Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

Pollock (2000) ***

Directed by Ed Harris. Written by Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emschwiller, based on the book "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga" by Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith. Photography, Lisa Rinzler. Editing, Kathryn Himoff. Production design, Mark Friedberg. Music, Jeff Beal, Dondi Bastone. Produced by Fred Berner, Ed Harris, Jon Kilik, James Francis Trezza. Cast: Ed Harris (Jackson Pollock), Marcia Gay Harden (Lee Krasner), Jennifer Connelly (Ruth Kligman), Tom Bower (Dan Miller), Bud Cort (Howard Putzel), John Heard (Tony Smith), Val Kilmer (Willem de Kooning), Robert Knott (Sande Pollock), Amy Madigan (Peggy Guggenheim), Matthew Sussman (Reuben Kadish), Stephanie Seymour (Helen Frankenthaler) Jeffrey Tambor (Clement Greenberg), Sada Thompson (Stella Pollock), Norbert Weisser (Hans Namuth). A Sony Classics release. 117 minutes. Not rated.

I bet that if one were to ask the person-in-the street in any country to name some famous American painters, the answer would be "Andy Warhol" (1938-1987) and "Jackson Pollock," (1912-1956), most likely in that order. That's assuming that there would be an answer.

Those two artists were mega-stars in their day, but memory shrinks faster and faster; the past fades, and, most ironically, information, while increasingly available in this Information Age, is seldom correctly digested. (This state of things has its own logic, but that's another story).

Pollock went through several artistic phases. He was initially a figurative artist (after studying with Thomas Hart Benton); then a semi-abstractionist; a surrealist; an major abstract expressionist; and more. (I am simplifying his complex and complicated career). The thread that runs through most of his stages is that the unconscious is the source of inspiration.

Starting in 1947 he innovated totally with "drip" painting which made him famous in many circles. In 1949 he was consecrated by a Life Magazine issue headlined by "Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" Stardom and world-wide celebrity followed, as well as derision in certain quarters, including some artistic ones. He had exactly seven years left in his life.

Pollock was also an alcoholic and a manic-depressive who went through hospitalization and several psychoanalytic therapy sessions.

The admirable, versatile Ed Harris directs here his very first movie. When he read the 1991 Pulitzer Prize winner biography of Pollock by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, he became obsessed with turning it into a film. After more than a decade of planning, raising funds, going through the usual Odyssey that is the fate of many a non-moronic project. He was so influenced by Pollock's work that he started to paint. Harris came up with a winner. Not the kind that pack in audiences and get showered by enough dollars to make Brinks truck sag. --unless one believes in miracles--gets a large audiences and dollars that might make a Brinks truck sag. Not the conveniently arranged, fanciful biography genre that Hollywood calls "a biopic." Not a systematic, documentary or educational analysis. But a selective recreation of the life and times and above all the art of Jackson Pollock.

A flashforward of the now successful Pollock in 1950 leads back to the early 1940s. In convincingly recreated Greenwich Village, he lives and works in a modest apartment. There, Lee Krasner who also lives and works in the area, suddenly appears to look at his work--and have a look at the painter too. Lee, also an artist, falls in love with the paintings, and with the man.

She becomes his advisor, companion and unofficial agent. I am reminded of Roman mythology's nymph Egeria who counseled King Numa Pompilius. Pollock however is no king, and needs help from the artistic Establishment. Lee knows the ropes. She arranges a visit by Howard Putzel. He is fat, pleasant man, played by a totally unrecognizable Bud Cort.

Cort who will forever be in movie mythology as the suicidal young man who loves ever-young (at 79) Ruth Gordon in the now classic "Harold and Maude" (1972). And in 1970 he was in two Robert Altman cult movies, "MASH" and "Brewster McCloud" in which he is Brewster who wants to fly inside the Houston Astrodome.

I wonder if the very good choice of Cort is not also a devious homage to Robert Altman who made "Vincent & Theo" (1990) one of the very best movies about a painter (Van Gogh), along with Maurice Pialat's "Van Gogh"(France, 1991).

Putzel is the talent spotter for millionaire art patron, collector and gallery-owner Peggy Guggenheim (the niece of Solomon G, She is played by Amy Madigan who is Harris' wife) Peggy G. is a ball of fire. She may kvetch, she may think highly of herself ( in capital letters, as it were), but she unlocks the door to glory after seeing what Pollock can do. The film intimates that without the two women, Lee and Peggy, Pollock may not have made it. A cruciall and enjoyable sequence has Howard Putzel taking Ms. Guggenheim to see Pollock's works in the man's digs. After climbing several floors they find no one there. Jackson and Lee duo arrive late, when the visitors have returned to street level. Tenacious Lee has to push (metaphorically) peeved Peggy back upstairs.

The visit is the colorful start of success for Jackson. I'll skip details, except that later, at a reception in Peggy's luxurious dwelling, the inebriated fellow urinates on the burning logs in the fireplace, then has sex with Peggy. The act is not shown.(One wonders what the laws are about defamation of character -- even when the facts are true).

Lee proposes. She and Jackson marry. Later they move to a farmhouse in East Hampton, Long Island --where the movie's exteriors were shot. The in-film chronology can be muddy at times. My clue to the effect that the move away from New York came after the war was provided by newly settled Pollock's first visit to a rural grocery. There, the owner mentions the splitting of the atom as well as the A-bomb. It's the script's gauche.way of orienting the audience.

Life for Lee Krasner is no bed of roses. Not because of material problems that are there but do not come up in the dialogue, but because Pollock is a psychological mess, drinks and cannot hold his liquor, chain-smokes (but not a single cough is ever heard), blows hot or cold according to the turns his mental illness takes. By and large, except for a couple of scenes with his artist buddies, he is taciturn, moody, inarticulate. He may suddenly insult his guests or behave terribly with Lee, do both at the same time.

Lee 's suffering wife is a particularly sad case. A very good painter in her own right, she apparently has given up her own work, or at least effaced it before Jackson's. Her main raison d'etre is an almost fanatical belief in the man's talent.

When he first saw her work he told her "You're a damn good woman painter" which today is like saying "Some of my best friends are Negroes." Setting aside considerations of evolving semantics, the fact is that Pollock meant it. Yet he scarcely shows any interest in, or make mentions of, her career, talent or possibilities. His mental problems are no alibi for this. But then it is blindingly clear that the man is totally art-focused and unaware of his own self. After all, his is not a unique case -- or even a very unusual one. Many people obsessed with their mission or with art or science or, or, or (a long list) have a kind of tunnel vision (and tunnel feelings?) of the world around them. There is logic in the mostly comic movie characters such as the absent-minded professors, the inventors with their heads in the clouds, the musicians who. away from their instrument reside in another planet.

I last saw Ed Harris giving a wondrously multi-layered performance in Agnieszka Holland's fascinating "The Third Miracle" (1999), a film which, deplorably, I have heard no one mention to this day. . In "Pollock," Harris is very good again, he IS Pollock--and does all the paintings himself, down to the much-awaited, inevitable Big Scene, that of "discovering" dribble or spatter or drip painting. Harris paintings remind me of Van Meegeren's Fake Vermeers that fooled many an expert.. There's not an original Pollock in sight. It's impressive.

But while demanding, the Harris role is not an involving one.. The key to this was given way back by Gertrude Stein speaking about fictional characters. I quote from memory: :"I always prefer the normal to the abnormal. The normal is so much more complex and interesting"

Both Harris and Marcia Gay Harden were Oscar nominations, as they should have been. Their performances are of the cumulativr kind : you don't so much recall vividly this or that scene as you get an overall feeling.

The movie is beautifully but not "artsily" photographed. Blessedly, it eschews protracted scenes or sequences. It is also somewhat disjointed. It does give us an idea about the couple, far more about Pollock's painting process than about his "inner" self. But we cannot ask it to succeed where psychoanalysis obviously failed. The bottom line is that we, the audience, are, or shoud be, far more attentive to the paintings and their processes than to Jackson's mercurial behavior, his fits, his weirdnesses, or his calm moments.

The unloquacious Jackson's mind and soul are all in his work, period. A mini-series would have fleshed out the period but could probably not take Jackson any farther. ( And it would certainly be a commercial fiasco.)

Relatives and friends do come and go as if they were on short subway rides and not for the whole trip. The first place goes to the influential art critic Clement Greenberg who championed and helped Pollock, yet was later critical of his work. He is played by Jeffrey Tambor, unusually changed and aged since his terrific Hank in "The Larry Sanders Show."

Most other characters make short, lightweight appearances, including Val Kilmer who shows twice in the walk-on (better, the sit-on) part of Willem de Kooning, Pollock's friend as well as his main rival.

A note for cinephiles. Co-scriptwriter Susan J. Emschwiller is the daughter of Ed Emschwiller who made his mark as an important avant-gardist during the glory days of Underground cinema.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel