Pollock

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Pollock

As is typical for biographical films about great artists, the best scenes in Pollock break from the dull chronology of Significant Events and focus on the work itself, those solitary fits of creativity that can't be accounted for by personal trivia. For first-time director and star Ed Harris, the idea of a Jackson Pollock biopic had been gestating for years. He's immersed himself in the role, thanks in part to his uncanny physical resemblance to his subject. Channeling Pollock's infamous braggadocio—he allegedly inspired the Stanley Kowalski character in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire—Harris prowls around an empty canvas as if sizing up a formidable opponent, then attacks it with violent, explosive force. Like Nick Nolte in Martin Scorsese's superior New York Stories featurette, "Life Lessons," Pollock lives with an irrepressible creative drive that wreaks havoc in other areas of his life. But in the painting sequences, his source of inspiration remains a mystery, as it should. The rest of the time, Pollock stumbles into common traps by trying to give form to a real person's shapeless life and blindly hoping that the biographical details will somehow provide insight into his art. Well-acted and serviceably told, if not especially distinguished, the film has the good sense to avoid the birth-to-death arc that spoiled the recent Before Night Falls; instead, it opens in the early '40s, with Pollock on the cusp of the New York art scene. Laboring in obscurity in Brooklyn, he's discovered and championed by Lee Krasner (Marcia Gay Harden), whose passion for his work carries over into romance and a tumultuous marriage. It takes time for his genius to be acknowledged, but after an exhibit sponsored by Peggy Guggenheim (Amy Madigan) and a subsequent spread in Life magazine, Pollock becomes the toast of the town. But the fickle nature of the art world, coupled with severe mood swings and massive egotism, feed his tendency to drink heavily and alienate his loved ones with vicious, infantile tantrums. Few actors can recycle rage as well as Harris, who can make anger seem like an extension of sensitivity, but he hasn't found an illuminating way to frame the events of the artist's life. Pollock was an abstract expressionist, but Pollock is neither abstract nor expressionistic: Instead, it's a disappointing catalog of fleeting triumphs and ugly meltdowns. Perhaps the only way to tell artists apart is by their actual work, because their self-destructive histories begin to look the same after a while.