“A BIGGER SPLASH”— An Enigmatic Look at David Hockney


An Enigmatic Look at David Hockney

Amos Lassen

Made in the early 1970s. “A Bigger Splash” features artist David Hockney and his circle. It seems, at first, to be a documentary looking at Hockney, but as you watch we understand that what we’re watching isn’t a documentary at all. Instead it is recreation of reality with all the real players in Hockney’s life who are take part in a devised reflection of the truth. It was made at a time when reality soaps were the work of mad directors.

The film begins with Hockney talking about a new love, but then goes three years back in time three to when he’s recently split up with his young boyfriend, Peter Schlesinger. The film then covers the time following the split, looking at how ‘more than two people suffer’ when love goes wrong. If you’re hoping for it draw any conclusions, they do not happen.

“A Bigger Splash” takes its lead from Hockney’s famed paintings, with their fascination for looking at subjects through other things (glass, water), as well as how they frame their subjects and feature characters who seem slightly detached both from each other and the viewer. The film is therefore very deliberately a reflection of (and on) Hockney but without clear viewpoint and we face questions.  Is this Hockney’s view of himself? Is it his friends’? Is it the director’s? Is the truth, as the film seems to hint, coming from a mix of these views?

The result is enigmatic and interesting, even though it’s somewhat frustrating. Any attempt to gain a further understanding of Hockney himself does not happen, as the film doesn’t allow the audience to fully understand what it’s doing. It’s a fascinating film, but not one you can trust. It’s almost like the unreliable narrator in literature, but here that unreliable narrator is the movie itself. With a famous subject like Hockney, you expect a documentary that shows you his life and art, but instead director Jack Hazan has created something where you have to question everything you see. although “A Bigger Splash” is difficult to trust, Hockney himself found the whole thing far too close to the truth and offered to pay to have the negative destroyed. He may have eschewed the pop art label others thrust on him, but like many creative people, he was aware that the public Hockney was a creation, and that this film could affect that. He later changed his mind and apparently now sees it as a worthwhile portrait. Indeed that idea in itself is incredibly intriguing, suggesting this is the cinematic equivalent of when one artist paints another.

It seems that the film gets close to the truth, but it’s impossible to tell exactly what is true and what isn’t. Hockney come across as a little self-obsessed, playing on his working class roots but whose problems and attitude are rather decadent It’s perhaps not surprising that he comes across like that as he’s constantly being affirmed as the center of his own universe by agents, gallery owners and collectors and by friends whose existence seem to largely revolve around him.

Made in 1974. “A Bigger Splash” is incredibly frank in its depiction of gay sexuality.  We normally think of cinema back then censoring homosexuality out of existence, but this is amongst those rare documents that refused to do so. Even today it contains at least one scene that would give it an X rating. Few movies of the time manage to be so frank, blasé and natural about gay people as this is. The film was seen as quite scandalous at the time it was released, but its view of gay life is actually wonderfully quiet and matter of fact.

The film is ostensibly a portrait of the artist as an uninspired man. Hazan dispenses with many of the familiar conventions of documentary filmmaking that would become the way to do so in years to come. Hazan presents Hockney and the people in the artist’s orbit as essentially living in one of his paintings and it is a captivating pseudo-drama of alienated people living flashy lifestyles and who have much difficulty communicating with each other. The film feels like an extension of Hockney’s sexually frank art, which has consistently depicted gay life and helped to normalize gay relationships in the 1960s. One notably protracted sequence shows two men stripping naked and intensely making out making it i easy to see why the film is now recognized as an important flashpoint in the history of LGBT cinema.

Hockney shows an acute understanding of human behavior. Hazan beginsthe filmwith a flash-forward of Hockney describing the sub-textual richness of a male friend’s actions with the artist practically becoming giddy over incorporating what he’s observed into one of his paintings. Hazan subsequently includes extended scenes of Hockney at work, attempting to capture a sense of people’s inner feelings through an acute depiction of body language and facial expressions. At its simplest, then, the documentary is a celebration of how Hockney turns life into art.

Hockney is seen in the film working on “Portrait of an Artist” (“Pool with Two Figures”), incorporating into his now-iconic painting the visage of a friend. It’s here that the film homes in on Hockney’s uncanny ability to transform a seemingly innocuous moment into a profound expression of desire. It’s as if Hazan is trying to put us in Hockney’s shoes, force us to pay as close attention as possible to the details of so many lavish parties and mundane excursions to art galleries and imagine just what might become one of the Hockney’s masterworks.

Toward the end of “A Bigger Splash”, surreal dream scenes are seen between shots of a sleeping Hockney and staged like one of his pool paintings, showing the accumulation of people and details that the artist witnessed and absorbed throughout the film.