A Bigger Splash: the only way is Hockney

31st January 2012

BFI Video has this week released Jack Hazan’s 1974 feature about David Hockney and his circle, A Bigger Splash. Available as a dual format DVD and Blu-ray, this fascinating and complex film has never looked better, not least because Hazan returned to a 35mm CRI for a new digital transfer. The timing is good too, for this study of life, love and sex among the Hockney set of the early seventies offers a very different picture of our ‘national treasure’ from the persona conjured up by the current Royal Academy show. The BFI has done an exemplary job with the release, as is pin-pointed by Anthony Neild’s thoughtful discussion at The Digital Fix. Included on the discs are two other shorts about Hockney – Love’s Presentation by James Scott, made in 1966, and David Pearce’s Portrait of David Hockney, 1972 – to which I’ll return in a future post. Meanwhile, included below is an extract from my essay commissioned for the booklet accompanying the BFI release.

The cast [of A Bigger Splash], who are billed as such in the film’s opening credits, include – in addition to Hockney, Schlesinger and Clark – designer, model and Mrs Clark, Celia Birtwell; art dealer John Kasmin, whose legendary New Bond Street gallery closes at the conclusion of the film; curator and critic Henry Geldzahler; Hockney’s loyal and lonely assistant Mo McDermott; and a number of beautiful boys known to the title sequence only by their Christian names. Jack Hazan, working as both director and director of photography, filmed these and others on and off across three years from 1971 to 1973.

To hear Hockney tell it, he drifted into the film with no sense of what it would eventually become. At first, he rebuffed Hazan’s approaches, but the director was persistent and he turned up for the first shoot with a small camera, modest lights and only two assistants. ‘Well, this will be slightly out of focus,’ Hockney thought, as he later recalled to Christopher Simon Sykes, ‘and it will play one or two nights at the Academy Cinema in Oxford Street with the Polish version of Hamlet, and then it’ll be gone.’ The words speak of an age of pre-celebrity culture innocence.

Hazan and his partner David Mingay, who is credited as film editor and co-writer, began with little sense of what they might eventually achieve, although Mingay early on saw that the emotional centre of the film should be Hockney working through the aftermath of his break-up with Peter Schlesinger. Filming sessions with Hockney were haphazard, but Hazan discovered an ally in Mo McDermott, who was happier to expose his life and longings. Schlesinger, too, was reluctant to appear, although he participated more fully once Hazan had agreed to pay him. And indeed, the ostensible subject of A Bigger Splash, David Hockney, is less prominent in the film than either McDermott or Schlesinger.

Nor is A Bigger Splash much concerned with the process of painting, although there are insights – often almost tangential – into Hockney’s working methods, such as the way in which he lays out a grid of photographic studies for the second version of Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) (1972). The collaged photo-works of the later 1970s are in embryo here. At the centre of the film is the creation of this painting, which features Schlesinger, wearing a pink jacket, standing by the side of a poll staring into the water at a boy swimming under the surface. A mood of distance and dis-connection dominates, as it does in much of the film. Yet both Hazan and Hockney have acknowledged that the scene in which the artist takes a knife to the first version of the canvas is an embellished reconstruction of actual events. Hockney has also been clear that he didn’t employ for this painting (although he has for others) the projector known as an epidiascope that we see McDermott using…

What, then, is ‘true’ in the film? ‘Each scene was devised,’ Jack Hazan said in the 2006 video interview included on the BFI’s DVD and Blu-ray release of A Bigger Splash. ‘There’s very little there that’s observation.’ ‘It was never going to be a documentary,’ Hazan has acknowledged elsewhere, ‘There was always an intention to be a fictional feature film based on the scene that surrounded David. Some of it was invented, but the scenes that were invented mirrored what actually happened.’ Some thirty-five years on, the film appears as a precursor to the structured reality television series like The Hills and Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County from the United States, and the home-grown The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea.

… and here’s a rather wonderful (and bonkers) period trailer recently posted to YouTube by BFI:

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