Hockney plays himself

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I recently saw A Bigger Splash in the theater. It’s a new 4k restoration hitting art house screens around the country that follows David Hockney and his circle in the 70’s. It’s a semi-fictional / semi-documentarian film about Hockney’s break up with a lover and England. It’s easily one of the strangest things I’ve seen in a long time – alternately engaging and excruciating but something that I never wanted to stop watching. The collective experience of watching this in a theater was never so important to keeping my but in the chair.


The essence is the experience of watching, the director Jack Hazan’s credo had to be “watch, don’t tell,” because there’s precious exposition – let alone much dialog – both are foreign concepts to this film. And that’s its beauty, it’s full of long takes, harrowed faces, one way conversations. It reconfigures all those things into the pleasure of looking.

The fact that it’s about a painter is part of the attraction and central to the experience because you get to see Hockney painting, especially A Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), but the majority is composed of scenes of his relationships with his lover, dealer, and friends. The secret is that everyone is playing themselves – Hockney, his lover, an art critic, a friend, they’re all there as their relationships crumble and they can’t bring themselves to see the truth – they want someone to tell them what they can already feel. And that’s the main metaphor here – “A Bigger Splash,” the painting, ties it altogether as it entices and distances you. It’s a composition that’s at once disconcerting and so attention grabbing. It feels like Hockney is telling us that ravishing beauty is its own thing, truth another. Looking back at many of his paintings, this sort of distinction between relationships and aesthetics jumps into focus.

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There are lots of other attractions: It’s a window onto a wildly different era. The locations are instantly recognizable but the London, New York, South of France are all clearly different. The buildings and landscape may remain today, but the people in them feels so alien. The frank depictions of gay sex and culture of a must have been striking for the time. Even now it feels like such a stark contrast with mainstream moves – like an artifact from another time designed to remind us that you can make movies differently right down to showing nude men and gay sexuality.

Among the many lingering questions, was Luca Guadagnino’s “A Bigger Splash” inspired by this film? It feels like there are some clear references, maybe I’m digging too hard.


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