In 1941, Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris), then a struggling painter sharing a Greenwich Village apartment with his brother and sister-in-law, met Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) in 1941 to his death in a car crash. Krasner, an artist of considerable talent herself, became Pollock’s wife and deferred her own ambitions in favour of her husband, whom she supported for many years. In the late forties, Pollock invented a style called “action painting” (which involved dripping paint onto large canvases) and was hailed as the most important living artist in America. Meanwhile, due to Pollock’s drinking and infidelity, his marriage to Krasner begins to disintegrate.
Pollock was a long-standing labour of love for Harris, who not only stars but also directs and produces. If effort were everything, I’d praise the film to the skies, no question. The cinema needs more labours of love. A measure of how uncommercial this admittedly low-budget film is, is its belated British release, despite its win at last year’s Oscars for Marcia Gay Harden as Best Supporting Actress. In fact, when I saw it at the London Film Festival last November, it didn’t have a distributor in place. But unfortunately I can’t recommend it, despite its superb acting, without reservations. It’s a solidly-crafted, rather foursquare film that rather lacks true inspiration, and at two hours becomes something of a slog.
The creative process is very difficult to show on film, and unfortunately Pollock resorts to the usual convenient but misleading shorthand. If you took this film at its word, you’d think that Pollock one day had the idea of dripping paint on canvas – and hey presto, a major new style! However, rules are best broken by those who know the rules intimately in the first place. We get a brief scene where Pollock mentions some of the contemporary artists he most admires, but how he evolved the style that made him one of the twentieth century’s most influential artists is somewhat skated over.
Harris, who looks uncannily like the real Pollock, deserves praise for not playing the man for easy sympathy. At first Pollock is reserved to the point of catatonia, but over time a combination of drink and machismo moulded him into the living incarnation of one of the biggest artistic clichés of the lot: the artist as shit. It’s certainly questionable if artistic talent, let alone artistic genius, excuses acting like a complete bastard, but on this evidence Pollock certainly subscribed to that idea. Our sympathies naturally go to Lee Krasner, who put up with the man for as long as she could. There’s a subtheme, of how one artist can subordinate their own talent to another’s, that could have been explored more. (This doesn’t just apply to women: a male variation on the theme is Ken Russell’s Delius film Song of Summer.) Unfortunately, by the time of his death in a car crash, we’ve had enough of Jackson Pollock. This is not to say that a film with a thoroughly unsympathetic protagonist can’t be a gripping experience, but frankly Pollock isn’t Raging Bull and Ed Harris isn’t Martin Scorsese. There lies the difference between talent and genius.
Along with the two excellent leads, there’s a strong supporting cast, including Jennifer Connelly as Pollock’s mistress Ruth Kligman, Val Kilmer as fellow artist Willem DeKooning and Amy Madigan (Harris’s wife) as Pollock’s first exhibitor Peggy Guggenheim. Incidentally, the film’s 18 certificate is solely due to the BBFC’s current policy on the aggressive use of the word “cunt”, used twice in the same scene by Pollock to Krasner. A couple of years ago, Pollock would have had a 15 certificate, though it’s questionable if a film like this would have much if any audience amongst teenagers in any case. It’s undoubtedly a specialised item, worth seeing by fans of fine acting, and anyone interested in Pollock himself, though the film does fall short of its goal.