The process of artistic creation seldom translates well into cinema. Painters, in particular, make poor cinematic subjects. There seems to be something about the relationship of artist to medium or media, and art as labor and expression, that eludes their transformation into great film. More often than not, movies about painters fall into the same tired cliches about the personality and character of “the artist.” In order to produce breathtaking works of genius and beauty, painters (we repeatedly tell ourselves) must be more than a little tragic and crazy. Think: Vincent and Theo, Basquiat, and I Shot Andy Warhol (or any film in which Warhol, as himself or as a character, appears). In Pollock, director/star (and Academy Award nominee for Best Actor) Ed Harris takes on the story of Jackson Pollock, the man whose paintings (so the story goes) dragged American art kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. One might expect that the story of this art superstar must easily fall into the bland stereotypes mentioned above. On the other hand, like Pollock’s paintings, which are kinetic and daring, perhaps his life and career might escape these limitations and produce something original on film. The good news is that Harris’s Pollock almost makes it. Almost.
Throughout Pollock, Harris does an admirable job representing the interactions of painter, paint, and canvas; Jackson Pollock’s artistic progression farther and farther into the realm of abstraction; and his sense of competition with his contemporaries (“Fuck Picasso!”, he says, repeatedly). In short, Harris shows us the sense Pollock had of himself as an artist, and how he located himself among his peers.
Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Amy Madigan, Jeffrey Tambor, Val Kilmer, Bud Cort
(Sony Pictures Classics)
In the film’s most self-aware moment, it recognizes the limitations of film itself in capturing the artistic process. The extensive series of photographs and films of Pollock at work made by photojournalist Hans Namuth (played by Norbert Weisser in the film) are justly famous for how they seem to capture the painter in mid-creation. Harris shows us how these shoots were staged performances that had nothing to do with how art is produced, but rather reflected a presumed viewing public’s perception of what an artist at work “should” look like: passionate, intense, splattered with paint. Pollock becomes increasingly frustrated with Namuth’s attempts to script his painting, particularly when Namuth insists Pollock paint on a glass panel so he can film both painting and artist’s face at the same time. His creativity stifled by Namuth’s camera, Pollock realizes the futility and falsity of the attempt to document the creative process. Left with little avenue to vent his frustration, Pollock returns to the house he shares with wife Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) at The Springs on Long Island, and quickly jumps into the bottle and down Namuth’s throat, ultimately upending the Thanksgiving table just laid before his guests.
Unfortunately, this scene also brings up what is Pollock‘s major shortcoming, its handling of biographical details. Too often, it eclipses Pollock’s artistic genius with the more spectacular aspects of his life, which couldn’t have been more tailor-made for movie-of-the-week melodrama. An alcoholic who suffered from bipolar disorder, Pollock met his demise in a fiery drunken car crash, which also severely injured his younger lover Ruth Metzger (played in the film by Jennifer Connolly) and killed her girlfriend.
Admittedly, it would be difficult not to make these tragedies appear cheap and overwrought; they are just a little too very. Nevertheless, it is precisely with these aspects of the painter’s life that Pollock repeats the same old stereotypes of “artistic greatness,” and ends up feeling a little bit worn out. Where the story of Pollock’s life gets, at least to me, most interesting, and where the film Pollock becomes most engaging, is in the connected story of the artist’s wife. As Krasner, a painter who would give up much of her own career in order to support her husband’s, Harden turns in a remarkable performance that should hands-down win her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for which she has been nominated. It is Krasner who first recognizes Pollock’s creative vision, and who arranges for Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan) to view his work, and so, facilitates Pollock’s inclusion in an international showcase at Guggenheim’s famous Art of This Century Gallery.
Throughout Pollock, as in the painter’s life, Krasner is his most ardent supporter and strident defender. And, it would appear, many of the storms of the couple’s tempestuous marriage were the result of her belief in Pollock coming up against the painter’s own insecurities and self-doubts. Pleasantly, Pollock recognizes the importance of Krasner to the story it is telling, and Harden is given just as important a role as Harris is (in my book, the role should have been nominated for Best Actress rather than Supporting Actress). Krasner comes off as by far the more interesting and often mystifying character. Unlike Harris’s rather cliched characterization of Pollock, Harden’s Krasner is pithy, smart, and clearly dedicated both to the man she loves and the artist whose works she finds so radical and transformative. Pollock also raises some relatively sticky questions about the relationship between Pollock and Krasner. Why, for instance, does Krasner remain with a man who is verbally, emotionally, and sometimes physically, abusive? After Pollock’s time in the spotlight inevitably ends and he increasingly turns to alcohol, blames Krasner for his decline and takes a young lover, why does Krasner continue to take the humiliation and abuse? The answers to these questions would, of course, be incredibly complex, and admirably, Pollock doesn’t attempt to give simplistic accounts of Krasner’s decisions. Rather, it hints at her possible motives and largely lets us decide on our own.
In Pollock, it is not so much through Jackson Pollock but Lee Krasner that the relationship of artist to the creative process is portrayed with the most complexity and originality, despite, or rather because of, the fact that Krasner’s artistic life is put on the back burner for the sake of Pollock’s. At the end of the film, we are told in the closing titles that after Pollock’s death, Krasner’s career flourished. And that’s it. The attempt is never made to show how Krasner created her own art. And while this might simply be because Pollock is not at all concerned with her artistic fame, nonetheless, the film’s reticence in regards to Krasner’s art and life is almost refreshing in contrast to its overproduction of Pollock’s. Lee Krasner’s artistic labors are left largely off-screen, which is a luxury Jackson Pollock seems never to have been afforded by either Hans Namuth or Ed Harris.