Gilbey on Film: The truth about David Hockney

What's the connection between the artist and TOWIE?

David Hockney may have been a greater presence in your life recently than members of your own family. Anyone would think he were the subject of a new show at the Royal Academy or something. But ask yourself this question: what is the connection between Hockney and The Only Way is Essex?

I'm no good at suspense so I'll go ahead and tell you the answer: A Bigger Splash. Jack Hazan's 1974 film about the artist and his friends looks at first like a documentary. Everyone we see appears as themselves, in situations representative of the early-1970s London art scene. But as Hazan explains in an interview included on the BFI's new DVD/Blu-Ray edition of A Bigger Splash, the film contains "very little that's observation. It's not fly-on-the-wall." The late fashion designer Ossie Clark, one of the subjects of Hockney's painting Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (clue: he's not Percy)described it as "truer than the truth." This will not be a radical concept for viewers of TOWIE.

Like Rude Boy, the film about the Clash which Hazan co-directed with his partner David Mingay, A Bigger Splash is a staged work. It was shaped by Hazan over the three years he spent tagging along with Hockney. The director suggested to his subjects situations and conversations for them to play out, or brazenly manipulated the footage he shot -- notably the scene of the artist destroying an unwanted canvas, an unexceptional occurrence in the life of a painter that is transformed here (through the use of Patrick Gowers's deliberately Herrman-esque score) into a sign of psychological turmoil. The picture bills its participants like actors in the opening titles, and even has a "written by" credit shared by Hazan and Mingay. It's not like we can see we've been hoodwinked.

Hazan had begun shooting material when Mingay spotted in Hockney's life the tension between the artist and his former lover and muse, Peter Schlesinger, who had recently left him. Schlesinger, initially grudging until his palm was crossed with silver, became the film's mutely radiant star. He sleepwalks prettily through dreams of Hazan's devising.

Any ambiguity about process is especially pertinent to a movie concerning the genesis of a work of art. Hockney's painting Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) is pieced together before our eyes, from the original photographic studies of the swimming boy to the temporary use of the painter's assistant Mo McDermott (a bedraggled soul for whom Hazan's camera becomes a kind of confidante) as the poolside observer; McDermott is eventually replaced by a study of Schlesinger, painted in Kensington Gardens and then decanted into the canvas. The painting is only one of the elements in the film which is subject to transformation. A studio is built, a gallery is broken apart; relationships are shown in various state of disrepair, accompanied by McDermott's mournful refrain: "When love goes wrong, more than two people suffer."

Through it all runs a curiosity, and at times queasiness, about looking and being looked at. It was the fraught relationship between the figures in Hockney's paintings which first sparked in Hazan the idea of making A Bigger Splash, and it's a friction that survives in the finished film. In Hockney's work, people gaze into the distance, or defiantly out of the canvas at us, but never quite seem to connect with one another. To this complex dynamic Hazan adds another layer by showing the subjects inspecting their own portraits. This, in turn, is varnished by our voyeurism as viewers.

The film's interest in the relationship between the corporeal form and its painted equivalent leads inevitably to the question of how we are changed by being looked at. The boy Tadzio in Death in Venice (Thomas Mann's novella, rather than Visconti's film), adapts his behaviour noticeably when he becomes aware of Von Aschenbach's gaze; his admirer's attention alone is enough to change and even spoil him. A Bigger Splash exhibits some of that same ambivalence. The models are suspended within the canvas like medical specimens. Hazan films Schlesinger standing naked outside a Los Angeles house, hands pressed against the glass, while the two figures inside eat dinner and ignore him. Finally he gives up and dives into their pool -- he has no choice but to retreat back into the watery prison which Hockney's paintbrush has built for him.

Now, I will have to come clean here and admit that I have never seen The Only Way is Essex (or, for that matter, its US parent The Hills). But I am rather minded to give it a whirl after seeing A Bigger Splash and admiring the frisson between the factual and the fabricated. I wonder if the cultural traffic will also run in the other direction, with TOWIE fans helping Hazan's film to make a splash in the DVD charts.

"A Bigger Splash" (BFI) is released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 30 January

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump