On 30 January, the BFI releases a dual format edition of A Bigger Splash (1974) to coincide with the Royal Academy's David Hockney show, The Bigger Picture, which celebrates the artist's fascination with landscape and presents his recent iPad drawings and a series of new films produced using 18 cameras, to be displayed on multiple screens. The 1974 film, directed by Jack Hazan, eschews much of the razzamatazz of the standard biopic or the strict trappings of factual documentary style and produces something that is part fiction, part fact, part documentary and part re-enactment. Its abstraction is perhaps a comment on how David Hockney was (and still is) partly a media construction while he also manipulates, in a very self-aware manner, the slippage between 'being an artist' and 'being himself' both in the public eye and in private.
Hazan, inspired by Hockney's series of double portraits in a catalogue shown to him by partner David Mingay, built the film up over a three year period. Starting in Spring 1971 and following in the wake of Hockney and his entourage, Hazan filmed them whenever time and funding permitted. He even re-mortgaged his own house to finance the film. Many of the sequences you'll see are scripted reconstructions (Hazan 'wrote' the film with Mingay) with Hazan often asking the artist and his friends to create and re-create specific sequences or restructure them to imply another meaning beyond that of the real incidents in Hockney's life. Hockney really didn't hold much truck with Hazan making this film and initially thought it all a bit of a joke, often making it difficult for Hazan to access both his private life and the whirlwind social scene that Hockney was part of. After he'd seen the completed film a distressed Hockney considered paying to have it destroyed, feeling that he had been betrayed and exploited not only by Hazan but by many of his friends.
"... his lover has left him, and he's deeply saddened by this. And that's the plot."
There are sequences that are fly-on-the-wall observations - for example, Celia and Ossie's fashion show for Quorum at Radley and footage of Andrew Logan's Alternative Miss World contest (in which Derek Jarman fleetingly appears) - mixed with staged material to enable Hazan to shuttle the film back and forth between 1971 and 1974, using this form of analepsis to offer up dissections of Hockney's life and the breakdown of his relationship with artist-model Schlesigner. Indeed, as indicated in Adam Roberts's 2006 DVD interview with Hazan, he filmed Hockney requesting Peter Schlesinger to come over and help him work on the painting 'Sur la Terrasse' and then with his partner David Mingay inadvertently discovered, in the footage they'd shot, the starting point for the film's 'story'.
"I soon realised that (…) Peter was obviously, had been, David's boyfriend. And things had obviously gone wrong. It almost seemed like it was a ploy on David's part just to see him, that he wanted to actually paint him again, just to have him there. Anyway, I went back to the cutting room with my partner. We discussed this, and he said, well, there's the story, there's the conflict: David Hockney, and his lover has left him, and he's deeply saddened by this. And that's the plot." This rejection comes across in the finished sequence, where Schlesinger recreates the pose of the figure in the painting, keeping his back to a self-absorbed Hockney and remaining silent.
Many of Hockney's paintings are restaged throughout the film and as an addition to this aesthetic, Hazan records the creation of Hockney's 'Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)' which he struggled to complete in 1972 after the relationship with Schlesinger had come to an end in 1971. It is itself a construction, a reconstituted memory that Hockney has to put back together after he decides to reject the first canvas he attempts to produce. Even the scene of the first canvas's destruction was a recreation of the original moment, a melodramatic restaging scored to 'Nessun Dorma'.
All this points to a film that pre-empts much of the scripted reality television, or 'dramality' as it has come to be known, that exists today and where acting out storylines planned in advance by producers and directors has become a common practice. The Hills, running on MTV from 2006 to 2010, is often mentioned as a notable example as are the recent The Only Way is Essex (2010 -), Geordie Shore (2011 -) and Desperate Scousewives (2011 -). Back in 1974 this was quite an unusual way to structure what was essentially a piece of documentary film-making and A Bigger Splash is 'dramality' rooted in the US underground film-making culture of the late 1960s and Hazan's own experience as a cinematographer and documentarian.
There is a staggered zoom into the the 1967 painting 'A Bigger Splash', a close up of the splash itself suggesting that the end of the relationship with Schlesinger has disrupted the once calm waters that Hockney and his friends enjoyed. The subjects of the film are then treated as 'stars' and named in conjunction with a montage of Hockney's etchings and drawings of his friends, presented as if they were actors. It is a film 'starring David Hockney' and, after Hockney saw a screening of the film in February 1974, even he objected to being categorised as a film star. It underlines one of the film's themes, an attempt to define the limits to which Hockney's self-invention can reach.
After the opening titles, we are told that it is June 1973 and Hockney is in Geneva. Hockney is seen talking to, and describing to us in a very flirtatious manner, handsome American Joe MacDonald, who was part of the Hockney entourage and would, like Schlesinger, model for the artist. In parallel, we switch to Hockney's loyal friend and assistant Mo McDermott waking up and, as we watch him shave, confirming that Hockney had phoned him and told him the relationship with Schlesinger was over. McDermott's observation, "When love goes wrong, there's more than two people suffer" succinctly summarises the film's ambitions as Hazan uncovers the shifting nature of friendships, both platonic and sexual, as they are affected by this bombshell.
It becomes a melodrama in which we see Hockney working through the turmoil of having his Powis Terrace flat in Notting Hill renovated, attempting to overcome his loneliness after the breakup with Schlesinger, and cope with an alienating trip to New York - all filtered through visions of his figurative portraits recreated as tableaux and dream sequences about the paintings of the young men that he observed gathering at the poolsides in LA. Much of the film is structured around a series of conversations, whether two people are facing each other on a couch, sat in a car, or chatting in a bathroom. Domestic spaces are the centre of gossip, contemplation and decision making. Hazan frames them simply, often using a single master shot to observe these moments.
Throughout Hazan does not proselytise about homosexuality and presents such desire in a significantly normalising way, as he recently reminded Little Joe magazine: “In this film our characters are gay and they behave normally - as a heterosexual couple would act. Which was novel to people. Back then, people didn’t know how gay people behaved with each other, even what a gay relationship was.” A Bigger Splash was one of the first British films to emerge after a period in which gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender identity had either found representation within the American underground film movements of the 1960s and early 1970s, in innovative works by Jack Smith, Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol for example, or been tentatively acknowledged as cliched stereotypes in mainstream Hollywood films.
"an art/gay nexus"
Underground cinema also certainly shared what Richard Dyer refers to as "an art/gay nexus... [where homosexuals were]... half-in, half-out of art circles themselves... [circles] who share their social marginality" and much of A Bigger Splash concerns itself with the superficial worlds of the art dealer, the gallery owner, the artist and the model that Hockney inhabited.
Contemporaneous to Hazan's film were adaptations of Gore Vidal's Myra Breckinridge (1970), Mart Crowley's The Boys in the Band (1970) and the Isherwood inspired Cabaret (1972) and in Europe Sunday, Bloody Sunday (1971) and Death in Venice (1970), all of which performed variations on the politics of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender identity in the 1970s. Hazan's film exists tangential to these films and in fact Hockney's friend, curator and art critic Henry Geldzahler, who features in the film, told Hockney that their mutual friend Anthony Page had described A Bigger Splash as 'like a real Sunday, Bloody Sunday.' Early in the film we also see Schlesinger at the Quorum fashion show, sitting in his reserved seat, and where, dressed in a sailor suit with his curly long hair, he looks like Björn Andrésen's Tadzio from Visconti's film.
Although it perhaps doesn't share the visual aesthetics of a Kenneth Anger film or describes gay identity as filtered through Hollywood, there is some commonality in how certain performance codes are used to express it. Jack Babuscio, writing in Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality, says Hockney: "exhibit[s] a special feeling for performance and a flair for the theatrical... by wit, a well-organised evasiveness, and a preference for the artificial Hockney manages a breakthrough into creativity."
As well as Hockney's 'performance' the film also focuses on the naked male body, whether it's Mo McDermott getting out of bed, Hockney taking a shower or the eroticised poolside, golden hued fantasies of Schlesinger with other young men. The most explicit moment in A Bigger Splash is the sex scene between Schlesinger and another man which was constructed long after the breakup with Hockney and bore no relation to Schlesinger's own personal relationship with photographer Eric Boman. Again, this reconstruction was only possible because Schlesinger had demanded he be paid for his participation in the film, underling the idea that he was an 'actor' in a drama.
The scene provoked some typically hostile responses from newspapers who simply took the scene on face value as an attempt to spice up, for the gay contingent of the audience, what Alexander Walker in The Evening Standard perceived as a film about "a world that's small and sad." The film faced a difficult time when presented to the censors. It was shown during Critics Week at Cannes in 1974 but was then banned for a short period in Paris and Hazan had to battle with the BBFC who initially were reluctant to certify the film but then granted it an X rating. Even in 1988, Channel 4 made the decision to remove the sex scene for its initial broadcast of the film.
David Thompson gave the film a very positive review in The Times after the Cannes showing and Jack Babuscio was another of the film's few champions and could clearly understand the film's intent: "Hockney responds to his gay 'stigma' by challenging social and aesthetic conventions in life and art, Hazan's concern is to show the various ways in which his subject's private life affects his art – or how art records personal experience and determines our future. Thus, the film relates to the artist's work in much the same way as the paintings do to life."
Hazan's use of the double portraits in the film is an attempt to say something about the relationship between the artist and real life. Scattered throughout are tableaux vivants that mimic several of the double portraits, including the celebrated 'Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy' (Ossie Clark takes the cat to the Tate to see the painting) and one of Henry Geldzahler and his boyfriend, Christopher Scott. Hockney visits the couple in New York and finds them in their apartment in the exact pose they held for the double portrait. Frozen, they do not respond to Hockney's call, perhaps a signal that the artist has become caught in the artifice of his own his self-doubt and self-absorption. Later, in a strange fantasy sequence Peter Schlesinger finds himself in a recreation of 'Beverley Hills Housewife' featuring arts patron Betty Freeman. It's a bizarre, rather unsettling moment, culminating in Schlesinger pressed naked against a window watching a couple tuck into a meal.
Perhaps these encounters with the subjects of his work and the alienating quality of the sequences underlines the film's intense study of a London demi-monde emerging from the final hedonistic years of the 1960s into the grey, unforgiving and more paranoid world of the 1970s. Hazan accompanies this feeling of melancholy with shots of the rather dour, empty streets of Notting Hill and the bustling, anonymous blocks of New York. It's very apt that one scene of Mo McDermott desperately phoning Celia to try and track down the missing Hockney in New York is shot in front of a poster for Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue, a black comedy about an unemployed executive attempting to make sense of life in Manhattan.
Hockney's entrapment in his own world and a frustration about how he escapes from it (whether he goes to New York or LA to achieve this is debated in the film), accompanied by an austere score from Patrick Gowers, is perhaps A Bigger Splash's most enduring and powerful achievement. It is also a film with a intriguing puzzlebox construction about the real and the unreal, fact and fiction that importantly also paved the way for a British gay cinema that would come to flourish in the early 1980s.
About the transfer
Shot on 35mm and in Eastmancolour, the 1080p high definition transfer of A Bigger Splash is vivid and colourful. It perhaps doesn't provide copious amounts of depth but it is a solid, detailed picture. This can get very grainy, particularly in the scenes where Hockney is chatting to Celia, a scene where Celia is talking to Mo on the phone and in the orange light of the sex scene, but they are very moody, atmospheric sequences and perhaps deliberately shot as such. However, the paintings, the studio interiors and domestic spaces look very strong and detailed.
Robust colour is one of the benefits of this transfer with gorgeous reds and blues particularly standing out. Water and reflected light, flesh tones and close ups of faces in the pool sequences look particularly good. Some of Hockney's close ups provide loads of details in his face and clothes. The mono soundtrack is crisp and clear and as much of the film relies on subdued conversation it copes with this well and showcases Gower's score into the bargain. Overall, very good and worth an upgrade to Blu-ray.
Love’s Presentation (James Scott, 1966, 25mins)
A fascinating black and white documentary that observes Hockney preparing and drawing the etchings in his Powis Terrace studio to accompany the 1967 publication of 'Poems of Cavafy' by Paul Cornwall-Jones of Editions Alecto. Studying at the RCA in the early 1960s, Hockney was introduced to the work of Greek-Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy and he'd already made several etchings having been inspired by his poems. As we hear and see in the documentary, his travels to Beirut provide the architectural background to a portrait of Cavafy and the rest of the imagery comes from drawings of pairs of young men in his Notting Hill bedroom and from a source he often returns to for his figurative work, male physique magazines. His reason for choosing to illustrate the love poems written by Cavafy is because, "I suppose I know more about love than about history."
James Scott's film (edited by Barney Platts-Mills with whom he co-founded Maya Film Productions, later to produce Bronco Bullfrog and Private Road ) observes Hockey etching into the wax surface of copper plates, dipping them in a bath of acid to bite the lines into the plate, then using aquatint techniques to produce tonal qualities and finally preparing them for high-pressure printing. As well as a fascinating exploration of Hockney using very traditional techniques to produce his fine line illustrations, we hear him on the soundtrack, explaining the methodology but also wandering off tangentially to muse about his own life.
There are some parallels to A Bigger Splash's exploration into his personal aesthetics and his affinity for America where he can get etching plates with plastic backing that speeds up the process and where he bought his camouflage pants in a Jack Frost surplus store in Santa Monica. It's also worth noting that this film and those of Pearce and Hazan often repeat the imagery of Hockney staring full on into the camera, underlining the performative aspects of him 'being' an artist.
Portrait of David Hockney (David Pearce, 1972, 13mins)
A much more abstract piece as Pearce constructs Hockney's daily activity by first observing at odd angles the periphery of life in the flat, the presence of Peter Schlesinger and time in the studio where one of his most evocative works is taking form, 'Mr and Mrs Clark with Percy'. There is a soundtrack dominated by off-screen telephone calls, conversations and musings as the camera takes quick shots of the objects and people in the flat. Schlesinger is seen briefly through the leaves of a potted plant, Hockney is observed working on the painting (and wonders why Ossie Clark chooses to put his cat in the picture rather than his baby).
The film is a fitting companion to Hazan's feature, capturing something again of the milieu in which Hockey worked in the 1970s and the difficulty in separating the personality, work ethic and loneliness of the artist wherein he says off camera (as it frames his blonde hair and owl-like glasses in close up), "you see, the way I look at myself is completely different from the way you look at me." Is he talking to Peter, or someone else, or to us in the audience?
Original film trailer
A very ominous voice over, sounding rather like Richard Burton, promotes the film as a kind of film-noir art thriller. "What makes him run?" it intones gravely about Hockney. "All he wanted was to be left alone to paint" it booms as each of Hockney's associates is paraded to us as a suspect in the collapse of the artist's world. Its pulp fiction aesthetics chime rather well with Hazan's ambiguous feature as it jumps backwards and forwards in time and attempts to pin down Hockney the man and Hockney the artist.
Interview with Director Jack Hazan (2006 - DVD only, 28 mins)
Adam Roberts's excellent and insightful interview with the director that originally appeared on Salvation's 2007 DVD release.
28-page illustrated booklet with essays and film notes
The superb booklet contains a John Wyver essay that explores further the way reality is manipulated in the film, the comprehensive Philip French review from Sight and Sound, a revealing biography of Jack Hazan from Michael Brooke and further notes on Love’s Presentation by William Fowler and archive notes on Portrait of David Hockney.
A Bigger Splash
Buzzy Enterprises and Circle Associates Ltd.
BFI Dual Format Edition / BFIB1137 / Released 30 Janaury 2012 / Cert 15 / Colour / English language, optional English subtitles / English PCM Mono 48k 16-bit / 105 mins / Original aspect ratio 1.85:1 / Region free