powered by AFI
From today's perspective, it seems remarkable that there once was a filmmaker like Derek Jarman, and that there was a time - not the crazy, New Wavey '60s, but the Thatcherite '80s and early '90s - that allowed him to thrive and regularly found room in its international movie theaters for his films. It was a heady time, certainly, when British filmmakers, emboldened by punk culture, fueled by hatred for Thatcherism in all its forms, and funded by the BFI and the new Channel Four, could make experimental, high culture-vs.-low culture-collision movies, doped on structuralism and gender-bending and period-picture mockery. This was the era of Peter Greenaway, Terence Davies, Alex Cox, Neil Jordan, Bruce Robinson, Julian Temple, emigres Stephen and Timothy Quay, Patrick Keiller, Sally Potter, Isaac Julien, the renascent emergences of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, and so on, planting British cinema tempestuously, raucously, back on the world cinema map after years of dire blandness. With a unique, confrontational, celebratorily gay, overtly avant-garde sensibility, Jarman was the moment's jester prince; he never made a film you'd mistake for the work of another artist, or a film that doesn't manifest on the screen as an unpredictably impish riff on serious matters, Art-making and Sex and Death.
Not to mention, Jarman was instrumental in giving gay cinema a chance to be regarded as pioneering art, not just politics, and to evolve into what became known as the New Queer Cinema. Dead in 1994 from AIDS at the age of 52, Jarman was immediately a sadly missed rogue element in contemporary culture, and so Julien's 2008 portrait doc of Jarman, Derek, has the furrowed angst of a requiem. Its emotionalism carries over to form - there are no talking heads (besides Jarman himself), no titles accompanying the film clips, no documented historicization. Only Jarman's reminiscences and Tilda Swinton's ruminative narration provide context; even so, the story is straight-forward, recounting Jarman's youth in Hampshire, his art-school development, and his maturation as a well-traveled artiste in the company of and before the work of everyone from Andy Warhol to David Hockney to Kenneth Anger.
Jarman, it turns out to our good fortune, is a buoyant and brisk raconteur, and the extensive interview sequences Julien and Bernard Rose filmed are full of Brit bonhomie and fastidious recollection. It's a classic if familiar misfit-kid-discovers-himself tale, but what's more interesting, to both Julien and Jarman, is the historical context in which he emerged, and the aesthetic inspirations along the way. Jarman's arsenal of tools was various but distinctive: voguing tableaux, camp ballet, cabaret shtick, poeticized narration, post-Genet softcore iconicity, satiric anachronism, found footage, classical texts, etc. (Add in a tireless fascination with angels, years before Tony Kushner saw AIDS in an angelic light.) But his style, always meta-, freely mutated from film to film. Caravaggio (1986) put him on the map, and in addition to fulfilling the threadbare-erotic promise of Sebastiane (1976), it divided and conquered its relationship with classical culture. Jarman simultaneously reproduced the Italian master's imagery and lighting dynamics (this was done so adroitly it was in turn slavishly co-opted by Tarsem Singh in his famous video for R.E.M.'s "Losing My Religion"), but also insisted on a caricatured, theatrical distance when it came to character and biography, framing art history not as a matter of a lofty past, but of a chaotic, exuberant, aroused now. His actors -- Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton, Dexter Fletcher, Sean Bean -- gesticulate and fume and pose like street performers, and the artificiality of every aspect of the film repercusses around the contrived fauxness of all art. (Hardly anything is lent as much time and patience as the boredom and personality of Caravaggio's models.) Applying a pregnant wit that has escaped both Greenaway and Potter, two filmmakers treading around in roughly the same broad cultural arena, Jarman makes a pastiche out of the artist biopic, while at the same time revealing the process of making art as tangible and as just one factor in an artist's stormy, sexual, emotional life.
Jarman's work ranged from Wittgenstein (1993), which characterized the titular philosopher and the "art" of philosophy in general as cartoonish vaudeville farce, complete with blackened stage background and dialogue with Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and a green-skinned dwarf Martian, to The Last of England (1988), a fierce and bitter collage film condemning the state of the nation , to, finally, Blue (1993). Jarman's terminal work, Blue is famously not quite a movie at all, but a complex narration and soundtrack playing behind (beside? atop?) an empty but bright blue screen. Jarman's text, about the decay of his body and eyesight in the grip of AIDS, and about his closing life already emptied of friends and lovers, is wry and intimate, and its relationship with what you're seeing -- and not seeing -- is, to say the least, disquieting.
Julien's documentary honors Jarman mostly by letting the artist speak for himself, and letting his work stand without comment. (Swinton's self-dramatized wanderings around London are less eloquent.) It is no replacement for experiencing Jarman's brazen films on their own, of course, but rather the kind of high-octane DVD-supplement-ish portrait every great filmmaker deserves, and only occasionally get.
Producer: Colin MacCabe, Eliza Mellor
Director: Isaac Julien
Interviews: Bernard Rose
Cinematography: Nina Kellgren
Editing: Adam Finch
Music: Simon Fisher-Turner
Cast: Tilda Swinton (Narrator), Derek Jarman (archival footage), Isaac Julien (himself).
by Michael Atkinson