This film about the artist, Jackson Pollock, belongs to Ed Harris. The actor was both the director and protagonist and occupies a great deal of the 122 minutes that the film runs either alone or center stage.
The screenplay was written by Barbara Turner and Susan L. Emshwiller. According to Helen Harrison, the director of the Pollock/Krasner Center in Springs, Long Island, many people made suggestions and changes were made to the script, but all were finalized by Harris. Turner’s screenplay was based on the book by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith published in 1989, Jackson Pollock: An American Saga, over 800 pages. Although initially criticized by art historians, it won the Nobel Prize for biography. For one thing, 300 pages at the start researched Pollock’s family history starting with his great-grandparents, adding information never covered before. It goes on to an in-depth study of the artist’s early life in the West as well as detailed chapters on the influences of key artists, Orozco [sp? Ossorio?], Siqueiros, the Indian Sand painters, and Thomas Hart Benton who became a mentor and shared a similar nature that attracted Pollock.
Claiming this comprehensive book as the source is somewhat of a misnomer. What is omitted is the fact that a great many of the events had been documented long before its publication. The second, and more important distinction is that Harris’ film is not a survey but is limited to only 15 years of Pollock’s artistic life—from 1941 to the time of his death in 1956 when he was 46 years old. After opening with a scene of a fan asking for an autograph when the artist was featured in Life Magazine in 1949, the film, structured episodically, flashes back to Pollock in a drunken stupor. It cuts to Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden) visiting Pollock’s studio in 1941. It reveals their attraction, Lee’s devotion and Pollock’s dependency, his alcoholism, as well as the poverty of life on 10th Street in New York City. It is combined with Lee’s drive to promote Pollock and introduces the cast of characters that initially started Pollock on his track to fame. This included Peggy Guggenheim, colorfully portrayed by Amy Madigan as the powerful collector who commissioned Pollock to paint Mural for her lobby, Howard Putzel (Bud Cort), the first to recognize Pollock’s talent, de Kooning (Val Kilmer), although poorly chosen physically, and a few others, all of whom are one-dimensional characters. The art historian Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor) surfaces at the opening of Art of This Century when Peggy gave Pollock his first show. This period in New York is an intimate study of how things operated at the start of an artist’s career.
A major flash forward is the move to Springs, Long Island in 1945 which is limited to episodes again that highlight dramatic changes in Pollock’s career and personality. A walk on the beach with Lee signifies Pollock’s great love for the landscape and the ocean, as well as their decision to be married.
The issue of truth in a film is one of interpretation. Sometimes films of artists are fictionalized. Harris claimed he wanted to be true to the facts but he took licenses. Omitted were times spent with Roger Wilcox who lived in Amagansett and became a close friend and therapist for a few years. They took long walks together along the oceanfront to Montauk that were peaceful and even without booze. Famous one-liners of Pollock’s are quoted by different people in different time frames to bridge the gap of what is missing. For example, “I am nature,“ Pollock’s response to a criticism of Pollock’s work by the teacher Hans Hofmann is redirected to Krasner in the film. The statement is out of context and loses its import.
Harris’ way of revealing a complex personality occupies both periods. This is largely explicated visually through the physical—through body movement, or gesture rather than words. Pollock’s repeated flights from reality, his avoidance of looking directly, his silences, going blank or gazing into space, crying, shivering, exploding in anger, are ambiguous and hard to interpret. The urge on the part of filmmakers of painters considered outstanding, has been to counter this with sensational behavior—violence, the irrational or infantile, and Harris doesn’t avoid these either. For example, Pollock pees in Peggy Guggenheim’s fireplace. Later after Hans Namuth (Norbert Weisser), Pollock’s major photographer, films Pollock while painting outdoors and on glass, a particularly demanding session for the artist, he runs indoors to grab a bottle, ending two years of abstinence. At a party that followed celebrating Pollock’s success, he upends the dinner table carefully set with 12 roast beef dinners. The great degree of condensation of the artist’s life story demanded selectivity. Quiet times were few. His well-known generosity is not evident. Highlighting specific and tense events—Pollock’s intimate love/hate attachment to his wife and the seduction of other women, his knotty relationship with his mother and affection and dependence on his brothers is touchingly portrayed.
What was special and the high point of the film was to see Harris playing the role of Pollock, alone in his studio painting abstractions. Harris reenacts Pollock working on the floor, pouring paint from a brush or stick, with infinite variation and control, building a huge painting by moving around it and stepping into it, his movement graceful and rhythmic like a dance. It reflects the fact that Pollock is totally absorbed in the physical process and at his best psychically when making his art. The activity seemed to free him from anxiety, releasing energy and calm.
The actual painting of the Pollock paintings is a saga in itself. Harris devoted five years to learning to paint. Lisa Lawley deserves credit for coaching Harris as well as painting parts of Mural which was done in stages. There were also others painted by the film studio art department. Harris appeared to paint at least part of the abstract paintings and more of those photographed by Namuth. For Harris, Pollock’s innovative process is the definition of his genius. And it has proven to be an enormous influence on artists of many persuasions in the decades that followed.
Verbal interpretations of the work by critics or by Pollock himself were brief. This assumes the easy conclusion that the earlier work shown at the beginning is only worth showing in that it predicts the more significant mature work that occurred in the brief period of two years. This is the traditional position taken by the Museum of Modern Art in its recent Retrospective of Pollock but it deprecates the work both before and after this period. The possibility that Pollock was in transition, looking for a new direction rather than totally wiped out has validity in the work itself.
Filmic devices heightened drama. Pollock’s psychological state was the starting point for lighting and camera design. The rapid cuts compress time and shift space into a string of episodes while enhancing the intimate. Adapting devices from television, close-ups of Pollock’s head or body appeared that often stressed gloomy moods and distance from people. Harris’ whole performance suggests a close relationship to method acting of the ’50s. Pollock reflected many characteristics that identified him with method actors like Marlon Brando—his emotional intensity, for one. Harris spoke of the need to have the character within him, to transfer the subconscious to the character. In the art critical history Pollock has already been labeled as a culture hero. What Harris masters in his painting is what was termed “action“ painting at that time.
Films about artists are still compared to the most well-known ones like Vincente Minnelli’s narrative “Lust for Life,” but in some ways “Pollock” relates more to Vincent and Theo in that it concentrates on the intertwined lives of the two brothers, one representing the artist and the other, the art market in the late nineteenth century. The Pollock film discloses the influence and power of the art market in the twentieth century, and centers on the conflicted relationship of husband and wife. Both painters register their intensity, their need for much help and love, outbursts of anger and frustration. Both painters at a certain point in their lives are conscious of their deep disturbances and enter institutions although for different reasons. Vincent ends in suicide. Pollock’s demise was precipitated by his profuse drinking, his ceasing to paint and his brief love affair with the beautiful and young Ruth Kligman (Jennifer Connolly) in 1956. The car crash ends the psycho-drama.
One of the reasons for the attraction to films of painters that were thought of as geniuses is largely that they all seem to share what is usually described as madness. In the case of Van Gogh, the film revealed that he had periodic seizures. At one point, he was diagnosed with epilepsy. Pollock was characterized by one contemporary psychoanalytic art historian as psychotic and schizophrenic. Clearly recognized was that he was an alcoholic. The symptoms manifest in the Pollock film have been defined as typical of extreme alcoholism. It has been noted that Jackson had trouble with his eyes as well as a hyper-imagination—he saw movement where it was static. He was afflicted with hallucinatory spells. As described by Roger Wilcox—“with his eyes wide open, he would see swirling images, a swirling of lines and images, it was like real.” Wilcox told him it was a temporary malfunction of the optic nerve. Later Wilcox checked it out medically as an ocular migraine. Whether one can read into this the fact that it led Pollock to the way he painted his abstractions is not necessarily a valid conclusion. Seeing “floaters” is a common malady. Psychological assumptions do not automatically become the art. Artists have depressive elements just like other people and due to their sensitivity, they may push them further, but this can be a question of confusing “on the edge” with madness.
Harris doesn’t try to answer these questions. He leaves them open to interpretation. He gives you the physical manifestations that reflect the artist’s inner feelings. The film is provocative and is certainly worth seeing. At the same time, it leaves room for others to follow.

Jeanne Siegel
New York, NY