Pollock Shows the Creator, Not the Man
The first image in Ed Harris' biopic of dipsomaniac Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock is that of the weary artist staring uncomprehendingly at a copy of Life magazine during a fabulous 1949 Manhattan art-world soiree. The only other in-focus image in the shot is that of a woman's body--heavyset, commanding, and clearly maternal. The magazine's cover line--"Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?"--marked the painter as the country's first "art star."
But for all the craft Harris brings to Pollock, as both director and Oscar-nominated star, his insights regarding the artist are limited to this elegant tableau. We see Pollock's self-canceling desires for "pure" expression and recognition, and his concurrent need for oblivion/escape via liquor and his surrogate mom of a wife, Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden, also Oscar-nominated). But the film never really addresses what fueled Pollock's work or why he was so messed up. Ironically, the film's reluctance to play armchair psychiatrist is mainly due to Harris' admirable aversion to gilding the Pollock myth.
After that pre-opening-credits image, Pollock rewinds nine years to a picturesque, low-life Manhattan. We meet the artist--nicknamed "Jack the Dripper" for his splattery, often brush-free painting style--pissed to the gills, crawling the stairs of his brother's tenement apartment, screaming "Fuck Picasso!" Playing Pollock as, alternately, a naive man-child, wild-eyed visionary, and sinewy, laconic man's man, Harris gives a performance that's a marvel of full-body acting. With his furtive gaze and slouched shoulders and a circumspect delicacy in his gait, Harris makes clear that, for Pollock, everyday reality is something to be carefully negotiated, as though every chair, street, or conversation were lined with invisible glass shards. His Pollock is clearly talented as hell, but also helpless.
Enter Krasner. After blustering her way into Pollock's studio, the gum-smacking, Rubenesque Brooklynite takes the artist home, shows him her own work ("You're pretty good for a girl painter," Pollock opines), and seduces him. And so begins their marriage/business arrangement; "love affair" seems too vaunted a term for the bond between the no-nonsense Krasner and the infantile Pollock, while "codependent" negates her pragmatic vision. Although being a woman painter in the boys' club of 1940s art must have damned her to what seemed like a blind-alley career, Harden's Krasner never seems like a gold-digger. Rather, one senses that she simply accepts Pollock's work as more innovative than her own, and that working as his manager is a more realistic goal for her than seeking stardom on her own. (Krasner's work has since become the object of serious critical re-evaluation.) There's also a hint of grudging pleasure in Krasner's acceptance of her role in the tacit Oedipal bargain struck between her and Pollock. That Harden communicates all of this without ever suggesting that Krasner is simply a victim of her sexist times is impressive, and the friction between Pollock's dreams of masculine independence and his absolute reliance on his wife supply the film with its most intricate dramatic underpinning.
After Pollock and Krasner move to a Long Island farmhouse studio, Harris gets close to doing the impossible--making visually exciting Pollock's invention of his "all over" style of "action painting" (both terms are fairly self-descriptive). Eschewing the surreal visuals of David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch or the Coen brothers' Barton Fink as a means of dramatizing the artistic process, Harris nervily shoots this scene as a montage oddly analogous of the discovery-of-tools-by-apes sequence in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Leaning lazily over a canvas laid out on the floor, Pollock dips his brush in paint and, lost in thought, absently stares as the brush drips, drips, drips. Possibilities rush over his face as the fortuitous splatter visibly frees him from his conscious designs. A graceful frenzy of creation mounts as this "accident" is transformed into wild composition, and Pollock slaps, daubs, and literally attacks the canvas with paint. It's a breathtaking sequence, unfortunately tainted to the point of audience titters when Krasner breaks in and breathlessly gasps, "You've done it, Jackson!," not unlike a B-movie lab assistant congratulating a scientist on inventing the latest death ray.
As Pollock becomes successful, the movie falters (unsurprisingly, Krasner also retreats into the background about this time). Harris bloats up considerably to portray the artist as aging louse, descending into a muted midlife of inchoate self-loathing. He embarks on a final, fated affair with Ruth Kligman, a possibly opportunistic young looker (Jennifer Connelly, in yet another finely shaded near-cameo).
Although chockablock with delightfully arch art-world demimondes--a foppish Val Kilmer as Willem de Kooning, Amy Madigan (Harris' wife) as imperious heiress/collector Peggy Guggenheim--the film runs into possibly unsolvable problems particular to the artist and the psychic hollow at his center. Pollock and his melancholy, overweight mother (Sada Thompson) exchange emotionally freighted glances throughout the film, but the relationship is never explained. Other aspects of Pollock's formative years, both personal and artistic, are presented as informational shorthand, unhelpful to those who don't know a lot about his life. We're not asking for easy Oprah epiphanies, just something besides Pollock's occasional nonilluminating claim to being a force of nature.
And one more thing: Contrary to the myth, Pollock's most innovative work resulted from a scant few years of sobriety. His abstract paintings from this period maintain a sphinxlike beauty suggestive of a profound spiritual isolation. But in the film, as Pollock hits the bottle again--without Harris, as either actor or director, providing any clue about the source of the inner furies that drove the painter to create and to compulsively self-destruct--we're left for very long stretches to notice that watching drunks drink is ultimately both unpleasant and boring. Perhaps Pollock knew all these things himself, and yet could not resist the call of the abyss. But that's just a guess; despite some wonderful moments, Pollock allows for nothing more.