Film Review from the Film Gang

March 2nd, 2001- Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Pollock, directed by Ed Harris

Pollock, now playing at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz, is directed by and stars Ed Harris, who apparently was so taken by Steven Naifeh’s biography of Jackson Pollock that he spent the last ten years working to be able to make this film.  Pollock lived from 1912 to 1956; the film focuses primarily on the last 15 years of his life, from his meeting with painter Lee Krasner (played by Marcia Gay Harden) in Greenwich Village in 1941 or so to his death on Long Island at the age of 44. It captures the atmosphere of the New York art world during the war and post-war years, featuring the art critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor), Pollock’s friend, who validated Abstract Expressionism, Willem de Kooning (played by Val Kilmer) and the art patron heiress Peggy Guggenheim, played in over-the-top fashion by Amy Madigan.  Ed Harris and Marcia Harden do a good job of portraying their respective characters, and the secret of the anguished self-destructive alcoholic artist is never revealed in such a way as to disappoint—or satisfy--the audience with simplistic pop psych explanations. 

But the movie drags.  I’m not one for those artist-hero type celebrations, especially not when the artist in question is as thoroughly and childishly dislikable as this one.  There are hints that his trouble has something to do with his family—a mother and four brothers—but the hints don’t amount to producing empathy, and so all I ended up feeling was sorry for his lover and wife, Lee, who puts her career on the back burner to produce a major American 20th century painter. Speaking of which, what this really shows is how one woman’s discerning eye and ambition made a mess of a man into a painter recognized world-wide as one of the greats.  But it seems to tell us that story as a sort of aside, focusing mostly on Pollock’s bad behavior and his work.  And that’s where the movie succeeds:  the scenes that show Jackson Pollock at work, imitating in part the famous archival film footage of the artist painting, are compelling, believable, and exciting.  They show the audience that this was not the kind of painting that just anyone could do, and that painting is work and not just free-form self-expression.  Harris does a great job of looking like he really can paint, and the paintings are beautiful.

I applaud this movie for not making the man more appealing than he was.  I fault it for confirming the notion that to be a great artists you have to be tortured, and for excusing the abuse of others in the name of great anguish and great art.  Most of us don’t get our bad behavior redeemed by greatness and some of us don’t have the privilege of landing a self-sacrificing and savvy wife who dedicates herself to our careers.  Why is that such a compelling story?  Our culture spends far too much time fetishizing self-destructive genius and not enough applauding the labor of production that makes the lives of self-destructive geniuses possible.  Maybe instead we should be encouraging the Lee Krasners of this world to put their efforts into their own hard creative work.  Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

Copyright Carla Freccero 2001