Ed Harris (actor/director), Pollock
In 1949, LIFE Magazine published an inside spread about a little-known New York painter named Jackson Pollock. Though he’d snagged occasional high-dollar commissions, nobody outside Manhattan’s intelligentsia knew Pollock until LIFE made him globally famous. Suddenly, canvases comprised of acrylic flowed over the surface, some larger than dining tables, fetched six and seven figures at auction. But this also commenced the artist’s irretrievable slide into self-destruction.
Actor Ed Harris became interested in Jackson Pollock when his father purchased a biography, for no other reason than he believed Harris physically resembled Pollock. As a self-taught expert, Harris never considered anybody but himself to direct this, his directorial debut; he floated several actors, but ultimately decided nobody but himself could enact his vision. This could have descended into an insufferable vanity project. But it does so much better.
Harris commences Pollock’s story in 1941. A 4-F Army reject with useless art credentials and no income, he’s crashing in his brother Sande’s plush apartment. He considers himself an unrecognized genius; his peers consider him a crashing drunk. Enter Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), a fellow budding painter seeking professional connections. She recognizes in Pollock the same genius he envisions, and pauses her own career to foster his.
This poses significant problems. By sacrificing herself (her career wouldn’t resume until after his death), Krasner becomes both Pollock’s inspiration, and his enabler. Because Pollock really is a raging alcoholic, numbing himself to a world so chaotic that sensitive, wounded souls like him can’t withstand the pressure. Krasner quickly discovers that Pollock’s genius arises from his damage; the more tumultuous their life together, the more profound of art he creates.
And it is, undoubtedly, profound art. If you’re unfamiliar with Jackson Pollock, he created his most influential paintings by flowing paint onto the canvas from above, using the brush like a conductor’s baton. The resulting images are chaotic, frenzied, and completely missing any recognizable object; when people say “I don’t understand modern art,” they’re probably thinking Jackson Pollock. But his work perfectly encapsulated the reeling, frenetic post-WWII years.
|Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock, possessed by the muse|
Therein lies an important theme of this movie: what is art? To Pollock and Krasner, art communicates something internal to the artist; the audience is a latecomer to the process. As his paintings convey Pollock’s inner turmoil, his personal life becomes more ordered. Pollock and Krasner wed, sober up, and become contributing members of their community. He successfully moves his inner pandemonium outward, where art makes the artist more human.
In this environment, art is intensely personal. Where art conservatories teach aspiring painters to mimic the masters, Pollock strives to create something unique to himself. He succeeds, but not without cost. He becomes disdainful of other painters; once, compared to Pablo Picasso, Pollock snipes: “Fuck Picasso.” It’s a beautifully understated moment expressing how, in becoming himself, he has become tragically disconnected from others. Famous, but alone.
But the clamoring public expects Pollock to repeat past successes, even as his inner struggle has moved onward. Trapped into mimicking himself, his psychological struggles reassert themselves, and he lashes out spitefully at anybody who dares approach him like a friend. As he descends back into drunkenness, alienates Lee Krasner (who supports his work but increasingly despises him), and takes a mistress, he becomes a caricature of the malignant genius.
There’s a moment, in the penultimate scene, that any artist will find difficult to watch. Driving drunk, unable and unwilling to divorce his wife, bereft of creative outlet only seven years after achieving fame, he looks at his beautiful but vacuous mistress (Jennifer Connelly), and the life drains from his eyes. Though physically alive when he drives over an embankment, we witness his dying moment. It’s painful to behold.
Renaissance artists created art to praise God—a God not all believed in, but nevertheless. Without God, art becomes something different, something personal. This movie suggests that’s why artists are frequently self-destructive, because they’ve parceled themselves out to the often unappreciative public. Harris has created an engaging story of how art consumes, in every way, the best artists. Like art, it’s beautiful and tragic.