***½/**** Image B Sound A- Extras A
starring Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Tom Bower, Jennifer Connelly
screenplay by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller, based on the book Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
directed by Ed Harris
by Bill Chambers
"How do you know when you're finished making love?"
-Jackson Pollock's famous retort to a LIFE MAGAZINE reporter who asked how Pollock knows when he's completed a painting
Jackson Pollock's "making love" quote is famous, but in practically the same breath he said a much more constructive thing: "It's like looking at a bed of flowers--tear your hair out over what it means." It took him sixteen words to do as whole dissertations have tried and failed, that is, to equate God and abstract art and offer a kind of backhanded comfort to those confused to the point of resentment by the avant-garde. The biopic Pollock, actor Ed Harris's directorial debut, reflects the second soundbite in how it accepts Pollock's creations as part of the order of things, and should similarly disarm haters of fine art.
Arguably more than any other living actor, Harris, who also plays Pollock, embodies the archetypal Working Stiff, and his blue-collar demystification of Pollock's labour-intensive art, both as performer and director, makes for blessedly unpretentious cinema. (From what I know of Harris, he, like Pollock, was not born gifted or lucky; instead, a strong work ethic sowed the seed of his success.) Granted, it's possible that Pollock will alienate those same viewers perplexed by the imponderable "purpose" of Pollock's splatter series: the common thread between them is a lack of editorializing. The movie Pollock is all purposeful gazes and silent exchanges dotted by tantrums, the motivation for any of it left to our own perceptions. And it is a sympathetic yet not altogether forgiving film, as illustrated by a perhaps-unavoidably disheartening conclusion.
Pollock encapsulates the period in which Pollock fought a losing battle against personal demons (alcoholism, depression, and the general attendant miseries of an artist) while finding a place of subconscious expression. A brief introduction to Pollock's raging drunk side segues into his getting accosted by fellow New York artist Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden, richly deserving of her surprise Best Supporting Actress Oscar), who works from the outside-in, pre-intellectualizing every stroke of her brush. In a scene after they've moved in together and established adjoining studios, she asks him what he hopes to achieve on his latest canvas, grilling him about the interplay of cubism and surrealism until he says, "You paint the fucking thing," and leaves in a huff. By the time they wed (Harris's own wife, Amy Madigan, is unrecognizable and exceptional as gallery diva Peggy Guggenheim), she has become his de facto manager; it's form marrying function, chaos marrying discipline. Krasner in fact denies him a baby, indicating that it would upset this balance.
Alas, opposites attract but such unions are probably destined to implode, and I hope I'm not ruining the Pollock experience by revealing that this one does. While it's never depicted as a very romantic matrimony--Pollock and wife channel their passions elsewhere--their symbiosis leaves each other picked dry after several years. (Krasner, after suffering one of Pollock's conniptions too many: "You are killing me! You are killing me! You are killing me!") Pollock himself moves on to dalliances with younger women like Ruth Klingman (scorching Jennifer Connelly), hoping, we surmise, to catch the revitalizing whiff of youth.
I love Jackson Pollock's stuff and am enamoured of Harris's Pollock as well. It's scrappy and observant; no coincidence that its minor failings are the occasional invasive flourish, such as Jeff Beal's hummable but no less lamentable score. (I can't imagine that Pollock, or anyone, would paint to this music, which puts filling soundtrack voids ahead of complementing the images.) One of my favourite sequences is an eerily quiet re-enactment of Hans Namuth shooting that famous Pollock footage in East Hampton, Long Island. The mounting tension is almost comic here as Namuth keeps interrupting Pollock's creative process to reload his camera or take a dinner break. A more seasoned director might've been too arrogant to admit that not all artists or mediums (i.e., film and painting) are created equal.
Columbia TriStar's Pollock DVD is one of their rare honest-to-goodness Special Editions and unquestionably worthy of the formal label, even if the picture quality ultimately leaves something to be desired. Letterboxed at 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x9 displays, the transfer is soft and dusky, as befitting a low-budget art house entry, maybe--yet when we see clips excerpted elsewhere on the disc, the film looks more lustrous, if overly sharp. The LFE-less Dolby Digital 5.0 soundmix is pinprick clear, though it owes its most animate passages to Beal's aforementioned compositions. The audio is notably adept at rendering the subtle shifts in the dialogue's character as environments change.
Ed Harris has recorded a cozy commentary track that's no mere reiteration of what we're already seeing on screen. Instead, it's an engaging rumination from the first-time hyphenate in which he suggests that the movie was really discovered in the editing room. A better-than-average making-of (21 mins.) adds to the oft-told genesis of the production (Harris's father gave his son a book on Pollock because he thought they bore a physical resemblance to each other) by discussing Barbara Turner's ambitious original screenplay, in addition to delving into the Pollock recreations that were to pepper the film's sets. A 23-minute Charlie Rose interview with Ed Harris, who wonders if his own painting career will continue and evolve beyond the production, fills in the precious few gaps left in our understanding of Pollock's complicated journey to the screen. Filling out the package are four intense deleted scenes (without commentary or context; Krasner gets to throw a Pollockian fit in the only one of real value), cast and crew bios, a web link, and trailers for Pollock and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. Originally published: July 26, 2001.
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