A Clearer Picture of ‘A Bigger Splash’
First released in 1974, “A Bigger Splash,” Jack Hazan’s semi-fictional portrait of the British artist David Hockney, has proved prescient.
For one thing, the movie — revived for a week in a new, 4K restoration at the Metrograph — is largely concerned with the creation of “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” which sold for $90.3 million at auction last November, shattering the record for the work of a living artist. For another, Hazan’s 106-minute documentary created a template for what, a quarter-century later, would be known as reality television.
In essence, the movie, shot over a period of several years, is a mosaic in which a flurry of episodic shards revolve around Hockney. A moon-faced dandy in owlish spectacles, the artist is shown attending fashion events, including the Alternative Miss World contest; mourning the end of his relationship with the artist Peter Schlesinger; and kvetching to the curator Henry Geldzahler, a friend and sometime subject, who tells him, “You are the painter of Southern California now.”
The film never gets to Los Angeles, but it does travel to New York, where Hockney has a gallery show, including “Portrait of an Artist.” (An ambivalent review in The New York Times characterized him as “an extremely clever artist, with a facility that both amazes and dismays.”) Compared to the lotus-land settings of many of Hockney’s paintings, the brute symmetry of Midtown Manhattan seems singularly uninviting.
“A Bigger Splash” is both meandering and forthright. Hockney allowed the British-born, American-trained Hazan remarkable access. At one point the camera joins the artist in the shower. The most notorious scene shows Schlesinger in bed with another man. Consequently, the movie received an X rating in Britain and was held up in customs in the United States before it was screened at the 1974 New York Film Festival. Customs officials described it as “disgusting and immoral.” Hockney himself was not initially pleased with it and reportedly considered paying Hazan 20,000 pounds for the negative.
“A Bigger Splash” drew comparisons to Andy Warhol’s films when it was first released, likely because Hockney was initially associated with Pop art and because, like Warhol, he carefully cultivated the image he projected to the world. The Times critic Vincent Canby found the movie “unforgivably solemn, something that Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey would never have allowed.” Perhaps, but no Warhol-Morrissey film ever took art-making this seriously. Much of “A Bigger Splash” was shot in and around Hockney’s Notting Hill studio, where he is observed working day and night to complete “Portrait of an Artist.” (In one scene, his London gallerist complains about his lack of productivity.)
In the late 1970s, Hazan made a second film that mixed documentary and fiction: “Rude Boy.” This time the subject was another British cultural — or subcultural — phenomenon, punk rock, and the celebrities were the Clash. Reviewing it in 1980 in The Times, Janet Maslin called it “about as mixed up as a movie can be,” although “the best parts are everything this British rock group’s fans could hope for.” Swap out the Clash’s performances for Hockney’s and the same might be said of “A Bigger Splash.”
A Bigger Splash
Through June 27 at the Metrograph, 7 Ludlow Street, Manhattan; 212-660-0312, metrograph.com.
Rewind is an occasional column covering revived, restored and rediscovered movies playing in New York’s repertory theaters.