With the release of Kino Lorber’s brand new 4K restoration, Brian Quinn explores the legacy of Jack Hazan’s queer landmark, A Bigger Splash.
There’s nothing like getting thrown in at the deep end right from the start. That’s exactly what director Jack Hazan has in mind when opening his 1974 film A Bigger Splash. Aiming his camera at David Hockney’s poolside masterwork (the painting from which the film takes its name), we jump to a close-up, closer, pushing past acrylic plains as if we’re about to enter the painting — cannonballing into the realm of Cinema.
However, though the medium has changed, intentions remain the same: explore emotion through an exaggerated reality, and if there’s one thing this film has in spades, it’s emotion. A Bigger Splash centres around the breakdown and fallout of the relationship between Hockney and his lover, American artist Peter Schlesinger. As Mo McDermott, one of the film’s recurring personalties, puts it, in what soon becomes the film’s mantra: “When love goes wrong there’s more than two people suffer.”
But Hazan isn’t too interested in merely tracing the ripples of heartbreak, that’s “the coalface” as he puts it. The real intrigue is in the director’s calculated approach; what seems like a fly-on-the-wall documentary is in fact a collage stringing together loosely scripted re-enactments of real-life events. The result is a curious drama-doc hybrid, boldly predicting our fascination with celeb-centric reality television, but also offering a platform for a gay love story which feels sensitive rather than sensational – a depiction which still feels quietly radical today, let alone for 1974.
Filming over the course of three-plus years, David Hockney first resisted, then relented to Hazan’s project, telling his biographer decades later that he “agreed to do it to get rid of him.” Such reluctance is hard to imagine while watching Splash; Hockney is ever the dandy, riding through a turbulent romance with a steady charm. Along with chronicling his heartache, the film follows Hockney’s attempts, setbacks and eventual triumph in creating Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), a painting which takes on deeper meaning given the personal context.
Yet, although the film is littered with visual nods to Hockney’s own creative output, it was an other artist who provided the formula, the high priest of pop art himself. “My approach is more like Andy Warhol” Hazan told FilmStage last year, citing in particular the influence of Warhol disciple, Paul Morrissey, the filmmaker behind such flea-bitten beauties as Flesh (1968) and Trash (1970). For Warhol, process is king, his form was the subject. Sure, his early productions were – to put it kindly – light on plot, but from his Screen Tests (1964-66) to Chelsea Girls (1968) Warhol’s fetish for turning personas inside-out remains a beguiling force.
What these artists share is a disregard for what we’re looking at, and an obsession with how we’re looking at it. For Hockney, this fascination has bled beyond the canvas: into photography, stained glass, opera, video installations, photocopiers, fax machines and most recently, iPads. The Bradford boho has made a career in challenging our conventions of looking, so it’s little wonder A Bigger Splash, a film steeped in the creative process, follows suit.
Dragging its knuckles through drawn out scenes, the movie sets a hypnotic pace, hitting its stride through a sublime sense of banality. Anyone who’s gorged through hours of Bake Off, kept with The Kardashians or survived Survivor can attest to a similar enchantment. We explore the fluid connections among the demimonde of West London, a glitzy gaggle of confidantes, associates, acquaintances, all playing heightened versions of themselves as well as providing the emotional scaffolding needed to keep Hockney from imploding.
As if to lay the blue print for modern reality TV, Hazan fudges the borders of fact and fiction, leaving us with a lie truer than the truth. Locations are faked, situations are orchestrated but the feeling is undeniably real. The title cards that bookend the movie state ‘June 1973, Geneva’ but, as the director later admitted, these scenes were actually shot in London. Nevertheless, the fib suits the narrative, offering audiences the illusion of a refuge where the artist can mend his chipped ego, priming himself for a fresh start.
Fantasy takes full flight in some of the picture’s most memorable sequences. Take the shower scene in which Hockney drifts into a homoerotic daydream – or so David Mingay’s editing have you believe – bringing to the surface visions of clear blue skies and alabaster butts. These moments “feel a little too eager to shock” according to The New York Times; yet, for me such tangents mirror the unapologetic playfulness of Hockney’s own work.
At a time when queer representation amounted to a punch-line at best, A Bigger Splash normalised gay life to revolutionary effect. In early 70s cinema, if you were gay, chances are you were the victim of ridicule – or worse, assault. You could tango with Inspector Clouseau to a chorus of giggles in The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976) or be left for dead courtesy of Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy (1969). Now if you were lucky, maybe Sidney Lumet would lend you some humanity through Dog Day Afternoon (1975), but for the most part it was slim pickings.
Along with denouncing these grotesque caricatures, Hazan’s nuanced depiction of gay life – including a sex scene that alarmed censors upon the film’s release – steers clear of the “brave” and “inspirational” posturing found in so many pictures dominating LGBTQ film in recent years. And while IndieWire might praise the film’s audacity in ‘Capturing 1970s Hedonistic Gay Life’, I find what makes A Bigger Splash truly radical is in how it presented queer desire as something perfectly ordinary – which in itself was extraordinary.
Throughout his career, David Hockney has always returned to certain visual motifs, most notably of water and glass. And in a poetic sense, these surfaces, which also feature heavily in the film’s production design, offer us two images simultaneously: a reflection and a projection. The true legacy of A Bigger Splash isn’t how it predicted reality television or expressed homosexuality, it’s that the film allowed us to meditate inward while dreaming ahead. In the words of the great George Herbert:
‘A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.’