Sunday, June 29, 2003

On Playing Pollock

           Such Desperate Joy Imagining Jackson Pollock edited by Helen A. Harrison. Published Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, New York NY, 2000.

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      As an individual who found his calling in the arts, I was drawn to Pollock as an artist who achieved a mode of expression, a form of creativity, that was not derivative of the art of his own time, or of any other time. Yes, it was "derived," in that it came out of his understanding of its precendents. But the actual art, the paint on the canvas, was truly original. Pollock's desire to arrive at his own originality, the need, the courage to open himself up and surrender to that openness - and his unrestrained commitment to take it to its limit - drew me to him.

      A desperate need for approval usually forces one into doing what is recognizable, something similar to what has already gained acceptance. Pollock's need for approval bordered on the psychopathic, but he had an even deeper need to create art that had no hint of the lie about it. That impulse drove him to make art that was neither recognizable nor accepted, and certainly was fair game for ridicule and abuse. But Pollock was his own toughest critic, and he knew that only he could judge what was pure and true and real as far as his work was concerned. He fought fiercely to be true to himself. He did not separate himself from his art. That aspect of his being, desperately needing approval, yet offering only his own truth, on his own terms - also drew me to him.

      His fears. The fear of intimacy, of revealing himself. His inability to feel secure in the world, his paralyzing fear of opening himself to others and the responsibility that entails, not to mention the possibility of rejection. Particularly with women. The pain of loneliness he must have felt at times. And, despite all this fear, the ultimate self-confidence, the belief that he could be accepted. I think he mistook approval for love. I also believe that, despite his realization that life is a great mystery, and his deep appreciation of the natural world and its beauty, he never got close to understanding his personal mystery. I don't think he wanted to. Hence, the drinking.

      Getting drunk is the best way to not answer questions, to be intimate without responsibility, to remove the pain of lonelinness, to ignore all the confusion about being alive that wells up inside us. And yet, by all accounts, Pollock painted sober. He faced his fears and his pain and his confusion on a blank canvas. Though masked, some would say, in complete abstraction, he revealed himself. He stripped himself naked and said, "Here I am," and put it out for the world to see and judge. And on top of it all, what he painted is beautiful, is aesthetically coherent, has power and rhythm and passion and color and harmony. And truth

      I approached the role of Pollock intuitively. It was not what I would call an intellectual pursuit. Writing the script and editing what we shot was a process of distillation. The years I spent reading and thinking and feeling about Pollock, the time I spent "painting" and trying to understand emotionaly what it is to be a painter - I had to trust that time, and trust that something had seeped into my bones that would allow me to portray Pollock honestly. I had no difficulty in choosing an interpretation because it all has been very personal. From everything I read and heard, I had to go with what touched my soul and what made sense to me both intellectually and emotionally.

      I've never been interested in exploiting Pollock. In fact, there was a period of time when I felt I really should leave the whole project alone, and let Jackson rest in peace. But then I realized that was only a desire to leave myself in peace. It's tricky, but I never wanted to pretend to be Pollock. I wanted to be Ed Harris, using all his tools as an actor and as a person to allow Pollock's experience on this earth to touch me, inspire me, lead me to an honest, true performance. I think the film is much more revealing of Ed Harris than it is of Jackson Pollock. I don't see how it could be any other way. I guess I used Jackson for a personal journey. The only reason I think he wouldn't mind is because the film is not a lie.

      It was difficult to balance what I perceive as Pollock's innocence with what I see as his calculated ability to get what he wanted. I needed to reveal his gentleness and also his meanness, his confidence and his deep insecurity, his fear and his courage, his manners and his sometimes aggressive incivility, his love for people and his selfishness, his competitiveness and his search for purity. The biggest challenge, in acting terms, was to find a "voice" for him. By that, I don't mean a speaking voice, but the voice of a soul, or a complex human being who didn't leave a legacy of intimate revelation - except in his paintings. That's a lot. What they mean to me is something I don't want to try to put into words, and probably couldn't. That's not a cop-out. The film is, I hope, a reflection of what I feel about his work.

      In addition to dealing with Pollock the man, I had to interpret Pollock as a painter. It's preposterous to think I could ever paint as he did, and yet I had to paint in the film. The most challenging part of all that was gaining enough confidence to paint as myself, for myself, but in his manner - to be committed first to myself as a painter, keeping my focus on creating my own art, not recreating someone else's.

      One thing I learned about Pollock's art is that he fully believed - and lived by - his famous statement, "I don't use the accident, because I deny the accident." Art students probably realize this, but it was a revelation for me. One cannot even approximate Pollock's approach to painting unless every stroke, every drip, every pour, every slap, every fling, every shake, every splash, every spatter, and every flick has a specific intention.

      And then there's Lee . . .

Ed Harris APRIL 2000