US 2000 : Ed Harris : 122 mins

ONE-LINE REVIEW: Harris directs himself in his labour-of-love biopic about revolutionary 1950s artist Jackson Pollock – but his own earnest style is far from cutting-edge.

Of all the 20th century’s major artists, few can be less suited to cinematic biopic treatment than groundbreaking 1950s ‘action painter’ Jackson Pollock. The ferociously abstract works for which he’s best known – made by dripping paint directly onto a canvas stretched out on the floor – are about as far from ‘narrative’ art as it’s possible to get, intended instead to represent an almost-unmediated transfer of subconscious impulses into a visible medium. Cinema has always lagged behind the other arts in terms of successful experiment, but any film made in accordance with even vaguely Pollock-ish ‘principles’ would surely be unwatchable – and, commercially speaking, certainly unreleasable to a wide audience. Even so, Pollock (Barbara Turner and Susan J Emshwiller’s script is based on a book by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith) could arguably have been made at any point during the 1941-56 period in which it’s set.

Great attention has been paid to the clothes, cars and dcor of the times, to the point that at one stage a scene is stolen by a rudimentary bread-toaster – despite a lively, Aaron Copland-ish score by Jeff Beal, the approach is careful, sober, painfully earnest, with results that fall into the classic unevenly-episodic biopic trap. This is also a typical actor-turns-director movie – more interesting as a showcase for performances than as a coherent cinematic vision of its subject. Marcia Gay Harden picked up an Oscar for her performance as Pollock’s long-suffering artist wife Lee Krasner, while there are vivid lesser roles for Amy Madigan (Mrs Ed Harris), Bud Cort, John Heard, Jeffrey Tambor and Jennifer Connelly and Val Kilmer – supposedly Willem de Kooning, but with strange hair, teeth and voice that suggest he’s still stuck in the ‘silly disguise’ mode of The Saint.

The rest of the cast are, of course, minor satellites orbiting the heavy gravitational presence at the film’s centre: Harris’s Oscar-nominated turn as Pollock. The actor has spoken of his intense identification with this character, and the film was clearly a labour of love, albeit an arduous one. But it’s very hard to square Harris’s persona as an actor – consistent, reliable, hard-working, dependably no-nonsense – with any aspect of the Pollock we see here. He’s a borderline autistic figure, no less dysfunctional and disturbed than the John Nash of A Beautiful Mind – it’s no coincidence that Connelly followed up Harden’s Best Supporting Actress success, as the two roles are structurally identical. Krasner is sharp, lively, verbal, active – Pollock’s main admirer, champion and fan. Her husband, however, is an inarticulate blank, often spending long periods in stony silence, largely unable to interact on the most basic of levels with the people around him.

There’s no way in – but when Pollock does flare into life, he’s invariably an aggressive, drunken, self-aggrandising dullard, so annoyingly boorish we soon wish he’d switch back to automaton mode. Harris often presents Pollock as some kind of Real American Hero, kin to Kowalski, Dean and Kerouac as he broods in rugged workwear like a refugee from a Levi’s Originals advert – just in case we miss the point, Harris at one point shows Pollock thrusting his hand into a patch of damp brown soil in his Long Island back-yard. But, however iconic he appears, it damages the film that Pollock is never sympathetic, or even especially comprehensible in terms of his actions – he’s much like Jake La Motta in Raging Bull, which Pollock often resembles in terms of milieu and structure, if not directorial flair. As Danny Peary said of Scorsese’s epic, “When the film ends, you realize that it has no core, no real theme. It’s just about a louse.”

Pollock’s artistic progression and his relationship with Krasner are enough to make him an intriguing figure. But the script never really unlocks Pollock’s personality, nor does it get far beneath the surface of why Krasner puts up with his increasingly cruel antics at the cost of her own career. Luckily for all concerned, Harden’s energy seems as indefatigable as her character, and she keeps the film watchable right up to the awkward ‘five years later’ coda that concludes with Pollock’s untimely, violent demise. By this time, however, most viewers will be glad to see the back of him.

22nd July 2002
(seen 17th, Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle)

by Neil Young
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