The Arresting Cinema of Derek Jarman

❉ An appreciation of the intensely personal vision of Derek Jarman.

“I never wanted to be a filmmaker” – in an interview for Face To Face, a year before his death in 1994, Derek Jarman admitted that cinema wasn’t anything he’d seriously considered, but it’s probably his films for which one of British cinema’s greatest enfants terrible is best remembered.  Yet he was an artistic polymath; a painter, set designer, filmmaker, writer, gardener, and activist whose real talents didn’t just lie in any one of these mediums.

Derek Jarman

Had he lived, Jarman would now be 75 and I expect his voice would still be as loud and controversial as ever.  Throughout his life he challenged the public with his view of society and, in particular, its perceptions of gay sexuality and, latterly, HIV & AIDS.  His work, especially his writing and a great many of his films, are intensely personal visions.

After studying art at Slade, Jarman drifted into set design; firstly in theatre and opera and then working with Ken Russell on two films – which included The Devils.  After this he began working on his first film, Sabastiene, which was filmed on a shoestring, in Latin, directed by a man who was really making it up as he went along.  The result was a visually arresting, strange, and beautiful film – something which could easily be applied to the majority of his films – which presented male sexuality in a way seldom seen in the cinema of the time.

His next films were, effectively, state of the nation films. Jubilee was an examination of the cultural phenomena of punk and a clever look at how art could be subverted and commercialised. It comes across as far more cynical and ultimately realistic depiction than the narcissism of Malcom McLaren’s The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, whilst his modern setting of Shakespeare’s The Tempest is both strangely faithful to the text whilst indulging in some truly avant garde moments.  His work clearly shocked the establishment at a time when British cinema became increasingly backwards looking.

The next half decade saw Jarman marginalised and one major work was the beautiful Angelic Conversation, which Jarman himself later famously described as “a 78 minute wank movie” but his main problem was finding funding for his work on a film of the life of Italian painter Caravaggio.

With the advent of Channel 4, funding finally became available and it was through this that Jarman was able to utilise their support to continue making films in the way he wanted.

The thing that changed everything was testing positive for the HIV virus in December 1986. Jarman’s response to HIV was fearless, he announced his diagnosis within months and spent the rest of his life defying public perception of a disease few knew much about, let alone understood.  Today many see Freddie Mercury as something of an icon but he disclosed his HIV status just 24 hours before his death; yet he is cast as something tragic, someone cruelly taken too soon.  Jarman was anything but tragic.  He wrote in his diaries about the effects of the virus, the terrible ups and downs he endured as it progressed, the debilitating side effects of the drugs he took, and how – at times – doctors felt his body was almost cheating death.

It had a galvanising effect on his creative output.  His plan had been to direct an adaptation of Marlow’s play Edward II but by the time he finally produced that he had directed four other films as well as creating a number of pop videos.  These included a suite of 3 for The Smiths, shot on super 8 film (echoing his own first forays into film-making some of which were later complied for the video/DVD Glitterbug) and some memorable work with the Pet Shop Boys which included costumes and backdrops for their first tour and the video for the singles It’s A Sin and Rent.

Some films he made were intensely personal and often quite experimental.  Last Of England utilised some of the techniques he used in pop videos and mirrored many of the mashup/video scratching techniques deployed by avant garde filmmakers of the time.  It was a harrowing post-apocalyptic vision of a Britain in crisis and a savage attack on the Thatcher government of the day.  The Garden used his home at Prospect Cottage as its backdrop telling a surreal tale of love and homophobia with Biblical undertones.  Of all his works these are probably his most personal and a reminder that Jarman’s work was rooted deeply in the underground cinema of his youth in the 60’s.

His other two films of the time, Edward II and Wittgenstein, were based on sources from others.  Marlowe’s Edward II is unashamedly queer, visually arresting, and a more conventionally structured piece yet its violent and claustrophobic power has dimmed little in the passing years.  Wittgenstein was made from a script by academic Terry Eagleton.  It’s a film about philosophy and the ideas of an unconventional man and Jarman has great fun producing something both deeply intellectual yet full of visual quirks.  He was constantly creating with his regular creation of his own paintings and there were books too; ‘Chroma’ about colour and its importance in art and ‘At Your Own Risk’ part history of queer resistance, part polemic and also his diaries.

Yet all of his work, whether created in collaboration with those working on his films or writing and painting for himself, reflected a deeply personal vision.  His films reflect his eye as an artist with his equally powerful use of language.  Watching interviews one sees an almost self-effacing humility but, when pressed, he displayed a remarkable passion and a fearlessness to say exactly what he thought, and damn the consequences.

His final film Blue was a meditation on mortality and a tribute to artist Yves Klein comprising of a blue screen, diary extracts, poems, and music.  It makes for a wonderful epitaph to a man for whom the world could sorely do with more of today.

❉ A treasure trove of Derek Jarman features and Jarman Award-winning shorts is now available to watch on the BFI Player

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