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Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock-Pollock (2000)
Nov 16, 2001 (Updated Nov 16, 2001)
Review by artbyjude
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:powerful performances, moving glimpse of a troubled genius
Cons:the down side of the artist: dysfunctional behavior
The Bottom Line: This movie is one of the definitive artistic statements of the year, You may not like it, but you will remember it.
This is one of the few movies I have seen in the past year that will stay with me, probably forever. A part of it will play over and over in my head, in much the way the painter's work affected me many years ago as an artist.
Recommend this product?
This is not to say the story is a happy one, or even that it has great audience appeal. It is missing both. In fact, it is entirely possible that it could be boring pointless or disturbing to some, if not most of the audience. There is very little humor, and there are no clever plot gimmicks.
But to those few of us who know the work of the painter Jackson Pollock, considered to be one of the definitive Painters in the twentieth century, the work will have meaning. For those of us who appreciate a film with perfect imagery, lighting, color and design elements, this film will be a treat. The pacing is perfect, the editing is good and the dialog although raw, is rough only because it lacks the polish that would have made it pedantic, instead of powerfully realistic. Even the music, by Jeff Beal, reflects the dynamics of painting, the "in" sounds of the era, and complements the film in an unusually harmonious balance.
The work that inspired Ed Harris to begin this project fourteen years ago was the biography of Jackson Pollock by Neifeh and White, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga published in 1986. It was gift for Harris from his Dad, working in The Chicago Museum Of Art, sent on the strength of a physical resemblance. Ed became obsessed with a film project based on the book. In the intervening years, Ed would go so far as to learn to paint like Jackson Pollock, no mean feat. The book was adapted into a screenplay of 286 pages by Helen Turner. 89 pages would be cut. Much of the dialog in fact was based on words spoken by Pollock and Lee Krasner, his wife.
There is a film within the film, of Pollock at work, and it is a good example of how this film correlates with real life events. I have seen this film many times, (We called it "Action Jackson")but not for many years. Ed's performance is right on the money. The artist did indeed approach his work with that singular focus of energy that looks like dancing in it's fluidity and grace.
The performances are outstanding, and the chemistry between Harris and Harden, who played Lee Krasner, is obvious, and they are engaged in a tense dynamic that makes each performance dependent on the other. Harden won an academy award for her role, but she could not have done it alone.
Jack the "Dripper" or Artistic Genius?
Judging by the public's response to this movie I would suspect that the essential question for many is unanswered, in spite of the impact of Pollock's work on Art History.
He gained nearly instant notoriety by a gorgeous spread in Life Magazine, a presentation of chaos which dumbfounded critics and the public alike,in 1950. A few critics understood it's importance. Others mocked. The public had little or no exposure to anything but representational art, and something called "Abstract Expressionism" looked very much like chaos. Try as they might they could see "nothing" in it.
Without showing the history of Jackson Pollock's style, and his struggles to produce paintings over the years, the temptation to see this merely as an attention grabbing gimmick might be great. If that is as far as you can go with your appreciation of his genius, feel free to disregard the rest of the review, because you will never be able to get past condemning his alcoholism to understand what he accomplished. To you he will be just another mean drunk, a story you have heard before.
But if you're still with me, and you WANT to understand Jackson Pollock a little better, be aware that Jackson was the first Painter to break through any need to use representational imagery or conventional design elements in his work. In Jackson Pollock, we have a guy who not only was able to create dynamic works of art, but he did not require a translator to make it meaningful. His work starting in 1947 becomes not random, but kinetic. He is the painting.
There is no middleman that has to tell the story, the painting is a direct translation of Jackson Pollock to the canvas. The medium is mostly paint, but there are different kinds of paint, dropped, drizzled, and thrown at the canvas, and sometimes glass and sand as well. The name of the physical action of painting is ACTION PAINTING, and that requires a choreography of paint with the artist, in a dance with the canvas.
There have been many biographers and critics ready to tell you the story and meaning of Pollock's work, especially post success, and even more well after his death. There are profound intellectual justifications flying left and right, by everybody with a theory. In the end, the artist himself says it best "When I am in my painting, I am not aware of what I'm doing...the painting has a life of it's own, pure harmony".
With Pollock, painting becomes pure unconscious, with all the yearning, dynamic rhythm, and boundless energy within, not directed by any known convention. It becomes a direct expression of the inner spirit. It is in effect, a liberation of the practice of painting from real-life objects and images, a final transition to Abstraction. Pollock was an Abstract Expressionist.
Background (bio before the movie)
Jackson Pollock was born in Cody Wyoming, and lived in Arizona for awhile with five brothers, two others of which also aspired to become painters. He was the son of an alcoholic. Early on, his singular desire was to be a painter. He learned sand painting from local native American Artists. He eventually hooked up with the great American Regionalist Thomas Hart Benton who is famous for his folksy murals courtesy of the WPA, but also contributed to Pollock's work in style, expressing intensity and conflict, obvious if you view historical examples of his work. Pollock's personal life was chaotic with bouts of depression and alcoholism. He did not have a benign understanding of the universe. He suffered a complete breakdown in 1926, and was helped by a Jungian psychoanalyst. His condition also earned him 4 F status, when the draft began for WWII.
In 1930 he came to New York, joined the Art Student's League, and started moving steadily toward his break through in painting. It was not a conscious process and he was influenced and prodded by others. The New York Art World then, (as now) was a brutal environment, with critics ruling success. Monetary success and fame did not come easily to anyone, and less easily to someone with Pollock's lack of social skills. Although he was a painter's painter, and respected by his peers, his first big break came when Peggy Guggenheim recognized his work.
Questions posed by the film
Would he have been successful without the influence of Lee Krasner (his wife)? He would probably have been dead in an ally without her, and her contacts and dedication to his art were critical.
Do you have to be devoid of social skills, psychotic or chemically dependent to be an artist and achieve greatness? Pollack failed to integrate with his world, and his work stands as a statement of his explosive times. Alienation contributed to his focus on painting and the energy needed to create drained him of everything else. Was he chemically unbalanced? BiPolar? Schizophrenic? His overiding pathology was depression, and despair, which was only relieved by his painting, which surprisingly rarely reflects the depression that dominated his personality.
Did success destroy the artist? That is the romantic's conclusion and one that I can't subscribe to. He died in a down time, but he had been there before. If he had survived his depression, who knows what he may have done?
The Plot...as told by the movie **Disclaimer ***this is meant to be a real life section of the artist's life. There is no surprise ending. If you think I'm giving away any "secrets" you missed the point.
The section of Jackson Pollock's life that we see in the movie begins in 1940, and ends with the artist's death in 1956. It is told with unflinching honesty. The artist is not romanticized as a hero, and we don't like him much. Yet to it's credit, the film manages to preserve a clear appreciation of the artist's work, which can't be separated from the man.
We meet Lee Krasner, herself an artist, when she comes to Jackson Pollock's studio to see his work. She fell in love with the artist through his work. Lee Krasner was not as beautiful as the actress who plays her, but the relationship of these two artists plays as authentic, and powerful. Krasner put her own career aside to patch up Pollock and save him from himself.
Jackson Pollock was a man clearly unable to deal with life on his own. When his brother moves away from New York City, he breaks down completely, and Krasner cares for him, and helps him to focus on his work. She, and she is perhaps the only one at this point, recognizes his greatness and helps promote him , something he is clearly unable to do for himself.
The movie focuses on some ugly sides of this man, and some brutal truth in the marriage of the two artists. "Acting out" and poor impulse control marked Pollock's personal personality deficits, besides a sort of angry belligerence and taunting of the "rules". At a posh art party, he turned and urinated in the fireplace (something he did do). He had a habit of punching people (not played up in the movie) hoping they would punch him back.
At the same time, Pollock is said to have had a yearning for some conventions in family life, wanting a "family" and children. Krasner had sacrificed enough, she claimed to have no more energy for that. Looking after Pollock was a full time job.
Success in terms of recognition came with the patronage of Peggy Guggenheim. In terms of money, it came late, and did not make him rich. His break through "Action Painting" phase, was achieved in the Hamptons, in relative isolation.
With success, also came depression, and a lack of sense of direction. This is shown with great power in this flick, as Pollock begins to drink again after a 5 year abstinence and continued drinking until his fatal car crash. His life was out of control, his marriage was in trouble, he sought affection elsewhere. What this movie did not show was that he did produce magnificent works in this period, although nothing with the shock value of his show in 1950. He was suicidal (documented) on the day of his death, and his death is attributed to suicide.
What we can never know is, if death had missed him (as it had many times before) what he may have accomplished. If there is message it may be that.
Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock. Pollock lived in this character played by Ed Harris. There is no myth of greatness, only raw passion. The self doubts are never articulated in words in a melodramatic way, but they are present in every movement by the actor, and his alienation from society is a predominant element. Harris even gained 30 pounds to film the last segment, which doesn't look good on him, but fits the portrayal. It is obvious that this was a work of passion for this actor/director, and it shows in the quality of the performance and the film itself. A few redeeming moments for the artist occur in scenes where Pollock picks up stray dogs and brings them home.
Marcia Gay Harden as Lee Krasner, wife of Jackson Pollock. Although there is little focus on the artist, there is some proof that she did more than support Pollock. She was able to articulate far better than he what he was doing, but the direction she traveled with Pollock was the same road for her own art. Did she fail to succeed because she was a woman? She continued to paint all through her marriage, and after her marriage to Pollock. This is a dynamic portrayal by this actress, and earned the Oscar it received.
Amy Madigan as Peggy Guggenheim. Madigan has been married to Harris for a while. She moves into this part as the rich patroness with ease and enthusiasm. Her part is smaller, but her performance is equal to any other in the film. She brings the rare moments of real humor into this flick. It is welcome relief. Pay attention to her performance in her first viewing of Pollock's work, in his fifth floor walk-up.
"I am PEGGY GUGGENHEIM! I do not climb up five flights of stairs to nobody home! I do not climb up five flights of stairs. Not I. I do not climb up five flights of stairs." Maybe you have to have lived that five- flight life in New York City to appreciate that, but it had me rolling on the floor.
Robert Knott as Sande Pollock. This friend of Harris, plays the brother role with sensitivity. It shows clearly in few scenes how badly Pollock needed unconditional love and acceptance to keep him from destroying himself. Well done.
Bud Cort as Howard Putzel, patron of the arts, friend of Guggenheim. This too is a delightful character, wholly fabricated, because little is known about the person, and what little is known is not the same as this character. I liked him.
Val Kilmer as De Kooning, another great artist of the day, and one of my favorite painters. A small role but a good one, accentuating Pollock's give and take, and intellectual identification with the dynamic young painters of the period.
Jeffrey Tambor as Clem Greenberg, the art critic. He was one of a handful of art critics who has managed to understand the meaning and the purpose of what he critiqued. He was well portrayed by this fine actor. Tambor has gained a few pounds since his stint as sidekick to the talk show host on the sit-com that aired on HBO.(The Larry Sandler Show). He has been in many movies, and is one of the best known faces of the last twenty years, This serious role reflects his talent.
John Heard as architect Tony Smith, one of Pollock's artists clique. Heard represents here the more convivial aspects of Pollock, who did indeed have friends who understood and appreciated him.
Jennifer Connelly as Ruth Kingman, Pollock's last 'girfriend' before he died. If you remember Connelly in Requiem for a Dream you may not recognize her here. The character of course is completely different, and she plays Ruth as shallow, a poor replacement for Lee in Pollock's life. However,she is beautiful and believable. The real Ruth survived the fatal crash.
The other performers, to my mind, play a very small role in the film, although none of them perform badly, and all create the richer tapestry of the film life. One interesting performance is Ed's father, who plays the veterinarian in one of the last scenes.
This movie is not recommended for everyone. It includes some very offensive language, some disturbing scenes, and a portrayal of alcoholism that is ultimately depressing,as is the disease itself. It is, however a brilliant and truthful film, and one that I will always consider one of a kind. It is beautifully photographed, honestly portrayed, and shows a human side of artistic genius, without degrading the greatness of the art.
**Note **If you are interested in web links to Pollock's work, please e-mail me directly, and I will be happy to send them to you.
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