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It's not about whammies. Painting is much subtler than cinema. A great painting can make you cry, but you have to be especially sensitive to the medium and to your own emotional stream. If you choose to take the time to stare at a Van Gogh for instance, to fall into a painting by O'Keefe, or to listen to the colors of Kahlo or Gaughin, your soul can be nourished and expanded.
Most cinema, on the other hand, is all about whammies, delivering emotional impacts to otherwise passive viewers. That Pollock is not so whammy-packed or whammy-dependent is refreshing. Yet Jackson Pollock's life did have a whammy or two, even besides the automobile-meets-tree whammy that ended his life; and this film does a good job of delivering his story in a way that highlights his achievements and captures the darkness of his tortured soul.
Ed Harris clearly has a deep love and respect for the artist he portrays. Even in those moments (very few and very brief) when Harris loses the spirit and is much more obviously Ed Harris, actor, than Jackson Pollock, painter, his intent and desire to embody the beatnik is plain. Harris really does throw himself into the role as one can only do when it's a pet project.
Pollock had a manic energy as an artist and a depressive personality as a soul. He made a great many good paintings that caught the attention of the art crowd-the rich art crowd-and garnered him coverage in Time magazine, at the time among the widest, most respected coverage an artist could get. He also got the attention of Guggenheim, which put him in good stead.
His alcoholism, however, got in the way of his personal relationships, and when it was acute it caused him a great deal of sorrow. The supporting cast, specifically wife and promoter Lee Krasner, played by Marcia Gay Harden, are good at bringing out this dynamic. The character, the actor, and the real person who the actor plays all care deeply about Pollock. She takes care of him, helps him meet the right people, compensates for his shyness at openings. And when the relationship is stormy, she does her best to maintain the even keel.
For a while, things are rosy, though you wouldn't quite think
it to look at Jackson. Ed Harris has one of his extraordinary
moments just after Pollock's first big New York show. He and
his wife have reached a peak, and he smiles; but the smile is
one of a ghost, cracking and clay-like, just barely holding the
depression back. After this initial success, Pollock returns
to the drink; and though he remains famous as an artist, the
best critics see that he doesn't have the same fire.