The best biographical movies do three things. They show us why the life being depicted was important and how the main character had an important impact on the way we see the world. They give us a glimpse of what it is like to care passionately about something, to share a little bit of that passion and to think a little bit about what makes us feel passionate. And they give us a voyeuristic opportunity to experience the life of someone who comes from behind or has a dysfunctional family or has made reckless mistakes, or all of the above.
“Pollock,” a labor of love from director/star Ed Harris, gets about half of it right. Harris shows us the artist as a hugely talented but yowling id, all hunger and impulse. We see that both art and acceptance (and therefore fame) matter a great deal to Pollock. And we see that when the two collide, art wins out. Art critic Clement Greenberg (Jeffrey Tambor) champions of Pollock’s work, making him the darling of the art world. His approval means a lot to Pollock, professionally and artistically. When Greenberg criticizes the color in one painting at a dinner party, Pollock runs to the studio to drag it into the room and takes out a huge tube of paint to squirt onto it. But even his need for approval and his self- destructiveness and spite are not enough to allow him to mar a painting that he thinks is right.
Harris gets a lot of the details right, including the dazzling spectacle of watching Pollock create the paintings. In the beginning of the movie, before a flashback to Pollock’s early days, we see him at a elegant gallery opening, after Life Magazine has already named him the greatest living American artist. Pollock is asked to autograph the magazine and he reaches for it with paint-stained fingers. He may be all dressed up, but a real artist’s fingers are never completely clean. Great care has been taken with the movie’s art direction. A magnificent lobster-decorated dress worn by Pollock’s patron Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan) is an exact replica of one she really wore. Much of the movie takes place on location at Pollock’s home in rural Long Island, and it all feels very genuine and authentic.
Harris, Harden, and Madigan are all outstanding, and the film, while flawed, is engrossing and impressive. But we never really see why Pollock was important or what motivated him. He is boorish, selfish, conceited, and, most of all, needy. A bunch of other artists make brief appearances and then disappear, making no impression at all except for the fun of seeing young versions of artists like Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. And there are a few cringe-inducing expositional moments, as when Pollock’s wife, Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), exclaims on seeing his first dribble painting, “This isn’t Cubism, Jackson, because you’re not breaking down the figure into multiple views!” That does not do much either for those who are familiar with Pollock’s work or those who think that they have a child who could finger-paint better than that. Pollock, who wisely resisted explanations and categorization, deserves something more subtle and complex. There are moments when this film gives it to us, as when Pollock makes his famous statement, “I do not use the accident. I deny the accident.”
Parents should know that the movie contains a lot of mature material, including very strong language and sexual references and situations. A highly unsatisfactory sexual encounter between Pollock and Guggenheim is shown fairly explicitly. Characters drink, smoke, abuse drugs, and engage in self-destructive behavior. Pollock’s drunk driving with the passengers screaming, is shown, though not the crash that killed him. Family members treat each other badly, which may be upsetting for some viewers.
Families who see this movie should talk about why people become passionate about art and how art is affected by the surrounding commerce and culture. Why did Krasner give up her own art to take care of Pollock? Why were the views of Guggenheim and Greenberg so important? Why aren’t Pollock’s paintings just considered scribbles? Are there any painters today who are as important a part of the cultural landscape as Pollock was when he was featured in Life Magazine? Or are our new cultural icons working in different mediums?
People who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Kerouac, The Movie,” a documentary about another highly influential 1950’s figure.