Why do so many movies on this subject get made? In recent years, we've seen Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo about Vincent van Gogh, Bernard Rose's Immortal Beloved about Ludwig van Beethoven, and Agneiszka Holland's Total Eclipse about Arthur Rimbaud, to name a few. In every picture the same thing happens: The protagonist burns with artistic genius but is otherwise the lowest form of human being, a poor relative, a deceitful lover, a traitorous friend. And now to this list of films we can add Ed Harris' earnest but ultimately unsatisfying Pollock. The film offers justifiably honored lead performances but a narrative that leaves too many questions unanswered and more important ones unraised.
Adapted from the Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith and written for the screen by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller, Pollock is the story of the abstract expressionist widely viewed as the most important American painter of the 20th century.
Beginning in 1947, Jackson Pollock (Harris, who has been nominated for a best-actor Oscar) popularized a style of painting that abandoned brushes and put paint on canvas by dripping, slinging or pouring. Writing in Partisan Review and The Nation, his great champion, critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor), described Pollock's achievement as "Paint is paint. Surface is surface. That is all." And stimulated by Greenberg's endorsement and esthetic theories, Pollock abandoned representational painting entirely to produce works of intense color without recognizable form. At the height of his influence, Pollock's work was described as "action painting" and was defended as a visual rendering of the artistic subconscious. His paintings lacked motif, traditional notions of composition or central focus, and, in fact, they were often trimmed to fit hanging space.
Pollock tells the artist's story from 1940, several years before lionization, until his death in a drunk-driving accident in 1956. The film does not make clear that Pollock is working for the Federal Art Project when we meet him and is, in that regard, gainfully employed. In fact, he seems at this stage almost destitute. He is a drunkard, raving his jealousy about the success of other artists and sharing an unhappy apartment with his brother and sister-in-law. Shortly, however, Pollock makes the acquaintance of Lee Krasner (Oscar-nominated Marcia Gay Harden), a fellow painter with whose work his is being exhibited. Krasner instantly becomes Pollock's greatest advocate, shortly his lover and several years later his wife. In 1943, Pollock garners the sponsorship of the fabled Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan appearing, unfortunately, as if she's modeled her look after that of Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein). And after moving with Krasner to East Hampton in 1945 and enjoying a period of tranquility, Pollock comes into his full artistry. The film suggests, whether documented or via conjecture, that Pollock discovers his signature dripping technique by accident. Whatever, he achieves a breakthrough that vaults him from obscurity to the pages of LIFE magazine.
Throughout his decade of success, however, Pollock seldom seems to enjoy himself. He cheats on Krasner, and after a brief period of sobriety, he returns to full-blown alcoholism. He is at once crippled by self-doubt and blinded to all interests save his own. When he first meets Krasner, he dismisses her work with the left-handed compliment that she's "a good woman painter." After he's become successful, he bores the members of his family by talking only about himself. And all the while he treats Krasner like a doormat. So what's to like or care about this guy? Nothing.
As director, Harris designs several great moments. In one, Pollock waits indecisively while Krasner undresses in a distant room, her shadowed figure like a black-and-white sketch by Picasso. In another, Pollock is standing before a blank canvas, the distorted shadow of his own image the only form visible. But individually inspired scenes do not coalesce into a successful whole. Milos Forman made a great movie of Amadeus by depicting the maddening genius Mozart as a victim of his jealous competitor Salieri. Pollock is a victim almost exclusively of his own limitations.
The missed trick is that this film didn't concentrate on Krasner instead of her husband. We never do understand why she devotes herself to such a monster. But we are both touched by her loyalty and fascinated by her impact on Pollock's career. It is she who introduces him to both Greenberg and Guggenheim, and it is she who first employed some of the techniques for which Pollock was widely credited. Today, Krasner is gradually being recognized as a genius in her own right, but this film does so only in a postscript, and that's both an indefensible weakness and a shame.