The MacGuffin or representation is that Pollock achieved a pinnacle of art, and found himself unable all at once to receive the guarantees of his Muse that would have carried him farther. A very great deal of use is made of Lust For Life and Vincent & Theo, not only to transmit certain biographical information but to allow the director to introduce Nature into a film largely concerned with the work and New York career of the artist.
Vincente Minnelli had constructed an immensely elaborate film, involving as it does the lending of actual Van Gogh paintings, along sordid biographical lines, merely to create a single shot toward the end, in which a wall of Theo Van Gogh’s home is shown full of 19th-century pictures and whatnot, and in a mirror in the midst of it all you see the face of Vincent (who carried Dutch painting from Vermeer and Hals and Rembrandt to Mondrian) looking as out of place as a time traveler.
Robert Altman resumed the theme, but focused on Dr. Gachet, who is represented as an ambiguous collector and patron with a pathological view of the artists he favors, somewhat perhaps in the manner of Rufus Wilmot Griswold on Poe.
Add to this Ken Russell’s representation of artistic and critical circles in Savage Messiah, as well as Henri-Georges Clouzot’s record of the artist in action, Le Mystère Picasso, and you have the conditioned and conditional world of Pollock.
Several scenes are better than anything ever done before, and two are as good as anything in cinema. Pollock on a bike full of beer is worthy of Harold Lloyd; compare Dr. Jack on his way to work blocked by a herd of cattle in the road. He jumps from his flivver, which rolls along behind him, and clears a way through the livestock, then jumps back in the still-moving car and drives on—all this filmed in one continuous take as a tracking-out shot from in front of the action, as the Pollock gag is. And the blank screen representing the blank canvas equals Carol Reed turning the entire screen into a zither at the opening of The Third Man.
But Ed Harris hits something new when he represents Jackson Pollock painting; nothing of this caliber has ever been attempted before: he demonstrates crucial developments of Pollock’s art before your very eyes in less time than it takes to describe them, from Picasso imitator to Mark Tobey to the drip-paintings.
There is a certain reminiscence of Lenny and Chinatown in the last shots of Pollock, and the beauty pageant winner in both versions of The Entertainer is recalled; often Harris himself is filmed in such a way as to resemble or prefigure Keir Dullea as Astronaut Bowman in the latter part of 2001: A Space Odyssey, before, during and after the “Star Gate” sequence, with the play of color and experience on his face and its more or less still regard.