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There's a scene near the start of Pollock
in which Pollock's family is sitting around the dining room table. He lives with his brother and sister-in-law,
and his mother is visiting. His recently
acquired girlfriend Lee Krasner, played by Marcia Gay Harden, is there too; she
may have been the first woman he had sex with.
Pollock is middle-aged at this stage in his life, but Ed Harris explains
in the director's commentary on the DVD that Pollock never lived alone in his
life. When his brother explains to the
family that he and his wife will be moving out to Connecticut, Pollock throws a
fit, pounding the table and soon howling and weeping as he clutches onto his
brother. It's clear that he was a man
with deep emotional problems; in one interview on a DVD extra, Harris
speculates that Pollock had manic depression.
Set in the 1940s and 1950s, Pollock
tells the story of one of America's most important artists of the twentieth
century. While he was most famous for
dripping and splattering paint directly on the canvas with brushes and from
cans of paint in large abstract works, the film shows his development from
influences of earlier artists such as Picasso and Miro. Those skeptical about the value of modern
art often cite Pollock's painting as a prime example work that requires no
artistic talent, and one of the great virtues of this film is how it
demonstrates the process of agonized creation requiring huge amounts of
thought, feeling and inspiration.
Pollock's whole life was devoted to painting, and he would have been
unfit to do anything else.
Alcohol was Pollock's
downfall. When he drank, he often did
it until he passed out on the street.
While he may have used drink to numb his personal pain and desperation,
it just made his life worse. Lee
Krasner moved him away from New York City out to the Hamptons on Long Island,
and kept him clean for long enough for him to have one of the most creative
periods of his life. She tried to keep
others away from their house there because socialization generally involved
drink, and living in isolation helped his productivity. But she also wanted to promote his work and
so they needed to bring dealers, buyers and critics to their home. The tension between his needs to preserve
his own peace of mind and his need to make money ultimately tore apart his
life. Once he became famous, he was
thrilled to receive high praise, but he was unable to deal with the attention
and the resulting pressures, and his world crumpled.
Harris's film does an excellent job
of showing the art scene of the time, and the intensity of the relationship
between Pollock and Krasner. It shows
how she often sacrificed her own artistic career in order to serve his needs
and nurture him. He plays the part of
Jackson himself in a strong performance, and the rest of the cast is also
excellent. The set designs, costuming
and music bring the era to life, making it feel authentic. In the commentary, Harris explains how
putting the film together took him ten years, and it must have been a labor of
love. He comments on where the
different scenes were shot, some of the decisions behind the editing, and the
discussions he had with the other actors and the production team. It is an illuminating commentary, and
enriches the experience of the film.
One might wonder whether Pollock's
emotional troubles were part of the creative process that enabled him to paint
great art, and indeed whether his abstract work may have expressed his own
inner turmoil. The film does not answer
those questions, although it does show how alcohol was one of the causes of the
end of his career even before his drunken car crash. While Harris shows the artist in a sympathetic light, it is
nevertheless obvious that he was utterly self-absorbed and when drinking, he
was self-destructive and irresponsible.
In the final car accident, his lover Ruth Kligman survived, but he
killed not only himself, but also his lover's friend, Edith Metzger. Pollock in many ways appears as an unhappy
and unpleasant man, yet despite this, his art remains impressive. Knowing more about his life does transform
one's understanding of his painting, even if one does not accept a simplistic
psychological account of his art as the portrayal of inner turmoil and chaotic
The DVD includes a short
documentary about the making of the film, featuring interviews with Harris,
Harden and others and some photographs and some clips from a film showing
Pollock himself, which reveal the remarkable physical resemblance between
Harris and Pollock. On the DVD is also
an episode of the Charlie Rose Show with an extended discussion with Harris;
Rose does his usual combination of praise and provocation. Harris does not reveal much more than he
does in his Director's Commentary, but he does talk in more detail about the
preparation involved in his creating the film.
© 2004 Christian Perring. All
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of
the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at
Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online
Review. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine,
psychiatry and psychology.