Monday, March 07, 2011

Abstract expressionism


I watched the Ed Harris vehicle "Pollock" on Netflix last night. The movie garnered an Oscar for Marcia Gay Harden (Best Supporting Actress) and a Best Actor nom for Harris. It's based on a biography of the abstract expressionist painter, Jackson Pollock.

The movie is, of course, much easier to understand than Pollock's art. Except when they talk about Pollock's art. Apparently Pollock managed to free the line from delineating shape, boundary or even image. Doesn't that make the line the shape? The boundary? Ultimately the image?

The movie is clearly a labor of love for Harris and it shows throughout the film. Unexpectedly fascinating is Harris painting with the techniques (including not having the brushes actually touch the canvas) and in the style of Pollock. Pollock's real art, at least to my ignorant eye, is more interesting and appealing than that in the film, but that's probably as it should be.

There is a wonderful scene (no, not the one where Pollock extinguishes a fire in a high society soiree) where Pollock's future wife, Lee Krasner (played by Harden), takes him home to her apartment. The camera is looking down a hallway and is completely stationary. There is no music in the scene. Harris/Pollock is standing in the foreground at the camera end of the hallway, with little ambient light. There is an indirect light in the bedroom at the far end of the hall and that serves to back light the characters' movements.

While Harris stands still, the Krasner character moves along the hallway, stopping to remove her coat and hang it on a hook. She moves back and forth in the hallway, getting ready for one knows not what, while Harris stands like a statue. Eventually Krasner moves to the bedroom and takes off her blazer. Then she takes off some more. She never looks at Pollock and we have no idea how aware of her he is. At the appropriate moment, he sheds his own jacket and walks down the hall away from the camera and into the bedroom. Krasner at once moves to him and begins removing Pollock's clothes, the expected result all along. There is no music in the scene, no sound other than that of the characters walking in the hall, swishing their coats, etc. Wonderful scene.

I didn't care for most of the soundtrack. It was a bit all over the place, and almost whimsical in places where the overall tone of the movie is fey and brooding. And if you know anything about Pollock, you know how the movie is going to end, a la "The Buddy Holly Story." You spend some thought on wondering how they're going to portray what you already know is coming. Which actually is the weakest part of the movie, the climactic ending. Lacking all subtlety and surprise, blaring the upcoming event through loud, screaming dialogue does nothing to aid the climax. Instead it diminishes it greatly. If you drop a ball on my head, I'll be startled and react accordingly. If you scream at the top of your lungs, "I'M GOING TO DROP A BALL ON YOUR HEAD NOW!" it's not going to come off the same way.

There's also a point in the film where Pollock is suddenly having an affair with a hot young thing, and tells Krasner he's in love. I don't know where she came from. While the girlfriend (played by Jennifer Connelly) professes her love for Pollock several times, no time was devoted to the development of this relationship so that this comes off as very unconvincing. How do they know each other? What does she see in him? How did they come to be? "I'M GOING TO BE YOUR GIRLFRIEND AND TAKE YOU AWAY FROM YOUR WIFE!"

Overall a solid movie, most notable for the acting performances. While I'd recommend it, the soundtrack, the light portrayal of the extra-marital relationship, and most of all the presentation of the ending keep the film from being the classic it clearly is trying to be.

I'm going to go draw lines now, and see if I can do it without boundary, form, or image. I suspect I'll just sit and scratch my head and pick nits from my scalp, but we all do what we can for our art.


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