Combustible Celluloid
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With: Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Amy Madigan, Jennifer Connelly, Jeffrey Tambor, Bud Cort, John Heard, Val Kilmer
Written by: Barbara Turner, Susan J. Emshwiller, based on "Jackson Pollock: An American Saga," by Steven Naifeh, Gregory White Smith
Directed by: Ed Harris
MPAA Rating: R for language and brief sexuality
Running Time: 122
Date: 09/06/2000

Pollock (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A Brush With Greatness

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The most interesting artists seem to need to destroy everything good in their lives in order to create great art. It almost makes sense as a law of nature, actually. A void must exist before it can be filled.

That's essentially what Ed Harris' Pollock is about. While watching it, we get the impression that, yes, Jackson Pollock was a great artist (or at least a brilliant showman). We also get the impression that the Oscar-nominated Harris (The Right Stuff, Walker, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Truman Show), who plays Pollock as well as directs, is a gifted actor.

But the soul of Pollock, the action that keeps it moving for two hours, just isn't that gripping.

The film begins with a single shot capturing the turning point of Pollock's life. It was his first great success, just after a 1949 issue of Life magazine asked "Jackson Pollock: Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?" and Pollock began selling work. Pollock shuffles through a party, absently autographing copies of the magazine. But success just brings the artist a new kind of unhappiness, replacing that old familiar unhappiness of failure.

Then the film jumps back to the "beginning," telling the linear story of Pollock's life: he meets Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan), meets his wife Lee Krasner (current Oscar-nominee Marcia Gay Harden), gets drunk a lot, and discovers his "splatter" style. It culminates with the burnt-out shell of the artist drunkenly smashing up his car with his mistress (Jennifer Connelly) aboard.

Only the movie's "creating" scenes truly spring to life. Apparently, no original Pollocks were used, and Harris paints all his own work. The most inspired sequence is when art patron Peggy Guggenheim commissions him to paint a huge, CinemaScope-shaped canvas for the entryway of her mansion. Harris stares at the whiteness for hours, until he finally bounds around the room, splashing and flinging paint, covering himself in flecks of color.

But for every scene of Harris passionately painting, there are two or three more of him screaming at his poor wife (Harden makes the best of such a put-upon character) or getting drunk. These scenes of self-destruction simply fall into a routine.

Sadly, with all his passion and furor for the subject, Harris wasn't able to find Pollock's emotional center. When Pollock speaks to the press, he's open and poetic. But when alone with friends or loved ones, he grunts like a beast and speaks in monosyllables. Presumably, Harris obtained actual Pollock quotes from press conferences and interviews, but for some reason decided that the artist wasn't able to keep up that level of eloquence during his everyday life. The two sides just don't mesh.

Though the film manages to avoid sticky sentimentality, it still can't escape the painter-movie clich�s that often afflict projects like this. I couldn't help comparing it to my favorite painter movie, Robert Altman's Vincent and Theo (1990), which fell back on Van Gogh's relationship with his brother when the painter (Tim Roth) became too self-indulgent. And also Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev (1966), which was more about the art of Tarkovsky himself than about his monk fresco painter.

But in Pollock, Pollock never connects with another soul, including the audience. And Harris, in his directorial debut, seems intent to completely disappear inside the painter, leaving little authorial presence. He is unable to separate the character of Pollock from that of film director. Faithful to the clich�, only the artwork and scenes focused on the process of painting get near the truth. The rest is hazy bluster.

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