Movie Review By Casey McCabe
Labors of love, like the passions that inspire them, can be dangerous things. Films about artists can be dangerous things, too. And into both minefields walks Ed Harris, writer, director and star of “Pollock” a 10 year labor of love about abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock.
Harris has emerged with a Best Actor nomination, and costar Marcia Gay Harden got a nod as well, remarkable feats considering Pollock’s extremely late and limited release. And it's true, Harris engages in a ferocious wrestling match with a very internal character. He also puts on weight to portray the character in decline, a sacrifice the Academy always likes to recognize. But like one of Pollock's controversial canvases, splattered defiantly and seemingly haphazardly, the film invites a questioning of its very substance.
Based on the biography Jackson Pollock: An America Saga, the film limits itself to the last fifteen years of the artist's life. From 1941, when the not so young Arizona transplant is still trying to make a name in New York's art scene, to Pollock's early death in 1956, an American legend about to be superseded by a new wave of modern art pioneers. Even with the truncated life story, the film must use a series of short, defining moments to cover a lot of ground.There's Pollock meeting Lee Krasner (Harden), a talented artist who bubbles with rare self-confidence and who will go on to sublimate herself to Pollock and his career.There's the courting of make ‘em or break ‘em art patrons including Peggy Guggenheim, enjoyably rendered by Harris’s real life wife, Amy Madigan. There are the first gallery shows. The first whispers of “genius”. The first derisive snickers. The move from Manhattan apartment to Long Island farm. And not one, but two attempts to capture the artistic epiphanies that drive Pollack further to abstraction, and ultimately fame, which the film defines as a profile in Life magazine. Followed, of course, by the trappings of fame, neatly drawn by the deepening lines around Harris’ eyes.
Harris, the director, stacks these moments up like heavy blocks, building to a painful, albeit required ending. He is dead studious in his desire to accurately depict Pollock. But in understanding Jackson Pollock, two things seem abundantly clear. One, he was a raging alcoholic. Two, he was pathologically insecure. Which came first being open to interpretation. But falling out of this we get a Pollock who was often petty and abusive, competitive and jealous, shy and guarded, and torn between his genuine love of art and a desperate need for acceptance. And here the film approaches some dangerous territory: the possibility that Pollock’s famous drip painting style was a cynical reaction to an art community that wasn't paying him proper attention. Dangerous territory, but the film doesn't cross that line, opting to paint him as tortured genius, a possibility that's equally hard to argue with.
In the end, we have a complex man. But no more complex, perhaps, then any number of talented, self-destructive souls we might have chosen, both famous and not. In the final moments of the film, in a scene right before Jackson Pollock proceeds to callously put innocent human lives at risk, he comes upon an injured dog on the highway, and rushes the dog to the veterinarianan.
How can a man who loves dogs be so cruel to the people who love him? It’s one last attempt at profound contradiction. But sadly, and I do mean sadly, "Pollock" ends up only scratching the surface.
© 2001 - Casey McCabe - Air Date: 2/28/01
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