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WET DREAM

Jack Hazan, A Bigger Splash, 1974, 35 mm transferred to 4K video, color, sound, 106 minutes. David Hockney.

SEXY. David Hockney luxuriates in the word, adding extra sibilance to the adjective, one he applies to a friend, the American model Joe MacDonald, who sits with him in a hotel room in Geneva in June 1973. Their flirty conversation occurs early on in Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash (1974), a partly scripted, partly improvised quasi documentary about the English painter, then at the height of his fame and recently broken up with Peter Schlesinger, the subject of some of Hockney’s best-known works. Fact embellished by fiction (and vice versa), A Bigger Splash, protean in structure, explores fluid connections: Within Hockney’s milieu are onetime lovers who are now friends, friends who are not yet lovers, and ex-lovers who have yet to become friends. The film—whose central figure has never not been out (at least since his Royal College of Art days in the early 1960s, several years before homosexuality was decriminalized in the UK)is effulgently yet casually gay, replete with cocks in various stages of tumescence and alabaster butts contrasting starkly with otherwise sun-kissed flesh. Recently reissued in a coruscating 4K restoration, it is also beautiful to behold.

Melissa Anderson on Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash (1974).

Hazan’s first feature, A Bigger Splash was made with the reluctant participation of Hockney—a reluctance belied by his ease and abundant charm before the camera. The filmmaker conceived the project after seeing Hockney’s 1970 retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in London; particularly inspiring were the exhibition’s double portraits. (At that point, Hazan was known mainly for his short 1969 documentary on the Liverpudlian nature painter and sculptor Keith Grant.) “I got very excited because the subjects were alive, and I could possibly gain access to them, and maybe . . . I could film them in the same poses,” he explained in 2011 to Christopher Simon Sykes, the author of a two-volume Hockney biography. “The film was never intended to be a documentary. I wanted to make something cinematic.”

Still from Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash, 1974, 35 mm transferred to 4K video, color, sound, 106 minutes. David Hockney.

Repeatedly but politely declining Hazan, Hockney finally relented in the spring of ’71. (“I agreed to do it to get rid of him,” the artist told Sykes.) It was around this time that Hockney’s relationship with Schlesinger—begun in 1966 when the San Fernando Valley native, then eighteen, took a UCLA drawing class taught by the rapidly ascending painter, then twenty-eight—was starting to unravel. Filming over the next two-plus years, primarily in London though with detours to New York and Los Angeles (scenes from the “Geneva resort,” which the director later admitted were actually shot in Hockney’s London apartment, bookend the movie), Hazan used the termination of this romance and its repercussions as the throughline of A Bigger Splash. To assuage his heartache, Hockney spent long hours in his studio. The masterwork that animates Hazan’s movie isn’t the 1967 painting with which it shares a title, the most famous of Hockney’s depopulated California-pool canvases (which none-theless has a cameo during the opening-credit sequence and at the film’s midpoint). Instead, this nimble docu-fiction chronicles the creation, destruction, and re-creation of Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972, Hockney’s homage to the young man, struggling to be recognized for his own talents, who had left him.

Still from Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash, 1974, 35 mm transferred to 4K video, color, sound, 106 minutes.

The split affects not only Hockney. “When love goes wrong, there’s more than two people suffer,” Mo McDermott, the artist’s studio assistant, says in a rueful voice-over, among the many stylized components of A Bigger Splash. (Hazan, who also served as cinematographer, shooting on 35 mm, cowrote the movie with David Mingay, its editor.) McDermott, part of Hockney’s circle since 1962, is one of a number of the artist’s closest associates to appear in the film, all playing slightly heightened versions of themselves. Variously avoiding, comforting, upbraiding, or advising him, the members of this charismatic coterie also include the couturier Ossie Clark (a former lover of Hockney’s) and his spouse, the fabric and textile designer Celia Birtwell; John Kasmin, Hockney’s gallerist; and curator–bon vivant–daddy nonpareil Henry Geldzahler, the artist’s New York bestie, who’s filmed at one point as if in a tableau, replicating the pose he had struck for Hockney’s Henry Geldzahler and Christopher Scott, 1969.

Still from Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash, 1974, 35 mm transferred to 4K video, color, sound, 106 minutes.

But thanks to his tobacco-deepened, impassioned off-screen narration, McDermott—who recalls an older, loucher, “Rocket Man”–era Elton John (and whose boyfriend Mike Sida shows up intermittently as a mute, expressionless rocker dutifully sharpening drawing pencils)—emerges as the project’s preeminent romantic, voicing vulnerabilities that Hockney mostly keeps to himself. First seen in a sequence filmed in June 1973, per one of the intertitles used throughout to establish time and place, McDermott sits solemnly at a large table in Hockney’s live-work space in Notting Hill (which Hockney had shared with Schlesinger), located next to an establishment with the intriguing slogan PLAYER’S PLEASE emblazoned on its window. McDermott drifts into reverie, recalling a time between the couple before they separated for good.

That reminiscence leads into a bit of fabulous footage from two years prior, showing Hockney slumped in the front row of Clark’s fashion show at the Royal Court Theatre. He’s flanked by Birtwell and Schlesinger—delighted by the action and sporting both a cute candy necklace and a Tadzio sailor top. In contrast to Schlesinger’s ebullience (and that of most of the crowd), the usually cheerful Hockney seems subdued. Though Hockney and Birtwell are seen exchanging comments, neither man talks to the other. Love is going wrong.

After the couple’s rupture, Schlesinger, a budding painter and photographer, moved into his own studio, which was just around the corner from Hockney’s place. In a staged moment, we see the young American, clad only in white briefs, dancing with himself in front of an easel, reveling in a night alone at his tiny pad. (Schlesinger agreed to take part in A Bigger Splash only if Hazan paid him.) Earlier in the film, we witness Schlesinger in another contrived domestic episode, though this time with naked company: He gets it on with a friend, the actor Eddie Kalinski. (IRL, Schlesinger’s boyfriend immediately after Hockney was the photographer Eric Boman, who never appears in A Bigger Splash; they remain together today.) In another segment, constructed as a SoCal fantasia, Schlesinger skinny-dips in a pool with a trio of brunet twinks. One of them delivers the (off-screen) come-on “Would you like to play with us?” Another is Gregory Evans, who, by 1975, would be Hockney’s boyfriend and, later, his manager. (Players please.)

Still from Jack Hazan’s A Bigger Splash, 1974, 35 mm transferred to 4K video, color, sound, 106 minutes. David Hockney.

No longer Hockney’s lover and far from being a pal, Schlesinger is still Hockney’s occasional silent, sullen model in A Bigger Splash. With his peroxided mop grown a bit too shaggy, Hockney sketches and paints Schlesinger from the back—a study for Sur la terrasse, 1971, a nearly completed canvas that rests behind the artist as he squints through his Mr. Peabody and Sherman specs at his ex’s perfect, V-shaped torso. That’s one of several works in progress we watch Hockney contemplate, meticulously add to, then examine again. Unembellished verité, the episodes in the studio stand out as this sensuous film’s most mesmerizing: They offer unrushed glimpses of the artist’s credo—“I paint what I like when I like, and where I like”—in action.

The episodes in the studio offer unrushed glimpses of Hockney’s credo—“I paint what I like when I like, and where I like”—in action.

Could a corollary to that guiding principle be: When love goes wrong, art—eventually, painstakingly—goes right? That’s what happens in Hazan’s film, especially as Hockney completes Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), a painting, featuring a pink-jacketed Schlesinger standing on the edge of a piscine, that he had labored over off and on, with increasing frustration, for six months. Realizing the angle of the pool was wrong, Hockney cut up the canvas and started anew, finishing the piece—with the help of Schlesinger, who poses for his onetime boyfriend very early one morning in Kensington Gardens—in an astonishing two weeks.

The painting made headlines last November for the price it took at auction, though this datum doesn’t interest me. More significant is the return of a too-little-revived film that documents Portrait of an Artist’s charged iterations and the circumstances surrounding them. After watching A Bigger Splash a few weeks before its premiere at Cannes in 1974, Hockney said he was “utterly shattered” by it, his anguish spiked further by a film-director friend who favorably—if somewhat incongruously—likened it to “a real Sunday Bloody Sunday,” John Schlesinger’s astute, London-set, big-studio-backed 1971 drama about a love triangle (two men, one woman). More felicitous comparisons might include Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand (1971), a gay XXX landmark in which a Fire Island natatorium becomes a pleasure palace, not to mention Robert Kramer’s Milestones (1975), an epic dirge on the failed dreams of the New Left in the US, which was also devised as a docufiction. (Hazan and Mingay would return to this genre with 1980’s Rude Boy, centering on the Clash.) But as for movies about making (art) and unmaking (a relationship), I can think of none better, or more sinuous—as serpentine as Hockney’s enunciation of a favorite descriptor.

The new 4K restoration of A Bigger Splash opens June 21 at Metrograph in New York.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns