Dancing in undies in the middle of the living room, smoky basement beauty pageants performed half in drag, waggish runway models twirling in dresses by Ossie Clark, a friend phoning a friend from a sun-strewn sofa, tulips drooping luridly in the corner. Billed as an “intimate portrait” of acclaimed English painter David Hockney, Jack Hazan’s experimental 1974 documentary — newly restored to 4k by Metrograph Productions — feels like both an homage to the creative process and a visual apologia for the decadence of a lost era.
Opening with a montage of Hockney press clips and the artist’s drawings of his closest companions — lover Peter Schlesinger, fashion illustrator Celia Birtwell, assistant Mo McDermott, and British gallerist John Kasmin, among them — the film basks in the full-frontal, day-to-day details of their tightly interwoven emotional lives. “What was happening in London was happening in New York at the same time,” Hazan recounted in a recent phone conversation. “Artists still alive today love this film — they’re flattered by it. I wasn’t aware of it back then, but I do see now that the film captured a time. That was my responsibility: to capture what was taking place in front of me.”
Not unlike the zeitgeist it captures, A Bigger Splash privileges sensual introspection over linearity, its disjunctive imagery and cadence reminiscent of Renata Adler’s 1976 novel Speedboat and Jean-Luc Godard’s New Wave. Those with little patience for a languid pace and circular plot might take issue, as might viewers seeking a verite take on the art world’s so-called “golden boy.” “We didn’t know what the film was about at first — no idea,” Hazan said, referring to himself and editor David Mingay. “We’d managed to get sporadic access to Hockney and his friends throughout, and we knew there was a story somewhere.”
The a-ha! moment for a film “made in the cutting room” occurred while they were shooting Hockney painting a portrait of Peter, a beautiful model and photographer whose whitey tighties, in a later scene, practically glow onscreen. “There was obviously a breakup between David and Peter,” the director recalled, “and Peter got an apartment down the road about 200 yards away. David wanted to see him, so he said to me, ‘I’d like to paint Peter to finish an oil painting I’m doing. Would you help me?’ Peter came around and I’d never filmed him before — I’d barely seen him. And I could tell he was hostile — he felt betrayed by David that he’d be filmed. So he sat on the stool in a fury, but didn’t let on. I started shooting very, very fast.”
Hazan’s interventions into Hockney’s cohort gradually cohere into a loose narrative of longing, loss, and artistic labor. “Ethical or not, we were intrusive,” he admitted. “Their conversations were more or less set up … the night before I filmed, I’d come up with one or two questions that would prompt a conversation — usually between two people. Sometimes they would say ‘yes’ and sometimes they would say ‘no.’ If they’d say yes I knew I’d get some sort of reaction.”
These exchanges caught in media res often resemble Factory films, as they desultorily relay information across long, static close-ups. “That’s how Warhol filmed his characters,” Hazan explained of his own process. “They’re not actors, so you cannot disturb them. You cannot move the camera and ask them to do it again.”
Most sessions of lugubrious lounging record Hockney’s ambivalence over whether to stay in London or move to New York or LA. It’s been years since he completed his famous pool painting, “A Bigger Splash,” and the artist is in a creative slump. “You don’t know the pressure that I get on me,” Kasmin says to Hockney of the British demand for the artist’s paintings. “It makes it difficult to see you thinking of going away, and not knowing exactly how you plan your work and time.” “One picture that took two weeks actually took six months and two weeks,” Hockney replies, smirking in his signature suit and bowtie. Inspiration, it seems, cannot be scheduled. Sulking is no indulgence; it is essential to everyday fraternizing, to lazing about with one’s mates midday. It is also essential, the film suggests, to making a masterpiece. In 2018, Hockney’s “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” sold for over 90 million dollars, a record at the time for a work by a living artist. Witnessing Hockney painstakingly — if intermittently — compose this painting at a tumultuous period in his life testifies to the unpredictable nature of creative brilliance.
“I think for a while David saw it as a history of his life at that point,” Hazan laughed. “Of course it’s not. It’s a designed movie, really. I used to buy the flowers and put them in somebody’s hands. We couldn’t leave it to chance — because we didn’t have the money for that. The restrictions dictate what you do. That’s how it is in art.”
Alternating between dubbing the film as “the truth” and “exaggerated,” the director views A Bigger Splash as “heightened reality.” It might be just as accurate to call it a droll, sumptuous staging of life imitating art imitating life — a cinematic prose-poem recontextualizing one of the most iconic canvases of past century. As meta-commentary and tribute to the toils of genius, A Bigger Splash may leave a greater impact now than it did nearly 50 years ago — as should be the case for any triumphant work of art.
A Bigger Splash is currently screening at the Metrograph (7 Ludlow Street, Manhattan).