“My opinion is that new needs new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and new means of making their statements.”
Jackson Pollock died in 1956. In his life, he changed American art with his abstract style and unusual methods. His life itself, though, was far from revolutionary, fitting the very definition of the tortured artist with his messed-up childhood, drinking, womanizing, and depression. Ed Harris brings the artist’s tale to the screen in a remarkably balanced portrayal.
Pollock follows the latter years of Jackson Pollock’s (played by Ed Harris) life, eschewing the quick glimpse at the child and teen years some biopics give in favor of covering the most interesting years of his life, from the time he met his future wife, Lee Krasner (played by Marcia Gay Harden), through his emergence as a respected painter, to the downward spiral of self-destruction that finally claimed his life in a drunken car wreck. Along the way, we get a peek at what made Pollock tick, his unusual painting techniques, and the hell it must have been to live with such a man.
I’m not an art aficionado by any means. Sure, I like looking at appealing art, and I enjoy French Impressionism (Van Gogh, Monet, and the like) and other works that tickle my aesthetic fancy, but I can’t reach the levels of “mental masturbation” needed to dissect abstract art to the point of appreciating it. I have the same philosophy about other works of art: if I can’t appreciate it on the surface alone for its intrinsic beauty or enjoyment, it’s not worth delving under the surface for what else makes (or might make) it truly special. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, if the beholder doesn’t behold beauty, why behold at all? It’s why I prefer the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe to T.S. Eliot, or the movies of Tim Burton to those of Stanley Kubrick. It that makes me a philistine, I’m prepared to live with that.
That leads me to the work of Jackson Pollock. I can’t recall studying him in my freshman Art Appreciation class in college — the professor got caught up in the Romantic and Classical eras, while my interest in art began and ended with French Impressionism — but I do remember reading about him and seeing his paintings as I perused my textbook. How’s that for advanced knowledge of the subject of a film you’re reviewing? Unlike most modern art, I find Pollock’s paintings oddly compelling. Somehow, it reminds me of when I was a kid, sitting in church, bored, staring at the pine wood ceiling, counting or looking for patterns in the knotholes. In the chaos there’s both order and beauty.
From everything I’ve read about Pollock, the movie is very accurate to his life, compared to other biopics. Much of that has to do with the dedication Ed Harris had to the subject. The film had been in the works for much of the 1990s after Harris read a biography his father sent him for his birthday (as a joke mostly, because there is a passing physical resemblance between Harris and Pollock — they’re both taciturn and bald). He worked directly with the screenwriters, and when it came time to film the movie, he took the directing reins himself because he intimately knew the material and the artist. For several years, he dabbled with canvas and paint, learning to mimic Pollock’s inimitable style.
Harris headlines his own film. He’s one of my favorite character actors; every role is distinct, and he embodies each person he brings to the screen. It’s probably an unpopular choice, but my favorite of his roles is Major Hummel in the Michael Bay action flick The Rock. In a film that could have easily been just another action shoot-’em-up, in a role that could have easily been just another bombastic bad guy, he brought humanity and three dimensionality to a man who is taking extreme measures to seek recompense for the government’s transgressions again his comrades who fell in combat. As Jackson Pollock he creates a remarkable character, but unfortunately it’s a performance that doesn’t fire on all cylinders. By all accounts, Pollock was completely nuts. I never quite get the impression from Harris (perhaps because I’ve seen him in so many films) that he is really crazy. As a counterpoint, the film that comes to mind is Primal Fear. Yeah, it wasn’t a great movie, but it had one thing going for it: an incredible performance by Edward Norton in his film debut. I never doubted for a second that he was completely crazy, and there’s perhaps two reasons for that: One, Norton never seemed to be acting, and two, I couldn’t place him as any other character or recognizable personality. That isn’t to slight Ed Harris at all, because he did deserve the Academy Award nomination he received.
The supporting cast is perhaps even stronger than Harris. Most notable is Marcia Gay Hardin as Lee Krasner, Pollock’s wife, companion, and muse. Her performance hits all the right notes of strength, vulnerability, and a caring, nurturing spirit. It’s heartbreaking to see such a fine human being treated so scornfully. The Academy Award she took home was most certainly deserved. I’m hoping that it will buy her better roles than the ones that disgracefully dot the résumé of such a talented actress — cinematic blights like Spy Hard (playing…shiver…Miss Cheevus), Flubber, and Desperate Measures. Jennifer Connelly received fourth billing, but her role as Pollock’s mistress shortly before his death is little more than a cameo. 2000 seemed to be Connelly’s year. Pollock was one of three plum roles in critical favorites; the other two were in Waking the Dead and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream. Her film roles seem to be infrequent, but I’m hoping she continues to show such excellent taste. Other choice roles are filled by Jeffrey Tambor (Meet Joe Black) as art critic Art Greenberg and Amy Madigan (Field of Dreams, and also Ed Harris’s wife) as Pollock’s patron Peggy Guggenheim.
My hat is off to Columbia for producing an excellent special edition of a small independent film that few people saw theatrically. The film is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The transfer isn’t remarkable, but it isn’t poor by any means. The picture is a bit muted, but negative defects and digital blemishes are at a minimum, and edge enhancement was noticeable but not distracting. Despite the cover’s declaration that the disc has Dolby Digital 5.0 audio, it does indeed have a discrete subwoofer signal, though it does not get used very often. Sound is relegated to the front, dialogue is clear, and the score does not overpower the rest of the soundfield.
For extras, there’s an Ed Harris commentary track (whoa, it must be late…I almost typed Ed Wood!), a making-of documentary, a Charlie Rose interview with Ed Harris, deleted scenes, and other standard goodies. Harris’s commentary is understated, just as you’d imagine. He mumbles a bit, but you’ll catch some nice insights about the production in there. The making-of documentary clocks in at a little over 20 minutes, and gives you one of the more informed looks a production I have seen in a documentary of this length. If you’re familiar with Charlie Rose, you’re familiar with the sort of celebrity interview he orchestrates. If you’re not familiar with Rose, just imagine your typical E! network interview, and envision the exact opposite. He was particularly interested in the subject of Jackson Pollock, and his talk with Harris (presented in its entirety, at around 25 minutes) deals mostly with the man himself and Harris’s curiosity in him. The four deleted scenes are short and very rough, and would not have added much to an already dense movie (and I do mean dense in a positive way — it’s jam-packed with information and drama). The other goodies are filmographies for all the major stars of the film, along with theatrical trailers for Pollock and Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould.
As I get older, my attention span seems to become shorter. I was rather hyperactive in my younger days, and even more so in college when I had a nasty Mountain Dew addiction (yeah, you laugh…but the withdrawal was vicious). Curiously, I used to have much more patience with long films. Pollock is only 122 minutes, but it seems longer. It is slow and deliberate, punctuated with momentary bursts of creativity or rage. On the whole I thought it was an excellent film; it just caused me several “Indiglo moments,” as a Timex watch commercial once dubbed those lulls in films that make you check the time.
I’ve been skydiving once in my life. I loved it. I’ll probably never do it again. Pollock, for me, was one of those movies that was nice to watch once, but I doubt I’ll ever want to see again. I’ve had the experience, I’ll file it away, and move on. I have a feeling the feeling will be mutual. Please, by all means give Pollock a rental and treat yourself to a fine drama detailing the life of one of the most memorable artists of the 20th century, but I’d be surprised if after that rental you’ll want to add it to your collection for posterity.