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POLLOCK

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Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Amy Madigan, Val Kilmer, Jennifer Connelly, Jeffrey Tambor
Director:  Ed Harris
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  See Review
Length:  122 Minutes
Release Date:  July 24, 2001

Film ***1/2

Jackson Pollock was arguably the most significant American painter in the history of art.  He was also a total shit of a human being.  If our celebrity-conscious culture in this country has taught us anything over the years, it’s that one doesn’t necessarily preclude the other.

Ed Harris gives a bravura performance as the troubled artist, and as director, brings the material to life with an actor’s eye.  Harris is a craftsman who has the courage to plunge into dark waters.  He’s not afraid to recognize Pollock as unlikable, nor is he insecure enough to instill him with too much sympathy.  Here was a man whose only redeeming trait was his talent, and Harris not only realizes this with his performance, but structures the story around that unpleasant fact as a director.

I was first introduced to the works of Pollock in college by my late Humanities professor, Dr. Robert Waxman.  Experiencing Pollock for the first time can be quite a shock at most, or a bemusing experience at least…one student vocally commented that it looked like the artist had trashed his real painting and hung his drop cloth instead.  Did we think we could do the same thing? our teacher asked with sincerity.   Looking at the mass of drips, blobs, and streaks, we thought, yes, we could. 

“Look closer,” he prompted us.  “Think about each layer of the work, and imagine yourself painting it.”  We did…and the more we looked, the more we realized there was something going on in these paintings that was impossible to define.  But whatever it was, it was enough to convince a class of college kids that we were no Jackson Pollocks.

Harris’ mimicry of Pollock’s style is impressive in this film.  He had immersed himself in both the man and his works for fourteen years prior to filming, and his dedication paid off.  The illusion is complete and convincing:  we are watching Jackson Pollock.

But the integrity of Harris as an actor and filmmaker made him push the boundaries of the movie far beyond those of ordinary and mediocre tribute pics like Chaplin.  Harris went looking for the soul of Pollock.  It wasn’t always pretty, but he never shirked from what he saw.

The man was plagued by demons like alcoholism and depression.  Without drink, he was helpless as a child, and with drink, he was a raging monster.  His long suffering wife, Lee Krasner (Harden, in her Oscar winning role), stood by Pollock as long as she could, despite his mood swings, open infidelities, and self-destructive behavior. 

It’s a subject that never ceases to fascinate:  why are those with a penchant for greatness always seemingly obsessed with self-destruction?  Being discovered by art patron Peggy Guggenheim (Madigan), promoted by a renowned critic Clement Greenburg (Tambor), and even being the focus of a Life magazine article could not alter the course of his behavior.  At one point in the film, we are aware he is no longer painting, and there is nothing left to redeem him as a result.  Pollock could skirt through life defined only by his work.  Without his work, there was nothing much left in his character.   Harris realizes this, as we see Pollock grow more and more empty as a human being, and seem to wither and hollow out before our eyes.

In one particularly memorable scene, Pollock confronts the friend who had joined him in quitting drinking two years earlier.   Pollock, now openly back to his boozing ways, taunts him over and over again:  “I’m not the phony, you’re the phony.”  It’s more than a childish gesture:  it represents Pollock giving up.  He is comfortable with his identity as an alcoholic.  And alcoholics are supposed to drink.

There is a certain, satisfying honesty in the fact that Harris doesn’t find the answer in his film.  He explores his subject very deeply, scrutinizing every detail with intensity, but if one goes into the story of Pollock asking why, one comes out on the other end only with more questions.  Movies like to comfort us most of the time by making believe there is always a tragic explanation for why great talents self-destruct.  There is always tragedy, to be sure, but not always an explanation.

Video ****

This is a gorgeous anamorphic pressing from Columbia Tri Star, which not only brings the color and vividness of the depicted artwork to life, but finds detail, sharpness, and integrity in every scene constructed.   All colors are well rendered, be they the extremes of the paintings or just the natural look of daily life, in light and in shadows.   Image detail is apparent in every shot, including those in deep focus.  The cinematography throughout is modestly beautiful, and this DVD serves it very well.

Audio ***

The 5.1 audio track delivered more than I expected from a character-driven film.  The sound finds opportunities to open up across front and back stages during scenes with small or large crowds, adding an ambient effect to what ordinarily would be considered a mere dialogue-oriented picture.  The musical score by Jeff Beal is nicely rendered, as are all spoken (or shouted) words.  A commendable effort.

Features ***

Ed Harris graces the disc with a commentary track.  He offers plenty of information in a quiet, thoughtful tone, but watch out for the lashes when they come, as when he berates a “f—king extra” for fidgeting with a hat.  There is a making-of featurette, which is better than most because of giving some attention to the real Pollock and his works.  There is a Charlie Rose interview with Harris, a couple of trailers, deleted scenes, production notes and some filmographies.

Summary:

If modern art shifted the eternal question from “why” to “why not”, maybe Jackson Pollock’s life ironically did the same thing.  Pollock is a film of deep soul searching without resolution, of exploration without explanation.   The lack of real answers is no fault of Ed Harris as actor or director, but the tragedy of self-destruction without reason that humanity sometimes inflicts upon itself.  At any rate, asking the questions proves more satisfying than answering them, so Pollock is indeed a successful film in that respect.