Painted into a corner

Ed Harris gives us an American genius at the end of his rope.

In Pollock, both artist and art are somewhat simplified in the manner of a conventional biopic, with the film, which focuses on the latter part of the artist’s life, given a neat three-act structure of struggle, triumph and decline. The pivotal point is a single afternoon’s moment of epiphany as a few drops of paint accidentally drip by the side of a canvas. Eureka! We have our breakthrough and the promising abstract expressionist becomes a one-man genre, an inimitable master of controlled improvisation whose mind-boggling, cluttered canvases were simultaneously dramatic, kinetic, brooding and beautiful.

But then biographical films about artists are generally not about art but about the drama of the artist’s life. Pollock, like Clint Eastwood’s Bird, has a central figure whose voracious appetite for self-destruction seemed to persist independently of his creativity, a parallel emotional life leaving chaos in its wake.

Since Ed Harris, who directed Pollock and also plays the title role, and Marcia Gay Harden, who plays his long-suffering wife and fellow artist Lee Krasner, have recently both been nominated for acting Oscars for their work here, you can’t help but approach the film a little differently than you would have before the nominations. One’s accessing impulse has been nudged now toward asking questions about worthiness. And though Harris, playing a volatile alcoholic, has a few of the kind of emotive scenes that Oscar smiles on, he’s most impressive here capturing the quieter side of Pollock’s psychic distress, the uneasy watchfulness of a man uncomfortable in his own skin, alternately tight-lipped and barely articulate. Why he is this way is beyond the movie’s scope, but Harris is convincing as someone who only feels really alive when he’s painting. And Harden’s Krasner, who continues to love the artist long after she’s been alienated by the man, is both hard-edged and sympathetic, a woman trapped by her vicarious ambitions (and trapped in the 1940s and ’50s, too).

So the acting is very good, despite some casting distractions (look, it’s Jeffrey Tambor as Clement Greenberg — why isn’t he more witty? — and isn’t that Val Kilmer, looking like the village idiot, playing Willem de Kooning?). The first part of the film, which takes place in New York in the ’40s, is nicely atmospheric, and the scenes of Pollock raining brilliance on his vast canvases are exhilarating. But once the artist moves to the country, appears on the cover of Life magazine and begins his final downward slide, the movie bogs down with its piteous subject, a shambling, blubbery drunk.

It’s as though, after playing the biopic game, the film decides to err on the side of verisimilitude. It turns into a bummer that Harris doesn’t have the directorial chops to in any way enhance. But then, maybe it’s Pollock who should be blamed, since it was he who was the monumental fuck-up.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

See this week's Reckless Eyeballing for more on Jackson Pollock.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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