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Pollock   C-

Sony Pictures Classics

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Ed Harris
Writer: Barbara Turner, Susan J. Emshwiller
Cast: Ed Harris, Marcia Gay Harden, Amy Madigan, Jeffrey Tambor, Jennifer Connelly, Bud Cort, Val Kilmer.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

In an early scene, Jackson Pollock (Ed Harris) beats a knife and fork maniacally in tune with the buoyant beats of Gene Krupa on the radio. It's not long before he's mashing his hands into the food like some spoiled child. His family looks on, aghast. Later, a colleague turned to me and asked, "Who does that? That little drumming thing he does with the silverware?"

The answer, of course, is method actors do this when imitating life. Just like they learned in acting class. Often a fine and intense actor, Harris demonstrates in Pollock everything that is fundamentally wrong with the Actor's Studio approach to drama. One would blame the director for not asking his star to make the scene less of a moment, but Harris took on that role himself. After all, he's been living with this project for 10 long years. He practically is Pollock. They say pride goeth before the fall, right?

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Pollock may have cracked the art world wide open with his free associative jazz-splatter technique, but Harris keeps his filmmaking approach purely functional. Unlike using the epic visual poetry of Julian Schnabel's Before Night Falls, Harris is clearly more interested in Pollock the Man over Pollock the Artist. It's odd to think that Schnabel's film is the more painterly of the two, considering it's the story of a sensitive writer.

Harris' camera is unobtrusive, meant to highlight the acting. This is the chief mistake he makes. The studio scenes, where Pollock discovers his frenetic approach to painting, are less about visual metaphors for implosive discovery than about Ed Harris, hunched over, brow furrowed, cigarette jutting from his taut lips.

The weight of Harris' performance is meant to carry us through, but he's doing nothing Marlon Brando hadn't uncorked years ago with his brutish, physical interpretation of Stanley Kowalski. This is never more apparent than his scenes opposite Marcia Gay Harden, mangling a Brooklynese accent as Pollock's long suffering wife, Lee Krasner.

Pollock is the Tortured Artist, an archetype familiar from such films as Basquiat, Lust For Life, Total Eclipse and Surviving Picasso, among others. When he's not drinking himself into a mad frenzy, smashing furniture and screaming at the top of his lungs, he's cradled up like a baby in the arms of his Nurturing Woman (Krasner, naturally).

Harris and Harden are asked to play scenes of rigorous intensity, screaming at each other from across the room about Art and Life. In the Oscar clip, Harris smashes the record player (goddamned props!) right before Harden tells him they aren't having any baby! We're painters! What on earth does she need a crying bambino, anyway? She already has Jackson Pollock to have and to hold. I'm sure some of my fellow audience members didn't appreciate it when I burst into laughter, but how can you help it with all that actor-y nostril flaring?

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Oddly enough, the so-called "true-to-life" performances don't really come off as believable than the more mannered interpretations of the art world's sophisticated sangfroid. Amy Madigan's grotesque Peggy Guggenheim, bitching over having to walk up five flights of stairs to see Pollock's art, is unerringly memorable. Whether hitching up her skirt for a quick fuck or flashing that shatterday smile, Madigan is a Gahan Wilson caricature come to life. Ditto the always welcome presence of Bud Cort as her grinning lackey.

The blustering machismo of Harris takes itself too seriously, so brittle it breaks. Not so the colorful Jeffrey Tambor, slurring every bored line as critic Clement Greenberg. Maybe it's not the way "normal people" behave (or the way some actors are slavishly taught to recreate naturalistic behavior), but we're talking about the pretentious art world circa 1949. At least these hoity-toity frauds make an impression.

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Pollock isn't a bad movie. It suffers the worse fate of being utterly bland. I guess that's the problem with any potential film that strives for such moment-to-moment intensity. It wears out its welcome real fast. Let's not forget that a little slow-burning Ed Harris went a long way in Apollo 13 and Glengarry Glen Ross. It feels like every other scene in Pollock has him tipping over a piece of furniture.

By the time we reach the climactic scenes of an overweight, bearded Pollock stuffed into a too-tight sailor's shirt, the pacing has already burned itself out. Ed Harris receives his Oscar nomination for reprising the last 20 minutes of Oliver Stone's The Doors -- ironic, considering Val Kilmer co-stars in Pollock as dapper William De Koonig. I guess the apple never really falls far from the tree.

Have actors and filmmakers become so lazy that they only need recycle the same Tormented Artist story, changing only the names, dates and professions? Is the Jackson Pollack tale really that much different from the cinematic treatments of Jim Morrison? Or Pablo Picasso? Or fucking Van Gogh? Must the same predictable pattern of creating great art be combined with a mercurial, abusive personality?

Granted, these artists were probably no picnic to live with, but do screen stories have to religiously adhere to the same tired plot structures? Denis Leary summed it up accurately in his No Cure For Cancer concert. It still applies. To paraphrase: he drinks, he's nobody, he drinks, he's somebody, he drinks, he's fucking dead.

There is still hope, though, for this tired subgenre. Instead of plodding through the bollocks of Pollock, why not try the fresher taste of Before Night Falls? It's not perfect, but at least it bears the novelty of a main character, an artist, who is quiet, introverted, sensitive, self-effacing, curious, not at all boorish, and talented. The only requirement he fills is to die young -- even that is underplayed much more effectively than the car wreck, literally and figuratively, seen in Pollock.

Javier Bardem (who plays Cuban writer Reinaldo Aranas in Falls) and Harris were both nominated for Oscars in 2000. Place both films side by side and ask yourself which of these performances, which of these stories, can truly claim to be originals among the herd? Jackson Pollock may have been the wild beast who broke through the ice, but Ed Harris proves to be a tame animal indeed.

Review published 02.20.2001.

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