No movie biography has disturbed me more than Ed Harris’ Pollock. My dislike for the movie centers around one key scene: the moment Jackson Pollock finds his Inspiration. It’s the scene that attempts to show Pollock’s discovery of his Action paintings. The Big Moment of Discovery.
This is the Moment: Pollock is doing one of his more typical paintings. He drops his brush. Paint splatters all over the floor. Frustrated, he takes a step back. He recognizes Genius. This is the beginning of his Abstract Expressionism.
Could there be anything more reductive than representing Pollock’s Inspiration as the accidental dropping of a paint brush?
I confess that I avoided seeing the movie when it first came to theatres, even after Marcia Gay Harden won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing the role of Pollock’s sassy, long-suffering wife. Movie biographies always bother me. They almost always try to cover way too much time, advancing to the Major Dramatic Scenes with shameful excitement. They’re also often dull and earnest.
Before I saw Pollock, I read numerous interviews with Ed Harris about the making of film. His attraction to the material. (Should we assume that Harris tripped over a book about Pollock and then had his Epiphany: Pollock must be made into a movie!) The painstaking research. The usual production problems. It sounded like good news copy. Only an unkind person like myself could fail to be touched.
I can still remember the fateful night several other English teachers and I ended up in Blockbuster Video, desperately trying to find a movie to rent. It was the first time we all went out together and everyone wanted to look respectable.
“Has anyone seen the latest Stephen Segal movie?” I said.
“Who’s he?” someone said.
“I don’t know,” I lied. “The cover looked interesting.” I put the movie back on the shelf and decided that I wouldn’t offer any recommendations.
“How about Pollock?” someone else said.
Everyone agreed and we walked out of the video store, victorious.
When it came to the Moment of Inspiration, I burst into laughter. Someone thought I was choking on popcorn, so they grabbed the remote control and asked me if I was OK.
“I was laughing,” I said.
“That scene,” I said. “It’s ridiculous. To think that the birth of Abstract Expressionism is predicated on Pollock’s accidental dropping of a paint brush is insane.”
Everyone looked at me like I was crazy.
“Do you think you’re being fair?” someone else said.
“Yes, fair,” the person said. “Inspiration is a very difficult thing to represent on film.”
I couldn’t disagree with my colleague. Inspiration is a very difficult thing to represent on film. Or for that matter explain in any way. But I couldn’t drop the subject. I pushed it further: “Hubris.”
“Hubris,” someone repeated.
“Hubris,” I said. “That’s what this movie is guilty of. That’s the sin I attach to Ed Harris. He’s an artist. A really good actor. How dare he think that he can explain a fellow artist’s inspiration in one quick, glib scene.”
Someone excused themself to go to the bathroom. Someone else went to get more popcorn. Two others marched outside and shared a cigarette. There was one other person in the room. He was in the philosophy department and he never engaged in conversation. He hoarded all his thoughts. His name was Phil.
“So,” Phil said. “What else do you think of the movie?”
“I didn’t know much about Jackson Pollock going into the movie,” I said. “And having watched the movie for about an hour now, I don’t think I know anything much more.”
He looked at me with the blankest of expressions. This made me want to rant more. But I had nothing else to say. I was tired.
“So,” he said, “The movie hasn’t offered you any insight into the character of Jackson Pollock.” He spoke slowly and deliberately. I could imagine him paraphrasing his students’ comments in class, and his students cringing, wondering how their words were going to inevitably make them look stupid.
“Yes,” I said.
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
“When I see a biography, I want to know something new about the person. Isn’t that why we rented this film?”
“Is it?” Phil said. “Or is it an odd success of the film that Ed Harris chooses not to offer any dazzling, new psychological insights into Jackson Pollock? Harris allows the superficial myths surrounding Pollock to remain untouched, unexamined. Like the fighting. Like the drinking. Like the depression. His refusal to delve deeply is an act of kindness. Harris doesn’t pursue what makes Pollock tick, because he knows he can’t do it. And to pretend to do so is ultimately unethical. So he uses the myths as a way of showing off his own acting talents. While leaving the more human aspects behind those very myths alone.”
“But what about the scene I was talking about?”
“Comedy,” Phil said. “Pure comedy.”
At the time I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing except the obvious: “Inspiration is a funny thing.” It’s not like I could offer any effective solutions to Harris’s dilemma: representing Inspiration in a convincing, edifying way. You couldn’t show Pollock summoning the Devil, engaging in some sort of Faustian bargain, offering his full mortality for Artistic Genius. Nor you could ask Julia Roberts to contribute a cameo as a Muse, offering sassy, cogent advice whenever Harris’ Pollock grows tired, inert.
All I knew was I wanted Something More.
“Don’t we all,” Phil said.
“Is that bad?” I said.
“No,” Phil said. “But you’re forgetting something.”
“There’s the paintings,” he said. “There is always the paintings.”