultan of Snarl, in The Lady Eve (1941), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944)
George Wallace: Settin' The Woods On Fire, directed by Daniel McCabe and Paul Stekler
1995
Bobby Darin, Darin at the Copa (Atlantic)
Shinji-San in the floating world of indeterminate duration, by Peter Richardson
American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor
Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1996, Merge)
45, by Bill Drummond
Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards, Singing in the Rain (ASV)
Do you know of stuff that doesn't actively suck? Things so good they deserve to make the Shitlist? Send your suggestions to us.

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