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Pollock: Special Edition

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Ed Harris and Marcia Gay Harden

Written by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller
Directed by Ed Harris

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Review by Dawn Taylor                    

"Pollock's late style resembles ... complicated modern physics. Think of his famous lines from this period: dripped, poured, lavished, whipped down onto the canvas in shooting streaks, gossamer skeins, leaping grands jetés and arabesques. They are world-lines because they impose a fourth dimension — the artist's purposive will on the content of his journey and the chaos of his sensations and perceptions. In art, a purposive will makes emotion meaningful. And such an unaided contest between discipline and freedom is really the essential task of making a modern life."

— Lee Siegal in The Atlantic Monthly

"Hell, my grandchildren could do that."

— My grandmother, on a visit to the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art, 1972

The Movie

Jackson Pollock was a great painter, in the original sense of the word — one of the greatest American artists of all time, in fact. He was an Abstractionist, and as a result, a great many people don't "get" Pollock. Part of the reason may be that most have only seen small reproductions of his work; Pollock's drip paintings may just look like so many squiggles in a magazine, but take on a vastly different feel when you're standing in front of the original work in all its glory, inspiring an instinctive, emotive response to his masterful use of color, texture and movement. Yet even then, there are those who, no matter what, just find his paintings to be so much splattered paint. In making his film Pollock (2000), actor/director Ed Harris seems to understand that a great many folks just don't get Pollock — to his immense credit, Harris chooses to avoid proselytizing about the genius of Pollock's work. Instead, we're treated to a straightforward narrative focusing on the artist's tortured career, with two brilliant performances at the center of it.

Pollock's career was famously short, ending in a fatal car crash when he was 44 years old. Born in 1912, he grew up in California with four brothers, an ineffectual mother and an absent father. When his older brother, Charles, began studying art, the 16-year-old Jackson began to study it, too. Two years later, he followed Charles to New York and began studying under Thomas Hart Benton, the dean of the American Regionalist movement. Benton was no abstractionist — he favored large, colorful murals depicting everyday scenes of Midwestern life. And it must have pained him to tutor the young Pollock, who had a burning emotional need to be an artist but remarkably little promise. In fact, the early part of Pollock's career was spent refining basic techniques while aping the Mexican muralists Orozco and Rivera, or European Modernist painters like Picasso, Mondrian, and Miro. It wasn't until his 30s that Pollock finally developed his own definitive style.

Harris's film begins at the very beginning of Pollock's breakthrough period, in 1941. He's become a very, very good painter, but still hasn't found what he's looking for — something original, a voice distinctively his own. Alcoholic, probably manic-depressive, and most certainly lacking in basic social skills, Pollock (played by Harris) lives with his brother and sister-in-law in a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village. When he meets artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), he finds a life partner who will manage him completely — something that, for better or worse, he appears to need. Awed by the potential of Pollock's art, Lee puts her own career on hold to live with Pollock, cooking for him, caring for him, making phone calls, and setting up viewings with influential dealers and gallery owners. With Lee taking over the day-to-day business of life, it leaves the mentally unstable Pollock free to do the one thing that he does with any self-assurance: paint. Well, that and drink. With Lee to boost his career, he finds his voice, and he finds fame — the pressure of which brings increasing self-doubt, depression and frustration.

Interestingly, of the two characters, Harden's Lee Krasner is by far the more intriguing. Harris's portrayal of Pollock is certainly impressive — with many Oscar-bait scenes of drunken screaming and piteous crying — but he never really lets us into Pollock's head. Not that it's his fault. Depression, on film and in real life, is stupendously uninteresting — and alienating to those on the outside looking in. In Pollock, Harris does an amazing job of depicting depression, with many long, slow, quiet scenes of characters awkwardly avoiding conversation as they pour coffee or dish out vegetables, Harris's expressive eyes letting us know that Pollock wants to connect but just doesn't quite know how. These are contrasted with scenes showing Pollock's manic energy as he paints, with complex, frenetic music punctuating his creative bursts. Harris's Pollock is a complicated man, perhaps too complicated to be explored on film to the degree Harris obviously wants. He alternates between a terrifying fragility and intense physicality, between fits of uncontrolled rage and a quiet, haunted desperation. But we're never able to quite get inside him to understand what drives these emotions — which is perhaps Harris's intent. The result is a marvelous performance of a man that, frustratingly, we still don't really understand by the film's end.

Harden's Oscar-winning turn as Lee Krasner is a different story, however, giving us a rich character that we can empathize with. Raised in Brooklyn, from a Russian Jewish background, Lee at first appears to be Pollock's polar opposite. She's outgoing and self-confident, excessively verbal and extremely hard-edged. Their meeting is fraught with sexual tension and possibility, and there's a sense of life-changing inevitability about it. When they make love for the first time, it's Lee who's the seducer, walking into the bedroom and undressing as Pollock wavers, unsure, in the hallway. But Lee was, in the truest sense, Pollock's soul mate, a fellow artist with an artist's temperament, and a passion for art every bit as great as his. She was a dynamo, a tireless advocate for Pollock's work, as well as manager of his mood swings and drunken binges. On the surface, the facts scream, "doormat!" when a woman gives up her own career to devote her life to a self-absorbed, alcoholic husband. But Harden works overtime to make it clear that Lee was no doormat. She made a conscious, clear-headed decision to take this path, and when it finally became too painful for her she walked away — although she spent the remainder of her life emotionally and professionally tied to Pollock.

Secondary characters in Pollock are played by a cast of impressive actors, some of whom fare better than others. Amy Madigan as Peggy Guggenheim is a standout — the influential collector was Pollock's mentor, not only helping to get him seen by New York's best and brightest, but commissioning the mural that was the turning point in his creative process. As played by Madigan, the flinty, rich Guggenheim is intrigued by Pollock's animal nature and accepts his excessively inappropriate behavior like one would tolerate an ill-mannered pet; that Madigan was overlooked for an Oscar nomination is a shame. Also on the second team are Val Kilmer with two or three lines in a bad Dutch accent as Willem de Kooning, Jennifer Connelly playing the hotsy-totsy mistress who dallied with Pollock at the end of his life, John Heard (looking remarkably Julian Schnabel-like) as Pollock's friend, architect/sculptor Tony Smith; and an almost-unrecognizable Bud Cort as art-world veteran Howard Puetzel. Then there's poor Jeffrey Tambor, who has the unenviable task of playing Mr. Information Man, AKA art critic Clement Greenberg. Not only must he represent the entire art world for the viewer, providing periodic updates on what the critics were saying about Pollock's work through difficult expository discussions, but he's given horribly plodding chunks of dialogue to deliver (most of which, to his credit, he somehow manages to pull off). At one point, after being told that one of his paintings doesn't quite work, Pollock grabs a tube of paint and threatens to change the piece right then and there; when he can't do it, Mr. Information Man says, "This is something — no matter how drunk you are, one thing's sacred for you. Not anybody's feelings or anything like that. It's your art. You're not going to destroy your art." Tambor does the best he can with this obvious over-explanation, but it thuds like a dropped boot in a quiet room.

Occasional expository clunkiness aside, Pollock is a very, very good film. It won't change anyone's opinion of Jackson Pollock's work — in fact, judging from the mixed response of the friends with whom I screened the film, those who already consider Pollock overrated may find the film uninteresting as well. But, like Pollock's paintings, Ed Harris's first directorial effort is original, passionate, and beautiful. Whether one finds it a brilliant work of art is, of course, in the eye of the beholder.

*          *          *

The Supplements

While Pollock takes an outsider's view of Jackson Pollock's mental processes — and may occasionally leave the viewer wishing for a more in-depth exploration of the man's inner workings — the Pollock DVD offers a handful of extras that help to flesh out the film and the artist.

Ed Harris's Director's Commentary is delightful. Murmuring quietly, as if he doesn't want to talk too loudly while the film is playing, it's almost as if he's right there on the sofa, whispering secrets in your ear as he watches the movie along with you. Along with the usual anecdotes about directing individual actors and what he hoped to accomplish with various scenes, he peppers his comments with throwaway remarks like, "That fuckin' extra ought to calm down with the hat, but hopefully you're not looking at him," and "Little focus problem coming up here — went through four camera operators, a couple of focus pullers ... independent movie, you know." Harris is astoundingly open about his emotions and reactions while working on the film. At one point he shares, "On the second day of filming I was already making decisions about what we're not going to get, because I know we're not gonna make our day. I was ready to kill somebody at this point. I sat down on the curb outside there and I said to myself, this is impossible, I've been working on this thing for ten years and there's no way I'm gonna be able to make this movie. But, you know, what are you gonna do — sit there and cry, or get up and finish it?" Harris's comments are personal, scene-specific, funny and fascinating; this is a terrific commentary.

The 20-minute "making-of" featurette, Pollock: Behind the Scenes documents the long journey from inspiration to finished film. Intrigued by an art book that his father sent him in the late '80s (observing a physical resemblance between his son and the painter and noting "There might be a movie in this"), Harris decided to produce and star in the film, and he spent six years on script revisions before getting down to the nuts-and-bolts making of the movie. On his eventual decision to direct the film himself after spending so long developing the project, Harris says, "You know, I didn't want to direct this to start a career as a director. I really wanted to direct it because I didn't want anybody else to." Actors Madigan, Tambor, Harden and Stephanie Seymour discuss Harris's directorial technique, letting the camera roll as long as he felt necessary while he badgered and coerced his actors into just the right line readings: "He'll just stand in the corner and yell," says Seymour. "And rant and rave, and bounce up and down, and do anything he has to do to get everyone else to where they need to be." Also touched on in the documentary: The research the actors did into the characters they portray; how the filmmakers re-created Pollock's paintings for the movie (the group of scenic artists assigned this task were dubbed "The Jackson Five"); and how Harris learned to paint like Pollock so he could be convincing on camera. An amazing amount of information is crammed into this short feature.

An interesting addition is a 25-minute Charlie Rose interview with Harris. Eschewing the usual schmoozy Hollywood PR-talk, the director speaks honestly about his passion to get Pollock made, and the experience of working on an indie budget. In a moment of directorial honesty rarely seen on talk shows, Harris exhibits a fatalistic approach to shooting the film: "There were some things that I would have liked to have shot that I didn't shoot. Hey — it's an independent film, working within certain limitations. So yes, it's the film that was meant to be made, I'll put it that way. And I'm really proud of it. So the things that I didn't shoot aren't necessary to this film. I don't miss them."

Four deleted scenes are offered, in their raw form with no music added:

Also on the disc: cast-and crew notes, theatrical trailers, and production notes. The anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and Dolby Digital 5.0 audio are superb. Subtitles in English, French and Spanish.

— Dawn Taylor

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