Jack Hazan is laughing at me and I hate it.
Let’s start from the beginning.
I feel an urgent need to yell at the Internet about A Bigger Splash, the 1974 proto-reality television genre film by Jack Hazan about then art darling and current art legend David Hockney starring, uh, David Hockney? Doing... improvisational scenes? Naked? Normally I am at least partially capable of writing criticism in complete third-person sentences, but that day is not today, fair readers.
I'm gooped! I'm shook. I'm insulted. I’m spinning out worse than Michelle Kwan on bath salts, here.
And look, I get it! The movie is making the rounds again because it’s been re-released digitally or something (I wasn’t paying attention because I don't care). It’s about a painting people like! Of a pool, no less! (Also, that painting held the record in 2018 for being the highest-selling work by a living artist ever sold at auction. 90.3 million dollars, guys. I feel way less bad for being so mean about this movie, now).
A Portrait of the Artist (Pool with Two Figures)
Each scene is replete with hot boys or bell-bottoms, the two major food groups of 2019. But I will not stand idly by and let the Tate or Metrograph or skinny white girls in leopard print bias-cut midi-skirts bully me into saying this film is fine. It’s not fine! It’s not like, offensive by any means, unless you find narcissism offensive, which given our current political climate, you don’t, at least statistically, but it’s not god-damn fine, you guys.
A Bigger Splash
Have you ever watched a dude manspread on the train so hard he busts a hip flexor? It’s kind of like that, but three hours long and a movie.
I’ll never get that time back! I could have had, like, seven aperol spritzes, or patted a dog, or both. Think of that sterling productivity, lost to cruel, cruel fate!
So, esteemed director Jack Hazan, I know you’re like, 80-something and probably just trying to eat jello in peace, but consider this a call-out. Pin your location, bro; I just want to talk.
That movie gave me cystic acne.
That movie lowered my credit score.
That movie stole my identity and bought a Bret Easton Ellis anthology.
I’m livid. I need answers, and I intend to get them, Jack.
Part I: Much-Needed Disclaimers Because I Am Already Sorry For My Bad Attitude
- I’m not a film critic, but more importantly, I just don’t really get movies in... general? I mostly watch documentaries about murder while I clean, or, more specifically, while I avoid cleaning. I am not qualified to do this. I am not smart. You should not trust me.
- David Hockney is a genius, as is probably Jack Hazan, and I am a slimy little worm.
-My distate for this movie doesn't reflect my official position on sexy gay shenanigans, which is staunchly 'pro' in nature. Queer cinema, especially of bygone eras, is underseen, elemental, and unspeakably vital to our shared visual history. I'm not salty at the archive, I am merely upset that sexy gay shenanigans have been rendered duller than a dentist's waiting room by those directly involved. Sometimes landmark film is bad! Shut up! Get off my lawn!
- This is not Hockney's fault. Jack Hazan followed him around for three years "documenting" his social circle and then insisted on showing that footage to the public instead of placing it gingerly in a dumpster. Apparently, Hockney hated the movie so much that he tried to buy the negatives from Hazan for $20,000 and destroy them, falling into an abyssal two-week depression after that became a legal impossibility. At the time, Hockney insisted that he was going through a nervous breakdown throughout filming and remembered nothing, although today, it appears that he's softened slightly; in an interview from 2018, he reported that he was only "a little annoyed." Also, it seems as if no one explicitly consented to being in the movie, which is... super weird. Hockney wasn't aware of the project's direction at any point during filming and... I hate this. I hate this so much, you guys.
Part 2: Hockney The Artist and Some Historical Context For Why This Damn Thing Got Made, Probably
A Bigger Splash
So, for the uninitiated, David Hockney is a British painter who has been famed for his lush, expressively rendered paintings of friends, lovers, and landscapes since his late-’60s matriculation from the Royal College of Art. At the outset of his career, Hockney was as notorious for his fabulous, frolicksome London lifestyle as he was for his work, especially given his unapologetic attitude in an era where homosexuality was not just reviled, but actively criminalized. While never an explicitly political figure, Hockney’s tender, intimate portrayals and bombastic bon vivant persona earned him flashpoint status for a stylish new type of social dissent. He has split his time between California and England for most of his career, a move that has both expanded his cultural profile and lent his pieces a distinctly humanistic glamour, the kind of approachable aspiration responsible for making him a household name. Shifting from the expressionistic hand championed by progenitors like Frances Bacon to his signature Brit-Pop aesthetic, Hockney has since made waves in multiple genres, including printmaking, photography, digital drawing, and stage design. This spirit of experimental flexibility, coupled with his incisive theoretical mind (check out his book with physicist Charles M. Falco on Vermeer's potential use of the camera obscura), has cemented his place in the international art consciousness. It makes sense that in the wake of Andy Warhol's meteoric rise to fame, Hazan would want to update the anti-narrative, meandering, caustic film genre that garnered so much critical interest, especially given Hazan's background in cinematography (admittedly, the movie is gorgeous and mostly well-shot). It also makes sense that folks might want to watch Hockney go about his everyday life—his everyday life was, by all accounts, dope, especially in the '70s.
A Bigger Splash
So how did we end up with an 180-minute slog that allegedly tracks the break-up (spoilers? I guess?) between Hockney and Peter Schlesinger and subsequent creation of a very famous painting but systematically divests its viewers of their collective will to live in the process?
Ludlow Street's own Metrograph theater insists in its press release that A Bigger Splash is "at once a time capsule of hedonistic gay life in the 1970s, an honest-yet-tender depiction of gay male romance that dispenses with the then-current narratives of self-hatred and self-pity, an invaluable view of art history in action, and a record of artistic creation that is itself a work of art," which... no. I disrespectfully disagree.
A Bigger Splash
A Bigger Splash depicts zero hedonism, first of all—there's a short drag ball scene that's by far the best thing on screen, and some butts, too, I suppose, but no one appears to be having much fun at any point. I'll allow "honest-yet-tender" if "honest-yet-tender" translates to "endless footage of balding guys in phone booths," and as for an "invaluable view of art history in action"... did we need that? Did anyone ask for that? I didn't ask to watch Hockney tear paintings off their stretchers and look dejected in various hotel rooms for three hours. And before you start throwing rotten tomatoes at me, I do understand that normalizing gay relationships in the '70s was an important political project (more on that later), but... why did it have to be so boring? The two aren't mutually exclusive—significant things often feel boring, like John Kerry, or taxes—but that occasional comorbidity shouldn't be interpreted as a challenge, right? Am I insane? Can I make a citizen's arrest? So beige, Jack. So unutterably navel-gazing.
Look, if I'm good for anything, its identifying feckless white-guy whinging when I see it, and...
A Bigger Splash
What should have been imbued with laughter and pathos and carnality was flattened beyond plausible recognition, and I couldn't just, like, walk out of the movie theater because I'm super tall and would have stepped on all the other deeply asleep people in attendance, so... here we are. Take it or leave it.
Part 3: Why Was It So Long? Why Would You Rob Me Of My Youth This Way, Jack?
Psych, I know why! The movie is so long because it was chock-full of needless, underwhelming, clumsily-paced vignettes that went nowhere and did absolutely nothing.
Here, readers, have some Bad Scenes:
1. The scene where the younger hot guy Hockney is dating hooks up with another younger hot guy Hockney will date later in the movie and they just sort of bite each other's eyebrows like handsome turtles but don't actually kiss?
2. The scene where Hockney gets yelled at by his gallerist for making jack over the last year and Hockney just imagines the poor man blowing raspberries on the window instead of listening to his complaints. The gallery later goes under, which is played for laughs.
3. The scene where Hockney leaves his friend's gallery opening to go to visit his own painting because he's seeking artistic inspiration, I guess? This moment is accompanied by a psychedelic bell-inflected soundtrack, denoting a Breakthrough of some kind.
4. The scene where Hockney misery-showers in his very groovy teal-tiled bathroom for six uninterrupted minutes. Close-ups of his genitals abound.
A Bigger Splash
5. The scene where Hockney sprawls over a strange bed in the Village next to a stylish foreign women and they both idly discuss whether or not Italian men are the sexiest men for what feels like a thousand years. The camera doesn't move. They don't move either.
6. The scene where Hockney talks about his father's relationship to John Philip Souza with his very hairy friend who is luxuriating in a yellow, gilded bathtub.
7. The scene where Hockney's aforementioned younger hot ex-boyfriend walks out of a pool with a massive erection, stands in front of an older woman who is clearly Marcia Weisman, a frequent subject of Hockney's, and stares blankly at her in the darkness. She's holding a garden hose. He then walks to a window and watches two people eating dinner. I... I don't know.
A Bigger Splash
Part 4: Penises Shouldn’t Be Boring, And YET...
Here's a lukewarm take for your nerves:
To normalize something is not to render it mundane; it is to afford it the nuance, access, and scope of a major narrative. "Narrative" requires an arc, an ending, a point of tension. "Normal" does not emerge fully formed from an absence of struggle or story-telling—its infusion exists to lend subjects humanity. It might be irresponsible to assume an anachronistic position to any record of marginalization, absolutely, but it's equally presentist to presume the political intent of concepts that were neither explicit nor particularly ambitious. Plus, A Bigger Splash was never designed as an advertisement for Hockney's ordinariness. It was supposed to promote the mythos of his painting practice, which was primarily predicated on glamour and intensity. So... where did the glamour go? Where was the romp? Where was the art? Not the physical pieces so groggily fetishized throughout the film, mind you, but the creative vigor and verve that dances throughout Hockney's canon. How dare the director reduce nudity to tedium!? How dare he dilute the stormy crescendo of heartbreak to a creaking, flaccid sigh?
Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)
Whence the sparkle, Jack? So many penises, and so little bloodflow, y'all.
Part 5: Final Takeaways
If you'd made it here, congratulations! There's no prize, but you're surely going to heaven. I have brought a truly unprecedented amount of hateration to this dancery, and for these Negative Art Vibes™, I sincerely apologize, but you know what I won't apologize for?
Hating A Bigger Splash, the epitomic botched footjob of art house cinema. (Hazan says it's not art house cinema, but he also says he "wasn't a fan" of Hockney, so...).
I was robbed, and I'm pressing charges in the form of approximately 1,500 words worth of unfocused verbal effluvia that I will probably regret later.
So what have we learned, dedicated Artspace brethren?
- If your paintings are already good, don't make a movie congratulating yourself on how good your paintings are, even if it's tempting, even if you have been approached to do so.
- If you do get scammed by an overly enthusiastic cinematographer through flattery, for sure draw up some documents and get a proper lawyer.
- Just because you dress well and know cool people doesn't mean you should star in a semi-scripted film about yourself, oh my god.
- Your ex-boyfriend is not as interesting as you think your ex-boyfriend is (bcc: every white woman currently writing a memoir, bcc: myself at drinks with my friends while they count down the minutes until it's polite to leave).
- The world is literally ending and three hours is too long to spend sober ensconced in tepid darkness with strangers.
- Ask for consent? To film folks? And send them final edits? Is this hard?
- I shouldn't be allowed to see movies. If there's some sort of paperwork I can sign, let me know.
A Bigger Splash is playing at Metrograph and a few other places throughout July.
If you're the sort of person who likes standing in line for brunch, you should definitely go.
A Bigger Splash
Have fun! Don't yell at me on Twitter!