Movie Information

Genre: Biography
Director: Ed Harris
Starring: Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Bud Cort,, Amy Madigan
Rated: R

“If people would leave most of their stuff at home and just look at the paintings, I don’t think they’d have any trouble enjoying them. It’s like looking at a bed of flowers — you don’t tear your hair out over what it means.” So says Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock in his film, Pollock, and it’s an attitude that neatly sums up his approach to the painter in this film. Harris — with the help of screenwriters Barbara Turner and Susan Emshwiller — has chosen to merely give us a look into the life of the famous artist without comment, leaving the viewer to make of the man what he or she will. It is an intense and powerful film that manages to depict the ferocity, the single-mindedness and the inner demons of Jackson Pollock, but never manages to broach the obvious question of exactly what drove him or his art. It’s an approach that ultimately makes the film seem just a little bit hollow and lacking in insight — and more than a little maddening, because Pollock could have been one of the greatest of all biographical films, instead of being merely a very good one with flashes of near genius. Even at that, it is probably the finest cinematic look at an artist in any medium to come along in a number of years — certainly the best since Tim Burton’s Ed Wood in 1994. The depiction of the creation of art is a tricky proposition under the best of circumstances. At one end of the spectrum, you end up with Cary Grant impersonating Cole Porter writing “Night and Day” and being inspired by the appearance of Alexis Smith in the doorway to unintentionally comic effect. At the other, you have Scott Antony as the French sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeksa, seeming to actually carve a stone before your eyes and hold the floor with a brilliant discourse on the nature of art in Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah. Fortunately, Pollock comes much nearer this second category — even if its subject, much like the film that houses him, remains stubbornly inarticulate in many ways. When Pollock paints, Harris’ film comes brilliantly and alarmingly to life — thanks in no small part to Harris’s portrayal, the cinematography of Lisa Rinzler (Dead Presidents) and a kinetic score by Jeff Beal (The Passion of Ayn Rand) — and there is both the sense of being in the presence of a great painter and a great filmmaker. No single moment in the film sums this up better than the point when Pollock discovers the “splatter” technique that marked his later works. “You’ve done it, Pollock. You’ve cracked it wide open,” remarks his wife and fellow painter Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harding in a deservedly Academy Award-winning performance). At this point, it’s impossible not to realize that the same can be said for Harris’ approach to his subject — at least as concerns the creation of his art. On this level, Pollock is a film that is hard to beat. Unfortunately, the decision to merely present the characters without really examining them works against the film in the final analysis. We are shown that Pollock is an alcoholic, that he is tormented, that his life is marked by self-indulgence and a desire to attain oblivion through drinking and casual sex, but as far as the “why” of this is concerned, we are left entirely at sea. Similarly, the complex relationship of Pollock and Lee Krasner — and all the implications of her allowing Pollock’s art to overshadow her own talents — is never really explored. Thanks to Harden’s performance, though, we are given hints of what motivates her to not only put up with Pollock, but to sacrifice so much of herself to him. When the film arrives at its predetermined end with Pollock — drunk and despondent — managing to finally attain his oblivion in the car crash that also claimed the life of one of his passengers, very little seems to be answered. Perhaps, however, the key is contained in an earlier assessment of Pollock by his friend, the critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor), “No matter how drunk you are, one thing’s sacred for you — not anybody’s feelings or anything like that, but your art — you’re not going to destroy your art. That’s something.” And apparently, it is the art that is sacred for Harris. In that regard, he did Jackson Pollock proud. And that’s something, too.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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