AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
A WINDSWEPT STORMY SEA-GARDEN
by Harlan Kennedy
You do not yet taste some subtilties o' the isle, that will not let you believe things certain... ─W.S.
Extinguish your preconceptions; slip your mind into a receptive position; welcome to the world of British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Those who enter it are seldom the same again. And those who stand back to frown or censure condemn themselves to miss out on one of the oddest, bravest bodies of work in modern cinema.
We knew what we were in for, or could have guessed, 23 years ago. Jarman's first movie – called Derek
Jarman Film Diary or Studio Bankside –
was shot on Super-8 in 1970. A
ten-minute cut-up impromptu filmed
in his Thameside studio in
All this and, just under the floorboards, the ghost of William Shakespeare. For Jarman's studio, now demolished, was on the sight of none other than the old Globe Theatre. This adds weight to the suspicion some Britons have long had: that Derek Jarman is old Bill the Bard himself, reborn for the late 20th century.
His career sits up and begs for the phrase "renaissance man" He's a poet and diarist, painter and designer (from opera and ballet to Ken Russell's The Devils and Savage Messiah), and the most perversely independent filmmaker in England. He made the homoerotic Sebastiane, the punk Tempest, the Thatcher-bashing The Last of England, the gay-rights Edward II, the pop-Brechtian Wittgenstein. He's also an occasional actor – in his own Caravaggio and The Garden – as well as a gay activist and prolific interviewee.
But Jarman isn't Mr. Renaissance, he's Mr. Post-Renaissance. That's the secret of his place in British cinema and his uniquely powerful (nec)romantic vision. That first short movie was the work of a bricolage artist in love not with perfection but with fallen perfection; not with harmony but with the forensic fragments and lost chords of a bygone Utopia, an unrecapturable past.
Like his idol and spiritual ancestor Michael Powell ("the only British feature director whose work is in the first rank"), Jarman is a looker-back at golden ages: chiefly at an England/Europe that once or never was. And he finds his alter egos among men-who-came-after like the philosopher Wittgenstein, kicking against classical philosophy, or the painter Caravaggio, warping quattrocento idealism into the gymnastic emotional articulations that would lead on to Baroque.
Jarman's art – not just his films but his caustic-melancholy poetry and tachist-lyrical
paintings – is a bonfire of human vanity.
It rejoices in the possibility that if you reduce Progress, Prosperity, and established cultural Priorities
to ashes, you'll find a new
Born in the genteel
Just as mischief-making have been his writings, paintings, sayings, and doings. His diary-memoirs Dancing Ledge and Modern Nature, two of five books of discursive self-portraiture he's
published, have bits of gay confessional that read like a Cruiser's Guide to London's Heathland. His canvases range from early Pop abstracts impaled with 3-D trimmings (real water faucets), via satiric crucifixions, to the paintings gathered for his 1989
exhibit "Queer": smears of
excremental impasto over cut-out newspaper headlines (SEX
Today Jarman's rebel romanticism sits oddly – but oddly majestically
– on a 51-year-old man who, as
That single color is projected sans alteration, inflection, or interruption. Only the odd blemish on the celluloid or explosion of scratches at end of reel affords variety: those and the volatile perceptions of the viewer, nudged to see subtle visual changes even when there aren't any (see under K for Kuleshov) by the film's amazing soundtrack.
This aural cut-up of voices, music, and sound effects could be a career bookend to the imagistic cut-up with which Jarman and we began. There are musings on art, color, and infinity: "Blue transcends the
solemn geography of human limits." There are dispatches from the AIDS front-line: "The doctor in St. Bartholomew's Hospital thought he could detect lesions in my retina... `Look up, look down'... blue
flashes in my eyes." There are
fantasy sound-trips to far-off
times or places: a café in
The movie doesn't so much move forward as swell around us. It's about an artist's vision intensifying with failing sight. "In the bottom of your heart" says the voiceover, "you pray to be released from image." And we are: released from it into new-created powers of seeing. The color blue suggests all the things Jarman most loves: sea and sky, favorite plants (cornflowers, delphiniums). It is also for Jarman the AIDS victim the portcullis of his mortality: blue, the color he kept seeing when doctors treated his deteriorating sight.
Blue has its meaning and power for the audience, too. At first as featureless-looking as a trampoline, it soon becomes as versatile and animating. Thoughts bounce off it higher and higher, propelled by its elastic invocations from ocean depth to furthest firmament. Colors creep in where there are none: blink and you see its polar hue in the spectrum, orange. Space is displaced: blink again and the single screen-rectangle overlappingly multiplies like a Cubist painting. And other invocations flood in from art or literature. Blue the color of forbidden erotic cinema; blue the color of Arcadian melancholy from Poussin to Picasso. Above all, that "little tent of blue' Wilde saw through his jail cell window that became one gay martyr's badge of dissonant freedom handed down to others.
Blue's triumph is to dissolve a dichotomy that's been at the heart of Jarman's cinema for twenty years. He
The "experimental" movies – not just the early shorts but the feature-length ballads or broadsides in nonnarrative
form like The Angelic
Conversation or The Last of
Another early film, Pontormo
Punks at Santa Croce ('82), showcases a fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist, traveled
over in Jarman's stop-start slow motion – every detail of faces,
gestures, and drapery fixed on for that
serial millisecond that will store it in the witness's memory bank. Later medium-length experimental films like Imagining October ('84) and In
the Shadow of the Sun ('80)
extend the style of flicker-book expressionism
while reemphasizing its roots in painting. October is about the act of
painting: 27 minutes of fire-licked images depicting the creation of a
Socialist Realist–style canvas of British soldiers carrying a red flag. (The film was
inspired by a trip to
In his book Dancing Ledge, Jarman gives an idea of how painterly in another sense – the budget-improvising, artist-in-garret sense – movies like In the Shadow of the Sun were. "The camera I used was a simple NIXO 480 which cost £ 140. Most of the sections were filmed for the price of the stock, usually about £20 – some lavish sequences, the fiery images for instance, had a budget: costumes £5, sawdust £4, paraffin £2, roses £10, candles £4.50, notebook £ 1, taxis £5."
Jarman's technique in these films extends that lyrical shoestring staccato first fashioned in Derek Jarman Film Diary. One of his standard methods is to film on Super-8 at three to six frames per second, then project the footage at the same rate (often on his livingroom wall) while recording it anew on normal-speed VHS video. Result: a fluid, dream-like stop-motion that, together with the blurry-oneiric textures of the "degraded" footage, makes the movie resemble a painting half-come to life.
The Angelic Conversation and
The Last of
The Last of England ('87)
– loathed by British critics almost
as much as The Angelic
Conversation was loved – applies the
same visual pixilations to a landscape where past beauty is under threat from present brutality. The film's title comes from a Victorian painting showing two exile-bound newlyweds in a boat gazing their last at British shores. In Jarman's metaphor for 1986, the whole population is looking its last on
All these technically adventurous movies, long and short, seek out the hidden atomic energy in places, people, and events by splitting the atom of the image or the sequence itself. Action is filmed, then un-filmed (i.e., slowed to virtual standstill), then re-filmed. Never deconstructionist in the dry sense – Jarman once said that branch of avant-gardism was "like calling water H2O" – the films take a dead past or elusive present and use their fissioning imagery to create what Jarman calls "a shimmering mystery/energy."
It's a cine-optical version of what goes on in his other artworks. Opera designs for a Gielgud-produced Don
Giovanni (skittery abstract
shapes suggesting predatory tricorn hats)
or for a Ken Russell Rake's Progress (giant dinosaur skeleton as proscenium arch; last scene set in a subway station) subject classic texts to a wittily seismic molecular reconstruction. And his paintings – even the
semilyrical landscapes of his beloved Dungeness –
seek a destructive energy in their
subjects' cores as a warranty of
the desired rebirth. The key to death is the key to life. Who else,
after all, with the whole of
Jumping from Jarman's experimental cinema to his more mainstream story-films should shock us with contrast, and sometimes does. In Jubilee and Caravaggio and Edward II there are clear lines – narrative, visual, thematic – and well-known actors reciting recognizable dialogue in recognizable (if sometimes spoofed-up) settings. But a similar decon–recon impulse is at work. The manner changes, not the post-Renaissance matter, nor the hunger for a lost wholeness of soul and society that stands Jarman in the same relation to post-greatness Britain as Caravaggio to Italy-after-Michelangelo or Webster and Jonson to England-after-Shakespeare.
Jarman's narrative movies are a mirror-play between diffèrent phases of history. One of his early shorts, The Art of Mirrors ('73), an eerie arabesque involving three costumed figures playing light-semaphore with a square of glass, could be a mocking template for his later approach to story cinema. Modern sensibility is used to reflect and refract the past – to offer reversals, multiplications, dazzlements – and the invocations here are literary as much as painterly. If the experimental movies are indebted to Blake and Turner, the narrative feature films owe as much to Jonathan Swift or Laurence Sterne.
Dystopic worlds lit by shafts of bilious humor. Characters in whom grandeur and aspiration are punctured by bathos and shaggy-dog non sequitur. Where Jarman's experimental films shatter form with lyric formlessness, his story-films and biopics use satire, surrealism, anachronism, and comic lèse-majesté to crack the tablets of received wisdom about what makes political, intellectual, or artistic "greatness"
In Jubilee ('78), Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) is a time-tripping monarch visiting the New Elizabethan age – London in the year of Liz II's silver jubilee – and finding a world of punks, drug addicts, and
Between these two movies came Jarman's most ambitious and longest-nurtured bio feature, Caravaggio ('86): six years in the planning and once intended for the full Cinecittâ treatment. Two early drafts were co-written with Visconti scenarist Suso Cecchi d'Amico. It's the filmmaker's most serious study of the interface between a man and his myth, and between history and hindsight. It's also Jarman the painter's study of his own craft, using a 17th century painter, rebel, and rumored homosexual as his alter ego.
As Nigel Terry's Caravaggio turns his life and friends into paint – the canvases-in-progress juxtaposed with the straining models, from restless Cardinals to dressed-up street urchins – the film itself seems to agonize between motion and stillness. And at times between vitality and torpor. For this is Jarman sailing perilously close to routine biopickery: risking entrapment by the very hagiographic solemnity he's spent his life attacking.
But between the sober genius-at-work sequences, Jarman slips in the decadent Cardinals, a high camp Pope (the Great Orlando, the circus performer who earlier served as The Tempest's mincing Caliban), and time-slip incongruities (motor-bikes, pocket calculators, Italian neorealist clothes). Here his zest for iconoclasm holds history upside down by the ankles and shakes out all the small change. Caravaggio at its keenest, like Sebastiane or The Garden, or like Jarman's mischievous early painting series "Magic Copes" (mock-religious canvases designed to be wrapped round the body and celebrating the four elements), disconcerts the historical-hieratic by eliding times and spaces; and by washing up all the witticisms and wisdoms that hindsight can license onto some terminal beach of wry retrospection.
Even when tackling high art rather than high artist – when commandeering texts like The Tempest ('79) and
Edward II ('91) – Jarman subjects them to rebaptism by hindsight and by forced submersion
in his own time and culture. All this director's movies are about modern
Anachronism in Jarman is not just a pretty device. It's a way of yoking Then to Now; of insisting that the distance-counter on art's
cultural time-machine can be put back to
zero suddenly and at will. Thus The Tempest, Shakespeare's late fantasy large with post-Renaissance longing and vanishing magic, becomes Jarman's
elegiac-witty tribute to a Swinging
This was too much for some critics, including Vincent Canby, whose New York Times review – if that word does justice to a delinquent assault by mixed metaphor – helped to close The Tempest and set back Jarman's
As for Christopher Marlowe in Edward II, he gets the anachronism treatment with a vengeance. Jarman knows that Gay King Eddie, killed by Marlowe with a red-hot poker up his ass (no historical corroboration for this), could be a gift of a martyr figure for modern times. So he modernizes him. Lots of leather, shaven heads, and gay rights demos. Annie Lennox singing Cole Porter under a spotlight. Tilda Swinton as Joan Collins as Queen Isabella. And the rebel Earl Mortimer heading up a Home Counties fox-hunting crowd, their uppercrust accents as braying as their hunting horns. In addition, Marlowe's dialogue is freely tampered with, four-letter words thrown about like shrapnel and tactical-ballistic line changes like "Is it not strange?" becoming "Is it not queer?"
The Tempest and Edward II both highlight the overlap between Jarman's experimental cinema and his up-budget, anti-Masterpiece Theatre canon. Movies like Gerald's Film, Imagining October, and The Angelic Conversation destructure idyllic frescoes in order to revitalize them. Reality is shaken into a movie pointillism; the art of perceiving becomes at once more scientific and more lyrical.
In the narrative features a different kind of idyll is dismantled: it's the comfort we feel in the presence of a biopicked "genius"
(Caravaggio, Wittgenstein) or a filmed "masterpiece" (The Tempest,
Edward 11, War Requiem). Jarman's
postrenaissance impulse, like the postimpressionist scientism of Seurat's pointillism or Cézanne's proto-cubism, demands that Golden Age art and thought be celebrated not by a weak, invertebrate nostalgia or hagiography,
but by a ruthless restretching of the old canvases on modern frameworks. No wonder Jarman gets scant support, moral or financial, from a mainstream British
film industry that likes its idylls and
the jewels in its country's cultural crown
preserved intact. All those chariots
of fire; all those expensive travel brochures
Jarman has never made a movie for a million pounds sterling in his life. His most expensive was Edward II at £800,000 ($1.3 million). Lay all his budgets end to end and you might finance the first twelve minutes of Gandhi. He's never claimed a virtue for this exigency – Caravaggio ended up at a mere £450,000, though he once had hopes of a multimillion-pound budget – but he's also never shown fondness for the British big boys who abandoned their country (as he sees) to chase the bucks in Hollywood. When British Film Year tootled its trumpets back in 1985, hailing the Scotts and Parkers and Puttnams as our great white hopes, Jarman was right in there flinging mud.
This penurious patriotism takes odd and diverse forms. Jarman the misfit messiah can make The Last of England, a blast of hate at the perceived divisions of a new Tory Britain where "Victorian values" the pursuit of wealth and the intended restoration of the nation's greatness led (he argues) to a storm-trooper climate of suppression, censorship, and class hatred. Yet Jarman the patriot-romantic can also make a War Requiem ('88), his tribute of tears to a generation of lost soldiers. This film puts pictures to Benjamin Britten's oratorio based on the First World War poems of Wilfred Owen. Among those pictures: home-movie footage from Jarman's own childhood (including glimpses of his Royal Air Force dad), shots of Lord Olivier in his last movie being wheeled around by nurse Tilda Swinton (the Olivier voice declaiming Owen s verse on the soundtrack), and a large supply – too large – of religious imagery, from crowns-of-thorns to crucifixes, memorializing British martyrdom.
War Requiem was a commissioned project,
and seems it. One doesn't doubt Jarman's
sincerity, but it's thinly stretched.
How thin is demonstrated by his next
and, with Blue, his greatest film: The Garden ('90).
There is patriotism here, too, but
it's more mysterious, more sensual,
more touching: a pastoral paean to
The Garden is a feature film in that it tells a story, has actors, and lasts 90 minutes. It's also an experimental film that plays games with continuity, rejoices in "forbidden" images (male nudity, gay love, mock-crucifixion), and uses Jarman's old friends, Super-8 and video, to turn cinematography into painting-by-celluloid. Retelling two Bible stories – the Expulsion and the Crucifixion – it turns them into gay fables and surrounds that metamorphosis with a vaster, stranger, more volatile quasi-nuclear mythscape.
The Garden was filmed on
Dungeness beach in
While the movie's "chorus" – a row of old women at a (last-)supper table – sit at the beach's edge like Norns or distaff Disciples, the sea behind them sparkles with sudden silver or a stray galleon, and the sky grows bright or dark, red or purple, big with cloud or throbbing with thunder. The metamorphic background so disarms us that we surrender willingly to the weird happenings in the foreground. Scribes and Pharisees recast as flashbulbing paparazzi; Adam and Eve as Adam and Adam; Christ as a pair of male lovers set before a sauna-bath hulk crawling serpentlike through the sand clutching a dildo.
Not so much faux-naïf as fauve-naïf. The propagandist blasphemies are full-frontal and the film comes on at times like a school Bible pageant hijacked by Pasolini. It brings up – how couldn't it? – the vexed matter of how important gay themes are to a gay artist. Whenever he's away from a movie camera and/or near a TV camera, Jarman loudly insists that he's a champion of gay causes first and a filmmaker or artist second. Sample pronouncement: "The films are of no consequence and no interest. They're only there for other reasons: to encourage the debate about law reform and to give a sense of solidarity to people who may feel isolated" But the more The Garden hammers its gay themes, the more it knocks right through them to find a broader, louder, more resonant anvil.
There is a planetary pantheism here, as in all Jarman's best work. We sense it in the opening metafictions of The Garden's soundtrack, with the director's voice heard crying "That's all right! That's a brilliant rehearsal!" The film itself is to be just one mark on the canvas. We are here to celebrate, through the film, everything around the film. The process that brought it into being; the landscape that inspired and cradled it; the anything-goes input of its cast, including a rousing "Think pink" musical number by a girl resembling a demented Avon lady. Hardly surprising that Jarman insists, Warhol-like, that he merely guides the creative process while his Factory hands man the levers, watch the dials, make many of the on-floor decisions. The Garden, he claims, was even edited in his absence (he was ill at the time).
Perhaps Jarman believes in a Golden Age of creative togetherness. Or maybe he just realizes that every "personal" signature is written in sand and sooner or later someone will scuff over the traces. He himself has been written out of history more than once. When Ian Charleson starred in Chariots of Fire, the actor was persuaded at producer David Puttnam's insistence to drop his credit in the controversial Jubilee, in which he had also appeared, from his press filmography. (Jarman was not among those sending tributes when the actor later died of AIDS.) And when Peter Greenaway made Prospero's Books in 1989, in which Sir John Gielgud playing Prospero voiced all the roles, there was no acknowledgment of another piquant precedent. In 1975 Derek Jarman planned a Tempest in which Sir John as Prospero "was to have played all the characters" (see Dancing Ledge, published 1984). Sometimes it seems Jarman has all the brainwaves in British cinema and those who come after reap or steal the benefit.
What matter. His legacy is rich enough, multiform enough already; and should Blue be his last film, it will also be his last act of curious, moving, transcendent self-annihilation. Beyond plagiarism; beyond the curses of censors or the grappling hooks of philistines. A film with no pictures, no story, no beginning, middle, or end.... Just an attempt to frame infinity. And to prove that it's a single color made up from all the colors of the earthly, finite world that Jarman has spent a lifetime loving and honoring.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE NOV-DEC 1993 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.