Look Back in Anger

Considering the legacy of poet-provocateur Derek Jarman
by Sam Adams  posted June 26, 2008
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Derek Jarman, Seoul Cinematheque, June 27-July 10, 2008

Of Angels and Apocalypse: The Cinema of Derek Jarman,
Northwest Film Center, July 11-31, 2008

Established by Film London earlier this year, the Jarman Award recognizes the British artist-filmmaker “who could be to our times what Derek Jarman was to his.” It’s an impossibly tall order. Poet, prophet, and provocateur, Jarman made films that were polemical by their very existence, yet intensely, and occasionally inscrutably, personal in substance. Frankly homoerotic, they queered the history of Shakespeare, Caravaggio, and Wittgenstein, to say nothing of Saint Sebastian and Jesus Christ. As AIDS hysteria and homophobia mounted in the 1980s, Jarman sharpened his knives and strengthened his stance.

But however much Jarman’s films were a response to their times, they also stood apart from them. With the exception of Jubilee (1977), all of Jarman’s narrative works are set in a stylized past, and his Super 8 collage films take place in a dreamscape that is recognizable one minute and utterly alien the next. Jarman’s exploration of sexuality (both on film and as described in a series of memoirs) was politicized by its context, but the films are too fluid to serve primarily, or even principally, as works of activism.

Sometimes fusing the personal and political, and sometimes pitting them against each other, Jarman’s films are animated by the interplay between past and present, accuracy and anachronism, nostalgia and protest. They are, quite often and quite openly, at war with themselves, tied to national and cinematic traditions and rebelling against them. If there were a Derek Jarman of today, he or she might be as preoccupied with shunning Jarman’s influence as succumbing to it.

Jarman's influence on the first wave of what become known as New Queer Cinema was palpable; it is hard to imagine Poison, Swoon, or The Hours and Times without his pioneering example. His bloodline has since become harder to trace, drowned out by a glut of boy-meets-boy romantic comedies. But there are signs a Jarman revival is in the offing. The Sundance premiere of Isaac Julien's affectionate portrait, Derek, kicked off a year that has included an exhibition at London's Serpentine Gallery, retrospectives in Seoul and Portland, and Zeitgiest Film's Glitterbox, which collects, for the first time in the U.S., four films from Jarman's last decade: The Angelic Conversation, Caravaggio, Wittgenstein, and Blue. (Unofficially joining the festivities is Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, whose virtual rewrite of The Last of England suggests that, at least in certain corners of the cinephile universe, Jarman's influence is alive and well.)

Jarman’s ambivalent relationship to tradition is evident as far back as Jubilee, his second narrative feature. A bleak, mordant satire, Jubilee has been called “the first punk film,” but Jarman’s stance is that of a morbidly intrigued noncombatant, not a true believer. Rather than echoing the Sex Pistols’ assault on the nationalist celebrations tied to Queen Elizabeth II’s 25 years on the throne, Jarman casts his lot with the first Queen Elizabeth, framing the punk explosion as a dystopian vision conjured by her court astrologer four centuries earlier. Jubilee’s punks are not revolutionaries but violent, sexually rapacious sociopaths eager to sell what few ideals they have for a shot at commercial exploitation.

Jarman’s equivocation is tangibly apparent in the dual casting of Jenny Runacre as the sorrowful Queen Bess and the punks’ sneering leader, Bod. Tilda Swinton, Jarman’s confidante, muse, and now the keeper of his flame, has said that the central characters in his films invariably come to resemble their creator: He is the artist trying to carve out a body of personal work amid commercial and political constraints in Caravaggio (1986); the philosopher wrestling with the relationship between language and the physical world in Wittgenstein (1993). But often, his surrogates are manifold. In War Requiem (1989), the first project Jarman began after learning he was HIV-positive, he is easily identified with the soldier watching his comrades die at the front, traversing a landscape clogged with muck and death. But he is also Swinton’s nurse, ministering helplessly to the wounded and unleashing a cry of silent rage while pressing her fingers to her eyes.

The Angelic Conversation
(1985) grew out of preparations for an exhibition of the Super 8 footage Jarman had been shooting regularly during what his biographer, Tony Peake, refers to as “the montage years,” the six-year period, coinciding with the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s reign, during which Jarman struggled to fund Caravaggio and a number of other abortive projects.

While shooting the projected Super 8 images with a video camera, Jarman saw how the pre-existing footage could be incorporated into a film about artistic exile, death, and the enduring power and loneliness of love, which fused with a separate proposal for a film based on Shakespeare’s sonnets. Drawing principally on the sonnets addressed to a male lover, the movie is a frank expression of gay desire at a time when AIDS-related hysteria was at its peak. But it is also filled with elements of Jarman’s private symbology: a man hoisting barrels and wrapping his muscled arms around a crossbeam, simultaneously evoking labor and crucifixion. As Jarman later explained, “I came to the ideas after I made the film, as we cut it together.” Among the most resonant images is that of a figure engaged in a violent dance, his shadow cast heavily on the wall behind him—a man locked in combat with himself.

The long-gestating Caravaggio followed in 1986, a more transparent portrait of an artist struggling for self-expression. Citing Caravaggio’s paintings rather than his biography as proof of his attraction to men, Jarman made him a character of overwhelming and even destructive passions. Writing mutely on his deathbed, Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) recalls in voiceover, “I painted myself as Bacchus, and took on his fate—a wild, orgiastic dismembering.”

Although Caravaggio makes use of pronounced anachronisms, they principally serve to explicate character traits: a greedy banker punches numbers into a tiny gold calculator; Caravaggio’s rough-trade life model and eventual lover, Ranuccio (Sean Bean), arrives on a motorbike. The movie makes no overt reference to contemporary political debates, and is certainly not as polemical as Edward II (1991), where the 16th-century narrative is literally invaded by the present day, in the form of protesters from the militant gay-rights group OutRage.

But the specter of AIDS looms in Caravaggio, where eroticism and physical danger are constantly linked. Caravaggio and Ranuccio enjoy their first kiss only after Ranuccio has plunged a dagger into Caravaggio’s abdomen and smeared his face with blood. At a fancy-dress party thrown by Caravaggio’s wealthy patrons, Ranuccio’s lover, Lena (Tilda Swinton), sneaks off to tryst with a wealthy prelate in catacombs clogged with moldering skeletons.

The distinction between past and present, or between historical truth and personalized fiction, was of little interest to Jarman—or at least, he saw no need to come down on one side or the other. He freely invented elements of Caravaggio’s life, not least the romantic triangle on which the movie’s plot hinges. His next movie, The Last of England, incorporated large chunks of Jarman’s own past in the form of home movies of his childhood. The audio snippets of Hitler’s speeches serve on one hand as a broadside against the encroaching fascism of the Thatcher era, but also as a totem of Jarman’s birth in the midst of World War II.

The Last of England, known at one point under the working title Victorian Values, was a blunt attack on Thatcher’s promise to restore the mores of an earlier time. But the movie is not reducible to a one-sided polemic. Jarman’s vision of a bombed-out Britain, a landscape of industrial wreckage and blood-red skies, is founded on an unspoken and only briefly glimpsed ideal of an unsullied past, most poignantly realized in the footage of Jarman’s grandparents, filmed before he was born. In mourning a past Jarman never knew, the movie surpasses even the party of Thatcher in its idealistic vision of a bygone time, even as it rages against the country’s rightward drift. No wonder one of his Jubliee collaborators called Jarman “a radical Tory.”

By the end of The Last of England, tradition has become a trap. In its bravura final sequence, the movie seems to rage against such small-c conservatism. Tilda Swinton, previously glimpsed in a sunlit idyll, reappears as a blushing bride whose wedded bliss quickly turns sour. Appearing in a postapocalyptic ruin of burnt-out tenements, she slashes at her wedding dress, emitting savage, silent howls of anguish.

Jarman learned he was HIV-positive during the editing of The Last of England, a development that considerably radicalized his films and his life. The disdain expressed by The Last of England’s narrator for protesters leading “neat little marches down blind alleys” contributed to Jarman’s increasingly confrontational approach to political action, although it found its expression more in the public sphere than in his work. Publicly declaring his HIV status, Jarman was thrown into the limelight in a way that even the controversy over his films had never achieved.

The Garden (1990), the last of Jarman’s Super 8 collage films, explores the downside of his newfound prominence. Much of the movie was shot at Prospect Cottage, Jarman’s rural retreat in Dungeness, home to an elaborate garden that is sometimes counted among his great works. But Jarman’s earthly Eden is invaded by paparazzi and surrounded by blinding stage lights. At other times, Jarman himself is the invader, filming a male subject who slaps angrily at the lens.

In one of the quasi-narrative threads that wend their way through The Garden, two men meet and fall in love, holding hands in front of footage of a gay pride parade, while an Audrey Hepburn look-alike sings the “Think Pink” number from Funny Face. But their private romance is later turned to public humiliation and symbolic crucifixion. Jarman himself appears in black-and-white as a sleeping figure, anxiously dreaming the movie’s visions at his desk, and in color on a bed stranded in shallow water, curled into a fetal position as figures in white robes and carrying flares run circles around him.

As AIDS-related lesions began to destroy Jarman’s sight, his images grew starker and more abstract. In Wittgenstein (1993), his final narrative, brightly colored sets rise out of blackness like islands in an inky stream. Fuck Me Blind, a painting produced around the same time, takes the form of words scratched into a canvas smeared with black paint.

Inspired by Yves Klein’s monochrome canvases, Blue (1993), Jarman’s final film, dispenses with image entirely. The screen is a solid, unwavering block of color, matched to a complex audio collage of interwoven voices and ambient sounds. The film is, of necessity, a meditation on death, those of Jarman’s friends as well as his own. But it is also a final, coruscating burst of insight. “At the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image,” says one of the film’s disembodied voices, and the movie is indeed a release: from image, from the scrim of fiction, and from the elaborate symbolic language of Jarman’s late features.

A narrator names the color “universal blue—an open door to soul—an infinite possibility becoming tangible.” Although the image’s hue never varies, the film’s four narrators describe it variously as cobalt, lapis, cornflower, and delphinium. Even rendered sightless, Jarman finds new ways of seeing the world. A gallows-humor account of doctors’ visits mixes with an evocative apostrophe and an absurdist choir whose profane hymns make hash of identity politics in multi-part harmony. Literalizing the polyphonic nature of Jarman’s work, Blue is a symphony of divergent, but not conflicting, voices.

Blue is Jarman’s most dramatic break with traditional film narrative, but it is also his simplest and most direct statement of purpose, one that fully meets the artist’s duty laid out in Caravaggio: to repeat an old truth in new language. 

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Courtesy Zeitgeist Films
Derek Jarman's Caravaggio
Photo Gallery: Look Back in Anger

RELATED CALENDAR ENTRY

June 27-July 10, 2008 Derek Jarman
July 11-31, 2008 Of Angels and Apocalypse: The Cinema of Derek Jarman

THE AUTHOR

Sam Adams is a Contributing Editor at Philadelphia City Paper and a regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer. His writing on movies, music and popular culture has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Film Comment, and The A.V. Club. His essays on Two-Lane Blacktop and Greendale will appear in the forthcoming National Society of Film Critics anthology The B List.

More articles by Sam Adams