A Bigger Splash Review
This may seem a bit of an odd suggestion, but when you pop your brand new Blu-ray of A Bigger Splash into the player, be sure to head straight for the original theatrical trailer. There are no spoilers, so this should also apply to those who have never seen the film. In fact, newcomers are especially advised to check out the trailer first, simply because it does such a good of establishing A Bigger Splash’s slippery mix of fact and fiction. This is a film about David Hockney and his immediate circle of friends, with Hockney and friends all appearing in front of the camera, but this isn’t documentary in the strictest sense. The trailer alerts us to this by posing questions and framing its narrative glimpses almost as you would a thriller. The score by Patrick Gowers is suitably intense (Gowers would later be responsible for scoring the various Sherlock Holmes television series in which Jeremy Brett occupied the lead) and the choice of shots persistently errs towards the heavily cinematic: a travelling shot as Hockney strides along a New York sidewalk or dramatic pauses that seems heavily imbued in incident. This is a trailer that does its job properly. It sets the mood and establishes the style. It entices the viewer without ever giving away any concrete information. It’s also potentially misleading, which makes perfect sense under the circumstances…
A Bigger Splash covers aspects of Hockney’s life over, roughly, a two-year period. The opening scenes take place in 1973 and prompt flashbacks to the middle of 1971. Intertitles crop up from time to time to establish the month and year until we return to where we started. So far, so factual. Director Jack Hazan did indeed film Hockney and company during the early seventies and in a manner to which he was seemingly accustomed. His previous experience was centred in non-fiction filmmaking, primarily for television but also industrial. In-between assignments (including those for Granada’s World in Action series) he had also directed a couple of documentary shorts, both dedicated to artists. One of them, Especially at My Time of Life, focussed its attentions on a quartet of painters and sculptors working in Camden. The other, Grant North, was a 16-minute portrait of nature artist Keith Grant whose work was inspired by the Nordic landscape. Mentioning the former in his review of A Bigger Splash for Sight & Sound in 1975 (reprinted in this set’s accompanying booklet), Philip French notes how Hazan “carefully stalked its subjects”. It’s tempting to see the main feature as a continuation of this inasmuch as he does much the same to Hockney and his friends; he isn’t really concerned with the art or the process, but rather the private and the personal.
The main feature of this private life is, or rather was, Peter Schlesinger. As of May 1971, he and Hockney are no more. The narrative basis of A Bigger Splash is the fallout from this split: how it affects Hockney, how it affects Schlesinger, and how it affects their inner circle. As personal assistant Mo McDermott puts it - twice - “When love goes wrong more than two people suffer”. Hazan captures these after effects by having a camera present at a handful of social events (a fashion show put on by Ossie and Celia Clark for the Quorum boutique; the 1972 Alternative Miss World contest), but primarily he does so through a series of candid conversations. Thus we’ll have Hockney and one of the Clarks, for example, talking about work but also allowing more intimate and introspective details to be revealed. These exchanges, for all their mentions of upcoming exhibitions and commissions, are undoubtedly personal and certainly not of the kind you’d expect in a conventional documentary.
Indeed, A Bigger Splash is not a conventional documentary, perhaps not even a documentary at all. Each of these conversations is a set-up with the real people “enlisted” (as Hazan has put it) to portray themselves. The camera didn’t happen to be there when Hockney was chatting with New York art collector Henry Geldzahler, say, or the American photographer Betty Freeman, rather such meetings before Hazan and his occasional skeleton crew had to be arranged. Thus we don’t have cinéma vérité but an after-the-fact alternative that looks and feels like vérité without the actual factual content. Even those intertitles noting the month and the year may or may not be part of the façade; as Hazan admits in the on-disc interview, he didn’t shoot in sequence and so some whilst scenes may fit the stated date and location, it would be impossible for all to be true. Add to this Gowers’ dramatic score (equal parts Michael Nyman and Bernard Herrmann’s compositions for Hitchcock), Hazan’s preference for careful compositions and cinematic travelling shots (down streets and sidewalks or in cars), not to mention a sex scene the BBFC has deemed “strong” and even a dream sequence(!), and it’s clear that A Bigger Splash is very much a construct.
But that’s not to say that this film is without its own truths. In fact, it is here where A Bigger Splash becomes very interesting. Hockney and Schlesinger were a couple prior to the cameras rolling and the break-up undoubtedly had an impact on them both - that key event is certainly true. Perhaps the split did not affect them in quite the manner in which we see unfold on the screen (at one point Hockney takes a knife to a canvas in an act that seems purely emotional) but the overall framework for the narrative should be trusted. Furthermore the various conversations and informal chats that we see over the course of the picture were never scripted in the strictest of senses. Hazan would issue his ‘actors’ with talking points or a question that needed answering or a statement that would prompt a certain reaction. The fact that he wasn’t dealing with actors in the strictest sense therefore presents a number of interesting outcomes: firstly, there’s an air of awkwardness and self-consciousness to their performances that arguably adds to the mock-vérité veneer; and secondly, their lack of training no doubt prompts certain emotional truths to be aired whether they intend to or not.
Of course, there are a lot of ‘maybes’ and ‘perhaps’ to all of this as we can never be entirely sure as to what is entirely fictitious and what contains a grain of truth . Yet there are a couple of incidents outside of the film itself that make us more suspicious towards the latter. Apparently Hockney, upon seeing the finished work, was willing to pay £20,000 to have the negative destroyed. And since its release he always, to this day, refused to comment upon it. Those years, it would appear, are something of a sore point and A Bigger Splash goes some way to exposing that wound. And yet our reaction isn’t one of voyeurism or some sort of puerile fascination with the emotional messiness of these peoples’ lives. Instead the fascination lies more from a filmmaking perspective. We question how Hazan was able to get this kind of thing onscreen and are oftentimes amazed that he has done so. We also continually query the validity of particular scenes and moments and wonder where the manipulation is coming from. The big question is to consider whether Hazan is documenting the drama or dramatizing the documentary. We know that scenes are ‘acted’ and we know that Gowers’ score is colouring these scenes with additional menace and/or emotion as he sees fit, but not all of the lines are so clear cut. In this respect A Bigger Splash is a cinematic conundrum, a puzzle for the viewer to take apart - thanks to the many layers of fact and fiction, not to mention art and reality - and place back together again.
Ultimately there is no solution, however, with only Hazan and those in front of the camera knowing the definitive answers. They lived through the reality, after all, and its celluloid reconstruction. As such Hockney and company remain elusive to the viewer; just as we can never know the truth, so too we can never know the real people. For my part this proved a little frustrating and A Bigger Splash lacked that final sense of satisfaction as a result. The film prompted an intellectual response rather than an emotional one (for all the talk of emotional truths and resonances) as scenes were deconstructed and their respective narrative weights considered. This isn’t to say that the film is not a fascinating one as a result. Indeed, it’s wonderful that such a unique piece of work exists in the first, whilst its slippery drama-documentary divide makes it an intriguing forerunner to the staged realities of the countless ‘docusoaps’ to have emerged since the nineties or, for that matter, any ‘documentary’ that has us questioning its validity and content.
It’s also worth making clear that this release of A Bigger Splash doesn’t simply contain the main feature but also finds room for two other portraits of Hockney. The pair were released prior to Hazan’s film and both take different approaches to their subject. The earliest, the terrific Love’s Presentation from 1966, concerns itself with the creation of a series of etchings for a limited edition book of love poems by Constantine Cavafy. Filmed in black and white, it opts for an observational style with Hockney recording an explanatory voice-over at a later date (almost like a prototype for today’s audio commentaries). He takes us through the process of producing these artworks, in a manner that is both factual and casual; at one point he switches from discussing types of acid to make a quick mention of the trousers he is wearing. The hype is contained within the brief introduction (“the bright young boy from Bradford” with an “international reputation”) leaving the remainder of the film to simply watch an artist at work and allow us to glean what information we may.
The second film, Portrait of David Hockney, was a BFI Production Board short released in 1972. It’s opening line, spoken by Hockney, gives us an idea of what is to come: “I must go out soon.” You sense that the artist doesn’t really have the time for this film and so it is that it proceeds with its titular portrait through a more fragmented approach. It’s almost four minutes before Hockney actually appears on camera, beforehand details of his working and living environments, often cut to strange rhythms and accompanied by snatched pieces of audio. We see photos and painting and notes and plans. We even see Peter Schlesinger reading a book on the sofa. Hockney becomes more prominent as the film progresses - we see him at work or eating a slice of salami and staring down the camera in Warhol Screen Test fashion - but with only 16-minutes worth of screen time at its disposal he remains just as elusive as he did in A Bigger Splash.
Nevertheless, in combination Love’s Presentation, Portrait of David Hockney and A Bigger Splash do interact in a manner which creates a fuller perception of the artist. No doubt we combine these with our own memories of other documentary appearances (Ken Russell’s full-length Monitor film Pop Goes the Easel, for example), television arts programmes, chat-show interviews and what-have-you to further enhance that perception, but importantly the three films here do add up to more expansive overall package. The art itself - not ignored in A Bigger Splash, though somewhat neglected - is allowed a greater contribution, whilst the three different perspectives on Hockney allow us to create a more complete picture. The presence of Schlesinger in Portrait is not to be underestimated either, after all it may be the only ‘pure’ documentary representation we have of him within this package. Indeed, package is the key word: I may have some small misgivings about A Bigger Splash which prevent me from liking it quite as much as I would hope, but this release isn’t solely about the Hazan film, it’s about all three of these Hockney portraits. As a trio they make for an excellent filmic insight into the artist, even if some questions remain and some of what we see may not necessarily be true.
Today (January 21st) marked the beginning of a major new David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. This new edition of A Bigger Splash (the film was previously released onto UK DVD by Redemption back in 2007) has been timed to coincide with the event and will hit the shelves on January 30th. As we have come to expect from BFI Blu-rays, it comes as a dual-format edition containing both high definition and standard definition discs with all extras (where possible) getting the HD treatment too.
The elements used for the presentation of the main feature were supplied by Hazan himself who also supervised its transfer. Some work was undertaken to remove dirt and signs of age resulting in an image that is, for the most part, pristine. A Bigger Splash’s production period was slightly haphazard and occasionally Hazan would serve as his own cameraman and lighting technician (ultimately there are six cameraman credited). As a result the picture quality can vary from scene to scene, especially in terms of grain. However, Hazan clearly had a very precise visual aim for his feature and the use of colour is often really quite striking. This isn’t a tawdry or grungy looking film, but (as already said in the main bulk of this review) really quite cinematic. The presentation of course reflects this and it’s hard not to be impressed. Indeed, it’s doubtful that A Bigger Splash has ever looked so good since its initial release. (Please see the comment below, from Hazan himself, which clarifies the filming circumstances and corrects me on some of these points.)
All the more impressive is the soundtrack which really shouldn’t be this good. Alongside the six cameramen A Bigger Splash also had four sound recordists who, of course, had to contend with the same haphazard production conditions. And yet the quality is consistent across the board: crisp and clean with nothing to compromise it from either the original production or its transfer onto disc. As you would expect it really shines whenever Patrick Gowers’ score is in use, but even the tiniest of snatched conversations are easily perceptible. Optional English subtitles for the hard of hearing are also in place.
I’ve already discussed the three main extras, each of which also gets a high definition presentation: that wonderful theatrical trailer and the two short films. Incidentally it’s also worth pointing up the connection to the BFI’s Flipside strand when it comes to one of these, namely James Scott’s Love’s Presentation. Another of Scott’s short films, The Rocking Horse from 1962, was featured on the Flipside release of Gerry O’Hara’s The Pleasure Girls. The production company behind Love’s Presentation was Maya Productions, founded by Scott and Barney Platts-Mills. It’s other titles included St. Christopher, Bronco Bullfrog and Private Road all directed by Platts-Mills (the editor of Love’s Presentation) and all made available on Blu-ray courtesy of the Flipside strand. Anyone who took pleasure in their release would do well to pick up this package too. And as much for A Bigger Splash as either of the shorts - it certainly satisfies many of the Flipside criterion and is as just a piece of cinematic and social history as any found in the strand. (Incidentally, its frank depiction of homosexual relationships should also see A Bigger Splash stand alongside Ron Peck and Paul Hallam’s Nighthawks, yet another BFI Blu-ray release. As I’ve said many a time on this site over the past few years, the interconnected nature of the BFI’s British cinema discs is not to be undervalued.)
The remaining additions are a 28-minute interview with Hazan from 2008 and, of course, the typically meaty booklet containing new essays and a couple of reprints. The former is as detailed as you’d hope for given its running time with Hazan balancing the more general analysis of his film with plenty of backstage anecdotes and the like. A Bigger Splash wasn’t an easy or a simple shoot so there’s a lot of insight to be had over these 28-minutes. Note, however, that they appear on the DVD only as their source is standard definition. The booklet, meanwhile, totals 24 pages and is up to the usual BFI standards. John Wyver provides a five-page analysis of the main feature with Philip French providing the contemporary insight thanks to a reprint of his 1975 review for Sight & Sound. Michael Brooke provides a bio for Hazan (I was previously unaware that he’d shot some promos for Dexy’s Midnight Runners during the eighties) plus there are notes for the two short films: William Fowler does the duties for Love’s Presentation and a reprint from the 1977 publication British Film Institute Productions does likewise for Portrait of David Hockney. Acknowledgements and notes on the transfers are also present as are plenty of full-colour illustrations. As said, as good as ever.