If a picture is worth a thousand words, what’s Billy Pappas’ picture worth — the one he spent 8½ years and a cosmic lifetime drawing, and which hangs over “Waiting for Hockney” like an 800-pound metaphor? Helmer Julie Checkoway doesn’t quite answer the question in her lively, complicated doc — she can’t — but she raises enough questions, and will pique the interest of enough specialty auds (art lovers, obsessives, gays, Baltimoreans, psychologists) to ensure a solid arthouse life.
As Checkoway lays it out, her rococo subject was a budding Baltimore artist and waiter/bartender whose conversations with local eccentric (there’s no other way to describe him) and eventual patron Larry Link led him to create a kind of portraiture that would surpass photography, both in its detail and in its emotional/artistic impact.
Deciding on Marilyn Monroe as a subject (because of, rather than in spite of, her iconic image), Pappas also became obsessed with showing the finished picture to artist David Hockney — getting his presumed blessing, and being networked into an important, and presumably lucrative, career.
Checkoway is both kind and cruel in her debut film, letting Pappas come off as a kind of rustic savant while eliding his more crassly commercial motivations. As articulated by one of the helmer’s expert witnesses — ex-New Yorker writer, NYU professor and Hockney confidante Lawrence Weschler — Pappas’ once-pure intentions were distorted by some warped vision perpetuated by the marketplace.
Pappas always wanted to sell the picture for a high price and parlay it into commissions. But what Pappas accomplished, Weschler says, and what should have satisfied him, was the creation of something as extraordinary as “Marilyn” (Pappas’ name for his work). The compositional depth of the picture, shown here in loving, exact detail, needs to be seen with a magnifying glass to be properly appreciated. But just as Monroe was consumed, in a way, by the power of her visual image, you wonder throughout “Waiting for Hockney” whether Pappas will be, too.
The film accomplishes many of its thriller qualities through a mischievous use of music highly suggestive of what Pappas may have been feeling as his meeting with Hockney drew closer. Hockney himself is not in the film, aside from some still photographs, and there might be the sense among some viewers that the movie is exploiting the artist’s name (although the use of his artwork and image was granted). What could have been explained in more enlightening fashion is the question of why Hockney was the logical object of Pappas’ fixation — his well-known disdain for photography, his explorations of the use of camera obscura and his rigorous artistic standards made him an obvious choice to champion Pappas’ artistic vision, if not necessarily his finished work.
“Waiting for Hockney” is a kind of art drama, though it’s not as polished, rigorous or free of sentiment as much of the work it extolls. The music is overdone; the film raises serious issues about the definitions of art but doesn’t address them in full. Quaintly, some of the film’s more affecting moments involve Pappas’s parents, especially his loving, frantic mother, Cookie, who adds an aspect of pure, unqualified love to a story fraught with confused motivations — not evil, just confused.
Production values are adequate.