Watching movies about artists tends to be vastly less interesting than looking at those artists’ work. If the artists are David Hockney and Robert Frank, that sets the bar that much higher. It’s a tribute to Jack Hazan’s 1974 sort-of documentary about Hockney, “A Bigger Splash,” and Gerald Fox’s 2004 British television documentary, “Leaving Home, Coming Home: A Portrait of Robert Frank,” that they narrow the gap as much as they do. Each film plays various dates at the Museum of Fine Arts Sept. 1-11.
“A Bigger Splash” is the title of what is likely David Hockney’s most famous painting. It can be glimpsed, very briefly, in the opening credits. The Hockney painting that figures most prominently in what follows -— it, too, is a famous one — is “Portrait of an Artist (Pool With Two Figures).” That bit of misdirection — sharing a title with one painting while presenting the making of another — is of a piece with the sort-of-documentary aspect. The film has a vérité feel, with various real-life people doing the sorts of things they would do in real life. Among them are Hockney; his longtime lover Peter Schlesinger, who is one of the two figures referred to in the painting title; his longtime dealer, John Kasmin; his married friends, the designers Ossie Clark and Celia Birtwell (the subject of another famous Hockney painting).
The “sort-of” emerges as one realizes how often things are being done with the camera clearly in mind. Events may not be staged, but they are certainly being arranged or enacted. Fact and fiction do a dance, just as chronology does. The film is largely set in London (another bit of misdirection, the Yorkshire native Hockney being by then so thoroughly associated with Los Angeles). It opens in 1973, then jumps around earlier in the ’70s, in a chronological-card-shuffling manner.
That playing with temporality is one of the many ways that “Splash” feels so much of its time. The upheavals of the ’60s are over, but the influences are being felt in the cooling-down (and opening-up) of the ’70s. The temporal shiftiness feels sub-Godardian. The lack of emotional polish feels kinda-Cassavetes. The slightly inert affect feels post-Warhol — and the matter-of-factness of the portrayal of gayness feels post-post-Warhol.
“Splash” isn’t all that good, frankly. Legato disjointedness and amiable stiltedness are still disjointedness and stiltedness. But its being such an index of what-was-in-the-air-then makes it very interesting. So does the window it offers on Hockney: his working procedures, his personality, his sly charm. Where Warhol, say, was all scheming zero affect, Hockney was — thankfully, still is — boyishness abundant: not just the peroxide-blond hair and oversize glasses and out-thrust chin, but the constant bubbling play of his intelligence.
A grace note for those who sit through the closing credits is discovering that Dick Pope , who has done such splendid things as Mike Leigh’s cinematographer, was one of the cameramen. His big splashing would come later.
If there’s a film that prefigures “A Bigger Splash” in using well-known cultural figures to braid together reality and contrivance, it’s Robert Frank’s and Alfred Leslie’s short “Pull My Daisy” (1959). There are bits of it shown in “Leaving Home, Coming Home,” as well as clips from many of the films Frank made after “The Americans” (1958), his landmark book of photographs that six decades later retains an astonishing power. Is it too much to say that what Tocqueville did for America before the Civil War with words, Frank did after World War II with images?
As one would expect, the documentary includes many Frank images, from throughout his career. As one would hope but might not expect, many are unfamiliar. As one would hope but really not expect, most of the film consists of the notably reticent Frank being interviewed.
“The pictures have to talk, not me,” he says. But talk he does and memorably. “It isn’t pretty, life,” he says of his artistic vision. “It isn’t the sweet life. But it’s the real life that I looked for and that I got.” Or on what it meant to exchange Old World for New: “Leaving Switzerland, it felt like the door opened: You were free. And I liked it. I liked it a lot.”
Frank turns 95 on Nov. 9. He was 79 when “Leaving Home, Coming Home” was shot. He’s surprisingly vigorous and unsurprisingly cranky. With his hangdog face and slight Swiss accent, he’s an engaging figure. We see him in lower Manhattan and on Cape Breton Island (he and his wife, the artist June Leaf, divide the year between the two places). We accompany him on a visit to Coney Island, both the neighborhood and beach. Best of all, we get to enjoy the marvelous chemistry between him and Leaf. If “A Bigger Splash” is a breakup movie (which it is, not just Hockney and Schlesinger, but also Clark and Birtwell and, professionally, Hockney and Yasmin), this one doubles as a marriage movie.
★ ★ ½
A BIGGER SPLASH
Directed by Jack Hazan. Written by Hazan and David Mingay. At Museum of Fine Arts, 105 minutes. Unrated (as R: nudity, sexuality, language)
★ ★ ★
LEAVING HOME, COMING HOME: A PORTRAIT OF ROBERT FRANK
Directed by Gerald Fox. At Museum of Fine Arts. 86 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: casual, matter-of-fact obscenity)
Both play various dates, Sept. 1-11. www.mfa.org/programs/film