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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Movies About Artists--Pollock

Ed Harris directed, starred in, and did all the painting
himself in making Pollock. Squeeze, drip, and dry.
Having written about two movies dealing with artists of the distant past (van Gogh and Michelangelo) it's a rather refreshing change to delve into one from the more recent past, Ed Harris' directorial debut and starring vehicle, Pollock. As bio-pics go, Harris's Pollock is relatively recent--taking place in the 1940s and 50s, and released in 2000. The screenplay was taken from the book, Jackson Pollock: an American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith. The film was a long-term personal project for Harris based on his previous reading of Pollock's biography some ten years earlier. Filming, however, took a mere 50 days with a six-week layoff after forty days so Harris had time to gain thirty pounds and grow a beard.

Harris, like many directors when they are unsure
of a scene, film it first in 16mm or digital video.
I don't normally get involved in recounting the plot when writing about movies, much less those about well-known painters, We all know how this movie ends. However, most people know very little as to how it begins or the turbulent, tragic course of Jackson Pollock's forty-four years and less than ten years of fame (or notoriety). Jackson Pollock was born in 1912. Ed Harris was born in 1950, about the time Pollock made his big splash into the new York world of Modern Art. Yet, in some ways, Harris's portrayal of the painter is so intensely personal, he seems to look, act, and even paint more like Pollock than Pollock himself. Harris was not at all surprised to be nominated for an Academy Award for his role, and was likely just as pleased (though perhaps surprised) that his co-star, Marcia Gay Harden, who played his long-suffering wife, Lee Krasner, was nominated as Best Supporting Actress. He was, however, likely surprised and dismayed when she won and he didn't. From that point on, she received equal billing on all the film's poster advertising (top).

Pollock popularized "gestural" painting in the 1950s
as captured here in a still from Hans Namath's film.

Casting is one of the
most critical roles of
a director.
The film begins in 1950 as Pollock is seen autographing a copy of Life Magazine for a woman at the art exhibit which made him famous. From that point on most of the film is a flashback to some nine years earlier. At that time Pollock is portrayed as an alcoholic painter who makes his living by exhibiting his work in occasional group art shows. He is living with his brother, Sande, and sister-in-law in a tiny New York apartment. Sande's wife announces that they are having a baby. Actually, she is hinting for Pollock to move out. Soon afterwards, Pollock meets artist, Lee Krasner (Harden), who takes an interest in him. Later, at dinner, he learns that his brother is moving to Connecticut, taking a war production job to avoid a rumored draft of married men not involved in the war effort. Jackson has a 4F draft deferment. Unable to handle the situation, Jackson goes on a drinking binge. Krasner and Sande find him in a drunken state, whereupon Krasner learns from Sande that Jackson is diagnosed as "clinically neurotic" (he was actually bipolar). Despite this, Lee takes him home and decides to become his manager.

The wealthy (also very angry) heiress and art dealer
who "found" Jackson Pollock. She'd just climbed five
flights of stairs only to be kept waiting to see the artist.
Some time later, Pollock's old friend, Ruben drops by with Howard Putzel, who works for the wealthy art collector Peggy Guggenheim. They arrange for Guggenheim to come see his art. Despite a strained first encounter, she gives him a contract to sell $2400 of paintings plus a commission to paint a mural in the entrance hall of her New York town house. His first exhibit attracts little interest and no buyers. After a New Year's Eve party for which he'll long be remembered for urinating in the fireplace, Pollock almost goes to bed with Peggy, but is too drunk to perform. He returns to Krasner in the morning. The film recounts several other drunken debacles after which Krasner always takes him back. She eventually demands that Jackson either marry her and continue painting or that they split up. Jackson surprises her by insisting on a church wedding. They compromised by inviting no guests.

The two-page spread in Life which outraged readers,
but changed everything for Pollock.
The place where paintings
worth millions originated.
After marrying, the two decide to move to a Long Island country house by the ocean in Springs, NY. Jackson is disheartened when Lee makes clear that she does not want to have a baby, partly because she is happy to just live as two painters, partly because of his neurosis, and partly because of their tight financial situation. At a get-together at Peggy Guggenheim's, art critic, Clement Greenberg, mentions that things will change after Life Magazine's coverage of Pollock's upcoming art exhibit. In desperate need of money, Pollock tries doing other work for a living, but his drinking gets in the way. He lies to Sande and family about the financial status and waits to see what will happen after Life Magazine's coverage. This time he tries to abstain from alcohol. Things get better after the magazine story. Later, photographer, Hans Namuth, tries to film Jackson as he paints. Hans' moviemaking interrupts the spontaneous nature of Jackson's work and Jackson feels like a phony acting it out. Jackson loses patience and, much to Lee's disapproval, begins drinking again. Later he ruins Thanksgiving dinner in a rage. The film then returns to the 1950 art exhibit.

The physical resemblance of the movie's cast to
the actual people in Pollock's life is amazing.
After a few years of success, Pollock is outraged when Greenberg mentions that the Partisan Review is favoring Clyfford Still, whose original technique could be the next direction for modern art. Once more, a drunken Pollock does not take it well and becomes even more upset when Krasner berates him for his drinking and womanizing. Pollock argues that it's all because she won't have a child. However, his wife knows he's having an affair with a woman named Ruth Kligman, but refuses to give him a divorce. By this time, he's very much her "meal ticket." Later, when she goes to Venice on his behalf to visit Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock receives a call from her, whereupon he realizes, "I owe the woman something." A short time later, Ruth brings over a friend, Edith Metzger. Pollock takes them for a drive even though he is quite drunk. It's late at night, August 11, 1956. He crashes the car, killing himself and Edith (Ruth Kligman survives). The film ends by noting that Lee Krasner survived another 28 years, continuing her painting career from Pollock's studio while promoting his legacy.

Harris, as Pollock, in the artist's studio.

Jackson Pollock's studio floor. I wonder how
much these boards would bring at auction.

Jackson Pollock's shoes--ought to
be worth about a million dollars each.


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