The Films of Jack Hazan
With his frequent collaborator, writer David Mingay, Jack Hazan aspired to make a film that would blend fiction and reality like none before. Having worked mostly in television, he specifically wanted to make a theatrical feature to ensure some higher level of exposure and prestige, but without sacrificing his documentarian’s fascination with natural behavior and contemporary culture, especially with regard to the arts. Although only two films resulted successfully from this philosophy - (1974's A Bigger Splash and 1980’s Rude Boy) - Hazan nevertheless manages to provoke some serious questions about the nature of performance in film, on the part of actors and non-actors alike.
For this reason, his films can be compared with those of his fellow countryman Peter Watkins, who also sought an improvisational blurring of fiction and reality; but while Watkins would shoot predominantly prepared scenes to look like a documentary, Hazan uses fairly standard camerawork to capture real events, which he then weaves into a loose plot. There are other precedents too; such as Ken Russell's early TV work and Haskell Wexler’s landmark Medium Cool, (1969) which famously made use of real events as a backdrop for a fictional story.
A BIGGER SPLASH (1974)
On the basis of having produced some fairly traditional profiles of artists and celebrities for television, Hazan and Mingay persuaded painter David Hockney to participate in a film about his work. Hockney was then the most famous living English artist, a pop artist who, though his own work was unique, was often portrayed as the British Andy Warhol, an idea that he alternately frustrated and encouraged. The filmmakers’ proposal was to follow Hockney for an extended period of time and document not only his mundane routine and work methods, but the people with whom he does business and spends his time. The most important of these proves to be a young man named Peter Schlesinger, also paying himself, and who we learn has (until recently) been Hockney’s lover and muse.
The threadbare plot hinges on the premise that Hockney is struggling to cope with his breakup with Peter and to find the impetus that will allow him to complete his most recent series of paintings in time for an expected show. Hoping that a change in scenery will do the trick, Hockney opts to travel to California, where he had produced some of his most famous paintings, the pool series including “A Bigger Splash.” Meanwhile, he is burdened by agents and gallery owners, including real-life art world figures like Kasmin and Henry Geldzahler, who (whether out of concern for art, money or friendship) all want Hockney to get out of his funk and continue working. Throughout, Hockney and his associates have discussions before the camera, often monologizing or simply interviewing each other more than conversing. The dialogue frequently feels stiff and theatrical, but it also sounds authentically like the somewhat affected air that could be struck by Hockney while in confrontations with interviewers and art dealers.
Several things make A Bigger Splash resonant and incredibly unique. The first of these are the opportunities Hazan takes to reflect on some of Hockney’s most well-known pictures. Certain moments and compositions restage his paintings; the scenes become both inspirations for the works and also instances of déjà vu for characters who recognize the milieu in sensory or emotional ways. Perhaps the most remarkable thing that Hazan achieves is the complete fusion of fiction and reality, which he does by letting the flashes of meaning that come out of his footage fabricate the semblance of a story. Many viewers find this approach unacceptably unfocused, but Hazan is searching for a reverberation more than a by-numbers plot. In the end, though we may not be quite able to explain how everything connects, (especially in terms of chronology), we do have the solid impression that Hockney has impacted, and been impacted by, the people in his life, and that they and he have jointly sustained the atmosphere that allows him to create.
The intriguing and troubling issue that Hazan raises has to do with the ability of cinema to tell emotional stories in ways that do not have obvious correlations in other art forms. So often, expressions and gestures suggest meanings that may or may not be what we, the audience, would assume logical. In this sense, Hazan’s film generates an emotional story that did not actually exist in real life, nor was it concocted on paper, nor rehearsed by the performers. The events of Hockney’s life that the film captures are genuine, but in reality (by his own account) the snag that delayed his completion of his painting was entirely aesthetic and had nothing to do with his separation from Schlesinger.
Hockney was reportedly surprised at the outcome of the project, (which is hard to believe considering some of the things he does in the film). He apparently expected either a cinéma vérité-style documentary or a routine profile that recapped his career to date. Instead, he became the centerpiece of a much larger and more esoteric study of the creative process, romantic obsession, and the junction where the two meet. As the voiceless beautiful boy of Hockney’s life, work, and dreams, Peter Schlesinger haunts the film, rarely appearing with Hockney on screen, but merely going about his life, biking, swimming and posing for continuous portraits. His presence lends a forceful homoerotic pulse to the film, even though Hockney himself says little about him other than to describe him as handsome.
The possibilities inherent in Hazan’s style in A Bigger Splash are so problematic and fascinating that it is truly unfortunate that he and Mingay did not continue their experiments beyond Rude Boy several years later. The result could potentially have led to the acceptance of an entirely new genre. Between Hazan’s and Watkins’ films, we are presented with a perplexing implication about the disparity between narrative and non-fictional films. While watching Hockney technically “act” in A Bigger Splash, we have to wonder how much this performance really differs from his demeanor when the cameras are off. By extension, we are forced to accept the notion that any documentary may contain such moments of artifice by real people, a threat that nips at the heels of documentary filmmakers but is usually dismissed by them as an unknowable quantity. We are reminded of Robert Altman's vocal life-long mistrust of documentaries; capped by the scathing Tanner on Tanner (2004), which suggests that any claim of capturing "reality" on film is either a lie or a delusion. Hazan’s films exist in, and demand that we acknowledge, the twilight zone world in which most cinema exists; a sensory, expressionistic realm frozen in time by mechanical means, creating moments of inexplicable significance regardless of the situation’s factuality or fabrication.
RUDE BOY (1980)
Rude Boy is the second of two experiments in improvisational drama engineered by filmmaker Jack Hazan and co-writer David Mingay in the 1970s. These two films introduce real-life people into loosely fictional situations, allowing Hazan to craft an emotional “plot” from the convergence of planned and real events. This approach was unique, and comparable perhaps only to the films of Frederick Wiseman and Allan King, who culled a semblance of drama from real situations, and those of Peter Watkins, who shot prepared material to deliberately resemble the look of documentary films. More than those of any other filmmaker, however, Hazan’s films exist in an inscrutable limbo that is not just a fusion of fiction and reality, but something beyond either extreme.
While both films deal with the arts and artists as they impact the world around them, Rude Boy takes this relationship a step further by incorporating the influence of politics. And the connection of art and politics, in turn, will be a matter of discussion in the story itself. A young man called Ray Gange (playing a character of the same name), works in a porn shop in London in the late 70s, and is very involved with the cutting-edge world of punk rock, which at the time was not only a highly politicized youth movement, but espoused a bitterly nihilistic philosophy that gravitated between anarchy and activism. (“Rude boy” was a term for perceived delinquents who loved reggae, ska or punk music; inevitably, it was quickly embraced as a badge of honor by the very people it was intended to ridicule.)
In the wake of the Sex Pistols’ self-destruction, the Clash were left as the leading band of the British punk scene. Ray is a not only a fan of the Clash, but knows some of the band members, and their entourage, personally; eventually using his connections to land a job with them as a roadie. The real members of the Clash all play themselves, and like David Hockney with A Bigger Splash, openly expressed their displeasure with their appearance in the film after its release. Presumably they expected a more objective and celebratory rockumentary like the work of D.A. Pennebaker; (although, presumably, a brief look at Hazan’s previous work may have given them an easy clue to his intentions).
Led by the Clash, punk is portrayed in the film as a bulwark against the grass-roots but powerful right-wing faction called the National Front, which is anti-immigrant, racist and essentially neo-Nazi. Against the backdrop of mounting violence between the two groups, as well as police quarrels with both, Ray attempts to reconcile his devotion to the music scene with his need to earn a living and his stringent views on the relationship between artists and fans. He shows his loyalty to the band by jumping onto the stage during one of their concerts and getting the crowd riled up, but he also strongly believes that the band should keep its music free of politics; an opinion he expresses directly to Clash leader Joe Strummer in one scene.
Interspersed with Ray’s story are many sequences of the Clash performing, plus a subplot involving a black youth being railroaded by the police and even real footage of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power as a champion of law and order. Though basically a mellow and agreeable guy, Ray is nevertheless tormented by his ambivalence about the band and its political agenda. He seems to wish for a life as a patron of the punk scene, and though he has an enviable job surrounded by the Clash and its road crew, he is completely alone in his ideas about how the band should pursue its career. Consequently, he resorts to drinking and eventually his job performance begins to suffer. One day he wakes up late to find that everyone has left him behind to head off to the next gig.
Rude Boy was sold as alternately a profile of the Clash and as a snapshot of the political climate in the streets of London at the time, but while both of these are aspects of the film, in truth its real interest lies in its unconventional status as a hybrid of fact and fiction. Hence, many viewers are ultimately disappointed in it, since it doesn’t necessarily reflect its marketing strategies, but for the few who can discern its cinematic issues, the film provides a rare opportunity – (given the fact that Hazan only made two films in this style) – to witness an approach to filmmaking that poses challenging questions about the nature of drama and reality, an approach that was perhaps doomed to die out as quickly as it appeared since it could be read as a genuine threat to what we have been conditioned to accept as mutually exclusive fictional and non-fictional films.