'Pollock' -- a labor of love for Ed Harris

by Hank Leukart | 3/27/01 5:00am

Abstract art often inevitably draws comments such as, "That's not so great; I could do that myself!" from average museum visitors. To some critics, the Abstract Expressionism invented by Jackson Pollock looks more like the mistaken scribbling and a child's paint spilling instead of an artistic genius. Nevertheless, director and star of "Pollock" Ed Harris obviously is not one of those critics.

For Harris, his double-Oscar nominated film has been a labor of love. Harris spent nearly a decade reading about Pollock. He then raised the money for the film and commissioned the writing of the screenplay himself. Later, he worked tirelessly to sell the concept to Sony Pictures Classics.

Surely due to his love for the subject matter and his interest in creating a truthful biography, Harris chose to shoot the film on location in New York City and on the actual Pollock estate in East Hampton, Long Island. Harris' attention to detail in the film is astounding. Production designer Mark Friedberg carefully restored Pollock's home, the adjacent barn in which he painted and the general store in which he shopped.

The film follows Pollock's life carefully, beginning with the meeting of his wife, accomplished artist Lee Krasner (played by Marcia Gay Harden). Harden, who in a surprising twist won the Oscar for Best Support Actress during the Academy Awards, turns in a near-perfect performance.

Her hate for and difficulty with her alcoholic husband is only one-upped by her intense love and respect for him, and Harden portrays this state of mind effortlessly. Throughout the film, she appears stable and on the brink of insane fury simultaneously. Harden's performance makes Harris' performance as "Pollock" work even better than it would have without her, as Pollock's insanity and genius are strongly underlined by Harden's interactions with Harris.

Of course, Harden's performance would have been impossible without Harris' outstanding Oscar-nominated work as Jackson Pollock. He submerges himself completely into the character in a way that feels unsettling. The volatility of Pollock is truly frightening, as Harris turns him from a genius artist into an alcoholic, abusive monster at what is seemingly a flick of a switch in Harris' brain. Never is there a glimpse of fabrication throughout Harris' performance; at times, it is difficult not to believe that Harris himself is not a great abstract artist.

Because movies so rarely manage to make a romantic relationship seem realistic, it is surprising that the relationship between Pollock and Krasner in "Pollock" feels faultlessly carried out. Instead of basing their relationship on silly infatuation, "Pollock's" screenwriters jump right into the difficult parts, fleshing out involved relationship tensions and difficult conversations about alcoholism and commitment. Their love grows not from sugary ice-cream-falling-on-the-pavement montages but from conflicts and mutual respect.

When a drunken Pollock seduces mistress Ruth Klingman (played by the beautiful and talented Jennifer Connelly), the story becomes especially painful because his relationship with his wife seems so real.

"Pollock" could have been a boring biography, but instead Harris brings it to life not with bold, overwrought melodrama but with a subtle screenplay and a surprisingly complex set of perfectly executed scenes.

One of the film's strong points is its depiction of Pollock's creative work. Scenes that could have been tedious montages instead feel compelling and electrifying as Pollock stumbles his way into Abstract Expressionism using his famous "drip and splash" style while painting with his canvas on the floor. Each painting scene feels more exciting than the last, and the suspense that occurs before viewers get a glimpse of the final work is surprisingly effective.

In addition to these scenes, some of the heated scenes between Pollock and his family also add to the film's success. In one subtle scene in which Pollock brags about his artistic success to his family, the film moves into a world of realism so surprising that it is impossible not to take the gravity of the situation seriously. When Pollock finally flips over a dinner table due to his rage, Harris is so entranced with his character that he seems possessed by Pollock's ghost.

In an interview in "Pollock's" marketing materials, Harris says, "One thing I learned about [Pollock's] art is that [he] fully believed and lived by, 'I don't use the accident, because I deny the accident.' One cannot even approximate Pollock's work unless every stroke, every pour, every slap, every fling, every shake, every splash, every splatter and every flick has a specific intention."

Congratulations, Harris -- "Pollock" is meticulous and persuasive. Not even Jackson's critics could suggest that "Pollock" was a result of mistaken scribbling and a child's paint spilling.

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