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Case Number 09757: Small Claims Court

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A Bigger Splash

First Run Features // 1974 // 105 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jesse Ataide (Retired) // July 31st, 2006

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All Rise...

This is not how Judge Jesse Ataide remembers the summer pool parties of his youth.

The Charge

Portrait of the artist.

The Case

David Hockney. His colorful, geometric paintings of Los Angeles swimming pools established him as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century. With that burst of white-blonde hair and thick black-rimmed glasses that resemble goggles, he's an instantly-recognizable icon. And seemingly anticipating reality television by several decades, for three and a half years (1970-3), Hockney allowed filmmakers Jack Hazan and David Mingay to follow him around, filming his interactions with friends, lovers and business associates—documenting his life and the creation of some of the world's most famous paintings. The resulting film, A Bigger Splash, eventually evolved into an amorphous melding of both fact and fiction, a quasi-documentary that shocked Hockney. Apparently, Hockney had expected the film to be "just a lot of paintings revolving to bits of Bach."

The film, even with its fictional elements, is much more personal than the simple "artist at work" documentary Hockney seemed to have expected. Taking place during the period when Hockney was breaking up with Peter Schlesinger, the beautiful, androgynous young man who served as both his love and muse, a major strand of the film's narrative revolves around Hockney's attempt to finish his last painting of Schlesinger (after destroying and repainting it several times, it eventually became Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures)). But except for an extended dream sequence, it's impossible to discern what is actual reality and what is being fabricated for the camera. Not that it matters much. However accurate (or not) the film may be in depicting Hockney's daily life, it's undeniably a powerful time capsule—a vivid, intense depiction of the swinging London of the 1960s during its last dying gasps. In a lot of ways, A Bigger Splash plays like Blowup with a lot of gay sex.

I reviewed Peter Watkins's exemplary biopic Edvard Munch several months ago, and what I now find surprising is that even if A Bigger Splash didn't consciously influence Watkins's film, both director's technique for getting at the essence of their respective subjects are startlingly similar: both assemble seemingly superfluous, offhand moments to construct multilayered and endlessly faceted portrait of painters and their art (it rather anticipates Hockney's later photo collage work). But the focus is not on the artist in the way a traditional documentary would be, rather, the focus is on the rhythms of the artist's everyday life, and how his art organically grows out of it. Moments of inspiration and brilliance are present and accounted for, but so are the long stretches of everyday living that happens during the "down time." The inevitable problem that arises is that while this banality might be true to life, it doesn't always make for compelling cinema.

The cover makes it obvious that the targeted audience for A Bigger Splash is the gay community, as an (artfully obscured) nude photograph of Schlesinger dominates the front cover (interestingly, Hockney is limited to several postage stamp-size photos on the back). This manages to be give both an accurate and misleading impression of the film: accurate because it's abundant full frontal male nudity and frank depictions of homosexual sex inevitably limits its appeal to a straight—particularly straight male—audience. At the same time, it's unfortunate that A Bigger Splash has to be confined to such rigid pigeon-holing—it's an intriguing take on the creation of art and the artistic temperament. I'd wager that anyone who finds interest and value in a Paul Morrissey/Andy Warhol film like Flesh will find A Bigger Splash of much interest.

Considering its age and the equipment available to documentary filmmakers in the early 1970s, the image quality of this film is surprising—the colors are bright and generally clear, with only minor image defects (most notably the occasional vertical white line splitting the screen). The audio track (Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo) is the mixed bag typical of documentaries: the dialogue is generally clear and justice is done to Patrick Gower's eerie atonal score, but other noises can come off as muted or thin.

Additionally, one wishes that there was a little more in the way of extras since there is so little information and analysis of the film available. What we do get includes an interview with Jack Hazan and some film notes, and while both yield some insight into the purpose and filmmaking processes behind the film, both ultimately seem rather slight and insubstantial. The same can be said about the photo gallery, which includes several snapshots and film stills, all which have already appeared in the film.

In the end, it may not be for all tastes, but while A Bigger Splash might be infuriatingly dull and maddeningly amorphous, at the same time, it's strangely, undeniably riveting.

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 92

Perp Profile

Studio: First Run Features
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1974
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Biographical
• Documentary
• Drama
• Erotic
• Gay

Distinguishing Marks

• Interview with Director Jack Hazan
• Film Notes
• Photo Gallery

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