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Review: Portrait of David Hockney as a young artist in the mesmerizing ‘A Bigger Splash’

David Hockney, ‘A Bigger Splash’
David Hockney in the documentary “A Bigger Splash.”
(Metrograph Pictures)

Watching Jack Hazan’s 1974 film “A Bigger Splash,” about British-born, California-identified artist David Hockney, the more you try to peg what it is — snapshot biography? documentary? art project? imagined reverie? — the more its beauties and mysteries push back, until you feel like someone helplessly enraptured in front of a great painting: the mind’s orderliness defeated by the buzz of heightened consciousness.

Here’s an attempt, anyway, at describing British filmmaker Hazan’s then-controversial, years-in-the-making movie, which he named after Hockney’s landmark 1967 water-and-modern-architecture study memorializing landscape and instantaneousness, but which captures the making of a different great work. “Splash” arose out of an interest in recording the bespectacled, trilby-hatted painter, then in his celebrated 30s, at a crossroads moment: it’s a partly staged, all-stylized yet genuinely felt portrait of the aftermath of his breakup with 10 -years-younger California art student Peter Schlesinger, and the pressures, temptations, and sadness that resulted in one of Hockney’s signature works of sun-woozy, dimensional apartness, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures).”

It’s a fortuitous time, too, to encounter a gorgeous 4K restoration of “A Bigger Splash,” and not just because “Portrait of an Artist” — which shows a well-dressed, realistically rendered young man poolside looking down, and a distorted underwater figure — briefly held the purchase price record for work by a living artist ($90.3 million, overtaken in May by a Jeff Koons sculpture). Rather, with homogenized documentaries touting the greatness of artists now at saturation levels while pop culture depictions of gayness approach a longed-for normalization point, “Splash,” with its homoerotic matter-of-factness and line-blurring aims toward rendering the artistic process, is like opening a door to an earlier era of nonfiction scene-setting and discovering a garden of life, texture and art at peak bloom.

That’s not to say Hazan’s mix of artifice and reality using Hockney’s actual friends and colleagues isn’t noticeable. There are dream/fantasy sequences, after all, including one (shot in California) of a nude quartet of pool-frolicking young men that includes Schlesinger, spurred by the artist taking a shower in London, not to mention composed shots throughout that openly speak to a story being imposed on the viewer. (Hazan and collaborator David Mingay are credited as writers.)

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Nonetheless there’s a palpable aura of fracturing tension and incipient creation that feels accurately representative of what Hazan finds in Hockney’s London orbit at the time: a still-on-the-fringes ex-lover (Schlesinger) portrayed as an elusive presence, whether sitting for Hockney or the star of a dream; an assistant (Mo McDermott, also heard in narration) trying to corral a peripatetic boss; a struggling gallery owner (Kasmin) pushing for more work from his biggest name; supportive friends (then-married designers Celia Birtwell and Ossie Clark) going through their own personal/professional turmoil; and an American art world fixture (Henry Geldzahler) trying to persuade Hockney that New York should be his next font of inspiration.

If you’re someone who misses the rich grain of celluloid in our digital age, Hazan’s cinematography — whether focused on someone’s awkwardly frozen visage or the look and feel of 1970s London as its swinging days reached the end — will feel like a time capsule treasure. Patrick Gowers’ highly strung score, meanwhile, its swirling motif applied in generous daubs, gives off the feeling you’re watching a psychological drama that might just lead to an act of violence.

No death or brutality is in store, however — just the transforming of an affair’s finality into a bold, gorgeous new work, the assemblage of which as Hockney makes photographic studies, finesses the details, and completes the painting, is stunning to behold. There are also, toward the end, surreal attempts by Hazan to re- create some of Hockney’s famous double portraits (“Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy,” “Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott”) with their subjects, but these cinema-versus-painting statements aren’t as penetratingly effective as simply being able to watch Hockney in the throes of creating a 20th century masterpiece. Private and odd, archly dreamy and intimate, “A Bigger Splash” remains one of the more uniquely hypnotic movies about the connection between presented life and pulsating art.

'A Bigger Splash'
Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Playing: Starts July 19, Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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