A Bigger Splash is an awkward oddity, which, like many an unformed queer thing, has grown more interesting with age. The 1974 film by Jack Hazan takes the life and loves of English painter David Hockney as its subject. In an interview on the occasion of the film’s release, Hazan said, “I would describe it very simply and a bit inadequately as a love story, a gay love story if you like, about a man who’s still in love with a boy who leaves him.” While from scene one it’s clear that Hockney’s conception of love resembles ownership, and the man is as greedy as he is entitled, his heartbreak nonetheless sends him on a wound-licking odyssey to Southern California, golden land of everlasting beauty, which has served as the artist’s primary home and muse to this day.
If the film is a time capsule, it’s one that preserves London, Los Angeles, the South of France, and an ensemble of Hockney’s living accessories—boys, colleagues, female confidantes—with remarkably little texture to suggest what these people and places felt like in the swinging seventies. Across roughly two dozen vignettes, those on screen behave in a way that is stilted enough to feel like acting, but stripped of character. They seem to be self-conscious approximations of themselves, shaped by the novelty of being on film more than by direction. Their awareness of the camera is different from what is common today. Instead of delivering polished personas, they are at various times coy, solemn, goofy, or uneasy. The cinematography and editing are utilitarian. Lush, wistfully melodramatic string music is the most stirring varnish on what is otherwise a sequence of ordinary exchanges rooted in the navel-gazing self-importance of a rising art star and his fawning entourage. And yet there is something undeniably compelling about the film.
It’s hard to say whether A Bigger Splash is most accurately classified as a documentary, a biopic, or an art film. Lacking the point of view expected of the first, dramatic arc of the second, and formal savvy of the third, the film could instead be described as an antecedent to the reality TV soap opera genre that appeared in the 2000s: not first-wave social experiments like The Real World and Big Brother, but the quasi-scripted series with affluent protagonists that followed, like Laguna Beach, The Hills, and the Real Housewives franchises, each of which harvest storylines from the uncanny valleys of real people dialing in ambiguous performances of the events of their lives.
The engrossing flatness of the film echoes Hockney’s signature painting style. His iconic images are wrought from irreducible moments that are timeless in the sense that they feel as though they exist outside of time. Rather than age well, their essence doesn’t age at all. Hockney’s pictures are oneiric scenes, fantasies, especially the ones that depict the pools and homes of California. Today these architectures are antique, but aesthetes still lust for them with adolescent abandon. A blue rectangle in the Hollywood Hills is the modern fountain of youth.
One thread of A Bigger Splash is the genesis of a painting itself. Not the eponymous one made a year or so before production began, but Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972, a work that forty-some years later, in November of 2018, would sell for $90.3M, making it the most expensive painting sold at auction by a living artist. One man, suited and standing in the sun, peers down at another, refracted under the glistening surface of a pool with rolling mountains in the back.
Hockney’s greatness was on the radar during the making of the film, but the superlative market value of his work could never have been anticipated. Unlike the dream of California—which Hockney amusingly refers to as “a cure” in the film, like a sulphur bath—which by its essence always remains as fleeting or out of reach as the last sunset, Hockney’s greatness, by many measures, has come to full fruition in the time since the original release of A Bigger Splash. Any personality flaws are melted down by the years, as Hockney is now a larger-than-life figure whose consummate devotion to his work excuses unflattering behavior. If the principle interest of the Hockney on the screen seems to be his own genius, the real Hockney has consistently dedicated his long life to this over all the ensuing years. The smallness of the film and the dramatic irony of Hockney’s incoming largesse induces a watchable tension in which he straddles the roles of artist and celebrity.
Of course, Warhol and his cinema were already a big deal ten years before the making of A Bigger Splash. It’s hard not to think of him when you see young Hockney onscreen with his unruly platinum hair and cartoonishly conspicuous glasses that compound his affect. With Henry Geldzahler in tow—who introduced Hockey and Warhol at The Factory—the link is all the more palpable. But while Warhol’s brilliantly contrived manner is one of the most enduring facets of his legacy, Hockney’s legacy, other than smoking perhaps, is painting. Compared to Warhol, there is little to get out of Hockney’s work. They present themselves without explanation, just like the film.
Another difference between Hockey and Warhol is the West. Compounded by his dandyish Englishness, Hockney has long since played the part of the poet laureate in exile. Again, no one could predict at the time of filming that Hockney would live out his days in LA. A Bigger Splash doesn’t hold back on aspersions about the city: during platonic pillow talk, a friend of Hockney’s confesses, “I hate California. I feel they try too hard to be real in a reality that never existed. It scares me.” If that was true then, it’s certainly still true for today’s most famous Californian, Kim Kardashian, who cryptically stated in her April 2019 interview with Vogue’s 73 Questions, “We always keep it real, and there are really no real situations.” You can’t fault the cast of A Bigger Splash for stressing about reality; no one is trying too hard here, but the effect does feel like an inimitable brand of realness.