The Reel Deal with Luke Baynes: Pollock

The year 2000 was a bad year for film. It was, however, a good year for art on film. Before Night Falls was a film by a painter about a writer, featuring a spectacular led performance by Javier Bardem as Cuban exile Reinaldo Arenas.Now, there is Ed Harris’ Pollock, a portrait of the Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, who became world famous in the 1940’s for his innovative “drip” paintings. It is a pet project for Harris that he reportedly had been planning since the 1980’s, after reading Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s biography of the tortured artist.It immediately surpasses the other classic painter-bio out there, Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life, a 1956 picture on Van Gogh featuring Kirk Douglas’ greatest performance. Harris gets us more deeply inside the mind of the creative artist, revealing the inner-workings of a man who was for the most part laconic and distant.The film picks up with Pollock’s life in 1941, graciously leaving childhood and Freud out of the proceedings. At this point he is the starving artist, living and painting in a cold-water Greenwich Village flat. Then he meets Lee Krasner, played by Marcia Gay Harden (Miller’s Crossing) in a superb performance that manages to not be overshadowed by Harris’ powerful presence.Krasner, besides becoming Pollock’s eventual wife, also introduces him to Peggy Guggenheim, for whom Pollock will paint the most famous commissions of the first stage of his career. His early work revealed a bit of Picasso and Mir??, as well as surrealist influences, but was in no way dominated by rigid fragmentation or complex symbolism. His thinking was instead shaped by Eastern philosophy and psychologist Carl Jung, from whom he absorbed theories of the unconscious.”The source of my painting is the unconscious,” Pollock said in 1947. “I approach painting the same way I approach drawing. That is direct – with no preliminary studies.”The breakthrough was the drip technique, or “pouring” of paint, as some critics prefer. Using his brush as a stick hovering above a canvas on the floor, he allowed the liquid paint to flow onto the picture in controlled streams.It is a technique described by critic Alfred Frankenstein as liberating, in that, “the flare and splatter and fury of his paintings are emotional rather than formal, and like the best jazz, one feels that much of it is the result of inspired improvisation rather than conscious planning.”Pollock, Harris wastes no time letting us know, was also a chronic alcoholic, at times living like a bum and in and out of dry-out clinics.The artistic genius and self-destructive anguish of Pollock are presented side-by-side, without warning. After selling his first mural to Guggenheim, he immediately gets smashingly drunk, stumbles around the gallery, and then urinates into the fireplace.As Pollock, Harris gives a career performance of remarkable subtlety. He keeps his dialogue at a minimum, instead acting with his penetrating eyes and brooding shoulders. He can also explode in a second in frenetic paroxysms of erupting passion.In his directing debut, Harris shows confidence and precision. His style could be described as minimalist, at least in the first half. Towards the end, Scorsese emerges as a major influence, both in the use of pseudo-documentary footage ?? la Raging Bull, the cinema’s definitive biopic, and the inclusion of a simultaneous zoom-in/track out (a modified Vertigo effect) that reveals Pollock’s inner turmoils against a background of stasis.He is a details man, adding the little touches, such as the weight he gained to play the older Pollock, or the quiet jazz tunes accompanying a number of scenes (Pollock was a life-long jazz buff).The best reason to watch Pollock are for the many fine scenes drawn in shorthand: Lee eating dinner with Pollock’s family for the first time; evening strolls on the beach; Pollock selling a painting to the local general store for a case of Schlitz. Each requires just a few simple shots. Lisa Rinzler’s lush cinematography does the rest.It should come as no surprise that Pollock’s life ended tragically – the victim of depression, or genius, or both. Harris doesn’t embellish or romanticize the fact.He merely lets the simple truth be known: that an era of art and its preeminent spokesman died on the side of a country road, done in by changing times and half a million whiskeys.