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Home Vision Entertainment presents
Jackson Pollock: Love and Death on Long Island (1999)

"He's a very sad man. He's just suffering all the time."
- Cile Downs

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: February 14, 2002

Stars: Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner
Other Stars: Ruth Kligman, Kirk Varnedoe, Milton Resnick, Ed Harris, Helen A. Harrison
Director: Teresa Griffiths

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 00h:46m:28s
Release Date: February 19, 2002
UPC: 037429164020
Genre: documentary


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B+ C-C+C C-

DVD Review

Ed Harris's fine film Pollock is hardly the last word on its subject; both the myth of the laconic, tortured artist, the facts of the man, the import and impact of his art are worthy of deeper exploration. This BBC documentary doesn't so much want to fill in the gaps or put Pollock in a broader context, but has some cinematic fun re-examining the life, his work and his circle, and considering the Pollock legend while simultaneously adding fuel to that particular fire. This isn't a standard documentary biography by any stretch; rather, it's a look at Pollock's most fertile creative period and his rapid fall from grace, culminating in his violent death in 1956 at age 44. Avatar of Abstract Expressionism, Pollock was anointed "the greatest living American painter" by Life Magazine in the late 1940s, an obvious double-edged sword. As artist Milton Resnick observes here: "Life Magazine had Pollock standing there like a jerk," at a time when he was unsure of his own status. "Even Pollock himself had doubts about whether he was truly creating art, because there just wasn't a model for it," says Helen A. Harrison, one of the principal burnishers of the Pollock flame and the curator of the Pollock-Krasner House on Long Island, where Pollock did most of his important work. Pollock's first and loudest champion was his wife, Lee Krasner, who put her own painting aside to promote her husband: as friends variously observe, "She did believe he was the greatest painter since Picasso," and "Lee was the salesman." (I'm glad to see that the documentary includes some shots of Krasner's canvases, as well as a few from Pollock's contemporaries, including Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Arshile Gorky.) Each of the interviewees here seem to have a profound stake in putting their mark on Pollock's legacy, ranging from no fewer than three biographers, to Kirk Varnedoe, former curator of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to lesser-known colleagues of Pollock's, to Ruth Kligman, Pollock's mistress at the time of his death, and the sole survivor of the car crash that killed him. (Kligman is played in the Ed Harris movie by Jennifer Connelly.) And given that so much is made of Pollock as a media celebrity, perhaps even a media creation, there's surprisingly little of him here. There are several clips from the landmark Hans Namuth documentary made about Pollock, and the tale of how, after two years of sobriety, it was Namuth's shooting that got Jackson off the wagon; and a few audio clips of Pollock doing a scripted radio interview. But that's it from the man himself. The single most galvanizing piece of footage here is from an old interview of the late Lee Krasner, talking about Pollock in Life Magazine—she's vital and full of memory in a way that none of the other interview subjects are, with the possible exception of Kligman. (Surely it's no coincidence that these two were the women in Jackson's life.) And Kligman is a piece of work. She takes great pains to tell us that she knew Marlon Brando, too, almost as well as she knew Pollock—she seems to fancy herself as some sort of muse, but given that she and Pollock met up only in the last year of his life, when his drinking was nonstop and his painting pretty much nonexistent, it's a tough stand to maintain. The whole enterprise seems less like a consideration of Pollock and his painting than an exercise in picking over the corpse, a jockeying for position in the derby to determine who gets to fix Pollock's image for history. (The one terrific exception to this—and someone who played no small part in the Pollock legacy—is Jackson's bartender, who eventually told him that Pollock's smashing things up made him no longer welcome at his favorite watering hole, the Cedar Bar.) The BBC pretty clearly looks to be riding the tailwind generated by Ed Harris's movie (this documentary first aired in 1999, before the feature was released); a number of the interviewees express their doubts on the whole cinematic enterprise, and Harris himself shows up to discuss Jackson's painting and status as a media magnet. (These seem to be aspects of Pollock's life that Harris, as a recognizable movie actor, can relate to; and they're points that he makes more eloquently and extensively on the commentary track on his own movie.) But even those most opposed to the idea of a film about Pollock concede that the allure is powerful, as Cile Downs notes: “It's a lot easier to think about the drama of his history than what he did in the realm of art." The documentary is bracketed by a reading of the coroner's report of Pollock's death, and the actor delivering the lines has been done up to look like a Long Island cop. (The report offers the peculiar detail that Pollock, who was driving the car, was wearing brown socks and no shoes.) There are a couple of other instances of playing fast and loose with the facts—some of the Namuth footage is intercut with newer shots of paint being swirled, for instance, and the filmmakers seem especially enamored of shots of taxis cruising the streets on a rainy night whenever anyone mentions New York City. (There are probably as many shots of yellow cabs here as there are in Taxi Driver.) There are some nice little details, though. For instance, Varnedoe points out that Pollock squirted paint around with glass turkey basters, which frequently smashed, and shards of them remain in the paintings; his observation is accompanied by an appropriate detail of one of the canvasses. It's a tribute to Pollock's vitality that he remains such a compelling figure, especially for those who knew him; look, for instance, at the quote at the top of this review, and you'll notice that nearly fifty years after his death, he's still spoken about in the present tense.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: C-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: The archival footage of Pollock and Krasner looks especially poor, and the newer interviews are generally shot well, with the exception of Kirk Varnedoe's; he seems to be in the MoMA gallery, shot either on video or with cheaper film stock. The swoosh pans and close-ups of Pollock paintings can be a little nauseous, but otherwise the colors in the DVD transfer are clear and the film is largely without debris or other interference.

Image Transfer Grade: C+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: The mono audio track is workmanlike if undistinguished. Lots of play is given to the music composed for the documentary, which sounds always very portentous and Errol Morris; occasionally poor balance gives us the music at the expense of the interviewees.

Audio Transfer Grade: C

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 8 cues
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The only extras on the disc are the chapter stops, but the insert inside the DVD case, which pulls out, unfolds and features a black-and-white photograph of Pollock at work, is a particularly handsome one.

Extras Grade: C-

 

Final Comments

This moody, lively offering from the BBC is surprisingly thin on substance about its subject, and after watching it you won't be terrifically well informed about Jackson Pollock. Still, it's a slickly produced bit of work, and even if it's rather facile, it offers a few small dollops of this seminal artist and his paintings.

 


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