Painting Pollock

The film of Jackson Pollock's life captures the artist's frenetic style, but does it do justice to his life?

Allison Felus

Topics Politics

Pollock, the Academy Award-winning biopic of American artist Jackson Pollock, currently on restricted release in the USA, gives the distinct impression of being a Very Important Art Film. As the much-hyped labour-of-love of actor Ed Harris, who both directs and stars as Pollock, the story spans November 1941 to Pollock’s death in 1956, and covers the artist’s troubled personal life as well as his groundbreaking career. film critic Stephanie Zacharek says Pollock isn’t the ‘divine mess’ it should have been (1), assuming that the film is trying to ‘be’ a Jackson Pollock painting – which is as weird as assuming that this review is trying to ‘be’ the movie. If anything, the film recreates the experience of contemplating a Pollock painting in a museum, with its air of quiet, pregnant anticipation, before a burst of sudden, passionate insight.

Ed Harris’ athletic portrayal of Pollock gives the film much of its pent-up energy. In the scenes showing him painting, Harris exudes the kind of creative virility peculiar to early- to mid-twentieth century artists like Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, and captures Pollock’s frenetic painting style expertly.

Harris also shrieks, wails, cries, gets drunk and lashes out to show what a difficult man Pollock must have been to live with. But unfortunately, in movies, unpredictable, artistic wild men usually come off as so damn predictable. ‘Yes, yes, we know. A bastard in real life, but what a genius.’ Etc.

Much has been made here in the USA of Marcia Gay Harden’s performance as Pollock’s wife/caretaker/fellow painter Lee Krasner (for which she deservedly won Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars). The role Krasner filled in Pollock’s life is rich with symbolic meaning: she is midwife, sacrificial lamb, muse, scapegoat, catalyst, guardian angel, and living work of art. Harden’s rock-solid performance means that Krasner is, in many ways, the heart of the movie. When she hands her husband a steaming mug of coffee and flips up the collar of his coat before sending him out into a snowy morning to work in his barn-turned-studio, the gesture speaks volumes about the characters and their relationship.

Harris’ acting proves that less really is more. But as a first-time director he makes a handful of ‘more is more’ mistakes. The ladders that are a recurring motif throughout the film – as a metaphor for Pollock’s ascent to greatness and his eventual descent into self-destruction – are a bit trite. And there’s a bit too much of framing the actors in windows, doorways, and hallways in order to drive home the idea that life is a work of art.

But Harris does a good job of grounding the film within its historical context. Radios are a constant presence, blaring everything from reports about the Second World War to Billie Holiday wailing ‘He’s Funny That Way’. And Harris highlights the tension between art and economics – with detailed discussions of Pollock’s contracts with art galleries, and his frustration at being one of the century’s greatest painters yet struggling to make ends meet.

If Krasner is the heart of the movie, the intellectual centre belongs to Hans Namuth (Norbert Weisser), the documentary-maker who made the mistake of trying to film Pollock at work. Harris uses this to inject some welcome comic relief, showing the absurdity of combining the spontaneous drip technique of his painting with the halting and calculated process of making a movie. But where this theme could have opened a discussion about capturing an artist’s life on film, instead it is all but wasted as a mere plot device to get Pollock to his next emotional breakdown.

Harris recognises Namuth’s naivety in attempting to capture the intimacy of Pollock’s work on camera, but doesn’t turn that question on himself and ask whether it is also futile to try to capture Pollock’s life on camera.

Near the beginning of the film, when Pollock visits Krasner’s apartment for the first time, she reads him a quotation from Rimbaud: ‘To whom shall I hire myself out? What beast should I adore? What holy image is attacked? What hearts shall I break? What lies should I uphold? In what blood tread?’ (2)

If Harris had asked the same questions of himself, Pollock might have been a better film.

(1) See the review on

(2) A Season in Hell, Arthur Rimbaud, trans. Louise Varese, New York: New Directions 1961

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