In his directorial debut, Ed Harris stars as Pollock. Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock‘s wife, and another great American artist, is portrayed by Marcia Gay Harden, who won the academy award for her honest and straight forward performance.
Harris, tells this story in a chronological order, except for the opening shot. When we are first introduced to the film, there is no sound as the camera slowly follows a cropped shot of the back of a young woman in a pale yellow sweater with matching dress-gloves. In her two hands she holds an issue of Time magazine. She pushes her way through a voiceless crowd till she reaches the torso of a man in a dress suit. She opens the magazine to a page as the man’s hand slowly moves to the inside breast pocket of his jacket, and pulls out a pen. As he signs her copy, the camera pans up to his face, it is Pollock. As people crowd and push around him he looks up and out toward something in the distance, his expression is pensive, wary, anxious, and somewhat sad. The film cuts to an overhead shot of two men curled up together in a stairwell struggling against one another to climb the stairs. It is Greenwich Village, 1941, and the man on the ground is Jackson Pollock, and he is drunk. In a sudden rage he screams out, “Fuck Picasso” and begins to sob. The other man, his brother, holds him, and calms him till he is able to lift him to his feet-this is Jackson Pollock.
Harris takes the viewer through fourteen years of Pollock’s life from 1941, right before he met Krasner, to 1956 when Pollock died in a drunken car crash killing one other person along with him. Aside from the first shot, and a minor step out of time, when Pollock attempts to sleep with Peggy Guggenheim, the rest of the film rolls out from one major event to the next. The performances are all tight. Harris and Harden are convincing and believable as a couple, their relationship more of a kinship than a romance or more like that of a mother and her impetuous son. Harris is excellent in his portrayal of Pollock from his childish tirades and drunken rages to the only moments when he seemed normal or sane which was when he was painting.
Six years before this movie was made Harris began studying Pollock, and as a result he learned to paint like Pollock. Harris does all of the on camera painting, and it is wonderful to watch. These are my favorite scenes, and I wish they were just seconds longer. Watching Harris paint like Pollock is like watching acrobats in Cirque du Soleil soar through the air from chandeliers. In one scene, Pollock sits for days, maybe weeks, staring at a blank canvas. He has been commissioned to do a painting for Peggy Guggenheim. When he finally begins to paint, it is a dazzling dance, a feverish performance where he uses his entire body to move into his brush strokes. In another scene, shot over head, Pollock is walking over the canvas dripping, and stringing black paint in passionate, direct motions.
The film has many shots of the art which allows the viewer to not only get to know Pollock the person, but also Pollock the artist. Through his art we can see his true development, and we can begin to understand why Lee Krasner chose to be with him.
Pollock was a man that only an artist could love. He was a terrible tragedy, a nightmare to manage with deep states of alcoholic bouts. He would sometimes disappear, to be found later in the drunk tank or curled up on the ground of some dirty street. Even sober, he was childish, and known to have tantrums.
There is a two year period when Pollock is completely sober this time is when he does some of his greatest work, but soon after he returns to alcohol with such force that it destroys him physically. Harris transforms his body not only through performance, but by literally adding weight to his frame to show the physical and damaging effects.
Krasner devoted 14 years of her life to Pollock, rarely showing her own, just as amazing, influential art. Watching the film you wonder why she would give up so much of herself for this man when she may have had a richer life without him, but then you see the paintings, and you understand. She knew art better than he did, and she saw in his work what he was and needed to be for the art world. She was art: she lived it, breathed it, loved it, and she married it.
There is a romantic notion that the greatest artists are addicts. I would say this is rooted in some truth- I don’t know what it is exactly, probably something to do with the curious side, the desire to burn wild in this life. The nature of the creative type that can easily lead to addictions, but this is anything but romantic. It is not the addiction that makes the artist great. Watching Pollock shatters this notion of the great drunk artist into the tiny pieces it deserves to be broken. Pollock was a great artist sober. The booze did not make him great. The artist in him is what was great. When he was drunk he was not painting. Drinking killed the artists while he was still alive, and then it killed the man.