Hockney Dir. Randall Wright

[Film Movement; 2016]

Styles: documentary
Others: Eames: The Architect & The Painter, Gerhard Richter Painting, Lucien Freud: A Painted Life

The first time we see David Hockney in Randall Wright’s eponymous documentary, we find him in the middle of a photo shoot, posing on top of a couch, relishing the moment with a very visible grin. One of the most famous (if not important) living British painters, Hockney’s career epitomizes the idea of the artist as a celebrity, the apex of his powers coinciding with the years when a visual artist’s life became just as important a creative outlet as his work. A fascinating figure for fans and the media, Hockney has never been a mysterious character, nor stood away from the limelight for too long. Thus, there is a robust record for this or any documentary/study/examination to build on, the threat of redundancy notwithstanding. Aware of this, Wright takes the opportunity to explore Hockney’s very rich archival material, this being a “sanctioned” documentary, and crafts an affectionate celebration of the English painter and his work. A portrait that does not aim at comprehensiveness, nor balks at letting Hockney’s own voice lead the film for long stretches, sometimes overlooking contextual or critical insights for the sake of candor and deference. The result is an amusing documentary that keeps the uninitiated and the diehards engaged without ever condescending to either camp, easily managing to showcase David Hockney as a creative genius who has had a tremendous impact on both popular and high culture.

Released in the US less than eighteen months before Hockney’s eightieth birthday, the film has a faint valedictory vibe. Not so much because the Bradford-born painter has fallen out of step with the times or ceased to be as prolific as before, but due to the retirement-speech-like tone of the documentary. None of the many guests has come here to badmouth or challenge a character who is known to be controversial and stubborn in his positions. Despite that, Wright avoids his film from becoming a fawning piece by letting Hockney’s work, family, friends, and peers, depict him as an eccentric but genial (albeit quite self-aware) figure. The fact that names as big as Ed Ruscha or Don Bachardy are willing to appear as talking heads here, to provide flattering commentary, tells a lot about Hockney’s stature and character, mitigating to an extent the concerns regarding the documentary’s spin. Of course, this is far from the piercing approach of Jack Hazan’s 1973 documentary A Bigger Splash, which focused on a turbulent time in David Hockney’s life while unveiling unsuspected aspects of his work, all this in a film that blended the still-to-come gadfly tendencies of reality television with a hazy fictional frame.

Being a perfectly correct documentary, Randall Wright’s film biggest shortcomings are formal. His Hockney feels painfully televisual. It’s clean, efficiently edited, and easy to follow, but often aesthetically uneven. It manages to capture the flair and affected elegance of Hockney, contrasting the drabness of his post-war childhood in Britain with the lush, sun-drenched expansiveness of his adoptive Los Angeles, but it also makes the tacky decision of “recreating” some of his paintings, having a purple-dressed woman stand next to a pool just to cut it to “Beverly Hills housewife”. Similarly, it stages the time-disjointed photocollages Hockney pioneered to later match archive footage of a teenaged Hockney dancing to a cheap music-library imitation of rock & roll. There are similar shortcomings on the script. Despite quickly garnering popular and media attention, we are told that Hockney remained excluded from the contemporary art discourse during his 1960s heyday. However, this hypothesis is undercut by the documentary’s insistence on presenting Hockney as a radically insular figure, always at the forefront of new tendencies, omitting important peers like Peter Blake, Howard Hodgkin or Richard Hamilton. Some contextual information might help viewers catch-up with the story, particularly since Wright’s quasi-chronological narrative ends-up crunching several decades in a few minutes towards the end of the film, with the painter’s early years (down to the late 1970s) taking the lions share of the running time. On that note, although the film keeps a steady rhythm, it still feels twenty minutes too long.

Hockney is at its best when channeling the English painter’s hunger for freedom. He was never committed to a single style or technique, putting a premium on building a shared emotional connection with the spectator through the act of looking, whatever that may take. And that’s crucial. What kept David Hockney from fully attaching himself to the 1960s (mainstream) art debate was his propensity for including 19th century sensibilities in his work, be it in the form of symbols or transparent expressions of sentimentality. Hockney himself is given ample room to articulate his philosophy in the documentary, both through contemporary as well as archival interviews, but Wright cleverly pairs these musing with a cavalcade of artwork, home movies, photographs, and testimonials, seizing the spirit of Hockney’s art beyond his words. We find this communion at full force in a segment where Hockney’s friends recall how he decided to go blonde on the force of an American TV ad, tellingly also the moment where he broke with the austere abstractionism he had been studying. Or, perhaps more so, in how Los Angeles appears to synthesize the rich contradictions of a man who describes himself as “born in Bradford but raised in Hollywood”.

Having collaborated with Hockney on a previous documentary (2003’s Secret Knowledge), Randall Wright has been studying the painter for over a decade, and it shows. The director is able to escape most of the pitfalls inherent to the review of a figure as public as Hockney, charting the evolution of his art without rendering the film a tasteful but inessential retelling of the facts. Albeit more often than not tumbling through them, the documentary touches on the superficial and cursory elements of any biographical product, yet finding time to show clips of Hockney’s visits to his family or a tender moment he shared with close friends while battling depression. For sure, there is plenty of hyperbole and vapid lip-service in the film, but on a pure sensual level it is hard to imagine a better invocation of the materiality underlying some of Hockney’s greatest works; especially in the Los Angeles segments, with the nature and the city’s artificial spaces on full erotic display. And that somehow feels right for an artist whose work has always tried to find new ways of seeing and feeling. Nevertheless, though it is impossible to fault Wright for shooting a documentary not as innovative as its subject, there’s something to be said about the fact that the movie so utterly hinges on Hockney’s charisma to be appealing. Without the treasure trove of archive material and the uncensored access Wright enjoyed, the film would be a hollow, if well-spirited, mess. It simply lacks a thesis and a narrative core. Therefore, Hockney is perhaps best viewed as an afternoon-long conversation with an extraordinary man whose art moved across many phases, styles, countries, and personas, and continues to strike our attention by finding pop and poetry in the visible world.

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