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Richard A. BlakeMarch 19, 2001

Art is a blood sport. Really. Someone, something must be sacrificed during the game, while heartless spectators stare in fascination at the suffering orchestrated for their amusement. Just think how many of the world’s greatest artists made a demolition derby of their lives, systematically wrecking themselves and those around them.

Here’s an obvious example. A few months ago, I had the occasion to reread The Great Gatsby. The experience was revealing. Half way through the book I realized that if I continued to write this column for another hundred years, I could never write a paragraph to match Fitzgerald. But what a terrible price he paid for his genius. It is as though the man were an empty shell built of loneliness and pain, until he sat down at his desk and let those glorious words pour from deep within that void onto paper. Brooding poets, painters, composers—only in the act of creation do such as these leave their wrecked humanity behind and become their art. Without their art they are but shadows.

Pollock, a film biography of Jackson Pollock (1912-56), once again explores a topic that continually risks becoming a cliché: “the tormented artist.” Ed Harris, as both director and actor, provides the energy that makes this often-told story of the self-destructive genius both refreshing and disturbing.

Writers Barbara Turner and Susan J. Emshwiller frame the bulk of their story with a scene in which Pollock at the height of his popularity autographs a copy of the issue of Life magazine that made him a national celebrity. How capricious a mistress is fame! Even after years of substantial recognition among the artistic community, Pollock still struggles to pay his grocery bills. In one week’s time, however, a photo-essay in a popular magazine makes him the “hot” commodity in the New York art world. With his newfound success and security, he soars artistically and personally only to plummet into disaster when he can no longer sustain the originality of his earlier years. How manifestly unfair! In his success, the artist nurtures seeds of self-annihilation. He must continue to surpass previous achievement or face the perception that he has burned out and has nothing more to offer the public. Ever fickle, ever in search of novelty, critics and patrons alike rush off to discover a newer, fresher vision offered by someone else. Perhaps the editors at Life will even find in the new artist material for a prestige-enhancing artsy cover story.

Jackson Pollock’s personal tragedy arose from his own interior demons as well as from social pressures. The flashback opens with Pollock stumbling drunkenly up the steps to his fifth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village. His companion, visibly pregnant as she waits on the landing, has had enough of his bad-boy behavior. The next morning she throws his breakfast on the kitchen table and walks out of his life forever. He offers no apologies and makes no attempt to stop her. As a young artist convinced of his own destiny, Pollock has no room for distracting commitments in his life. As the country edged closer to a world war, the village attracted like-minded artists from around the world. Its free, bohemian life-style liberated them from the staid conventions of Depression America, but at a terrible human cost to their own humanity.

Pollock’s night on the town fit a pattern. Only in his late 20’s, he was even then sinking further and further into alcoholism, a disease that would haunt him the rest of his tragically short life. In one revealing scene, Pollock, at the height of his creative powers and apparent happiness, rides a bicycle down a country road. He balances a case of beer on the handlebars. Unwilling or unable to wait for a drink, he opens a bottle and begins to drink as he continues to peddle toward home. Predictably, he loses control of the bike and falls. He lies amid the broken bottles that litter the highway, a stark image of his alcohol-wrecked life.

Later, the image is repeated in a highly amplified form. In a drunken rage he lifts the end of a dinner table and spills the Thanksgiving meal, now ruined, onto the floor as his family watches in horror. He has destroyed their shared meal, a near universal sign of community. This destructive act provides the visible sign that his addiction has driven him into his own personal hell, where no family member can reach him.

Alcoholism formed only part of the problem. Sober, Pollock could retreat into his own private, silent world of depression. Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), a Brooklyn-born painter with some reputation in her own right, admires Pollock’s work and visits him in his studio. Her conversation scarcely penetrates his dark mood. Recognizing his talent, Lee knowingly sacrifices her own career for his. She moves in with him, and they eventually marry. Through their years together, she endures both the morbid silences and the manic outbursts. With her encouragement, they leave Greenwich Village and its destructive lifestyle and set up a country home and studio on eastern Long Island. Lee loves him and his art—it is difficult for her to distinguish—but she is not blind. When Pollock suggests that they start a family, she speaks truths to him that he has never heard from anyone else. Lee will not condemn another human being to Pollock’s world. She shares his good years, but when they come to an end, so does their relationship.

How could it be otherwise? Self-absorbed to the point of monomania, Pollock cannot share his life with anyone. At a family gathering, he chatters obsessively about his reviews, even trying to decipher a few words from an Italian art journal that he thinks indicate a growing international reputation. Finally, tired of the endless, narcissistic monologue, one of the women asks if he has no interest at all in his family. He is stunned. The answer is obvious, even to him.

The cinematography of Lisa Rinzler beautifully captures the creative side of Pollock’s manic energy. While the bulk of the film is set in dark, claustrophobic interiors, the screen explodes in motion and color as Pollock attacks a huge canvas with broad brush strokes. His hokey and probably fictitious discovery of his signature drip-and-spatter style, when he accidentally drips paint on the floor of his studio, should not detract from the scenes of Harris’s amazing energy as he brings a blank white surface to life with sure, swift athletic movements worthy of a ballet dancer.

“Pollock” first appeared at the New York Film Festival in late September, but only in February did it begin its general release. Sony Pictures Classics gambled that it would earn several Academy Award nominations to enhance its marketability. The gamble paid off. Ed Harris has been nominated for best actor, and deservedly so. Marcia Gay Harden received a nomination for best supporting actor, but her part is so substantial that she could just as easily have appeared in the best actor category. She is tough and tender, consciously leading a life of self-sacrifice without the slightest touch of self-pity. Amy Madigan plays Peggy Guggenheim, Pollock’s imperious but indulgent patron. Jeffry Tambor is the coolly analytic art critic Clement Greenberg, the first to recognize Pollock’s genius and then the first to point out that he has nothing more to say. Friendship has nothing to do with either assessment; it’s only business, but a business that ultimately destroys both the artist and the man.

Surely, a life like Pollock’s evokes a sense of reverence and mystery. Perhaps it suggests that the tormented artist is one chosen to suffer for the rest of us. Such people create a world of beauty that we, limited and timid mortals that we are, can enjoy without having to pay the price. For the sacrifice of Jackson Pollock and his kind, we can only be grateful.

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