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Derek

Derek(2008)

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Derek (2008), written, narrated -- and driven -- by Tilda Swinton and directed by Isaac Julien, is a labor of love in which love overrides labor. If one's confrontation of one's own death is the ultimate measure of grace and style, Derek Jarman (1942-1994) was more than England's foremost queer cinema icon, gay activist and anti-Thatcherite point man. He was an impressive free spirit who even at the end, when blind and dying of AIDS, gave the impression of mustering, with no fuss at all, astonishingly buoyant, ethereal charm and wit. At one point during the copious interview footage with him, when asked what he would like to leave behind of himself and his work, he smiles and says, with the blunt simplicity of a man reconciled to slipping the moorings, "I want to evaporate."

Because Jarman was so fiercely a man of his time, he had already taken on something of a time-capsule aspect, bridging the political and the punk poles of anti-Thatcherism. But this film's admiring tenacity will keep him from fading into yesteryear as swiftly as he might otherwise have. One of Britain's first high-profile figures to openly declare his HIV-positive status, he took care not to allow the fight for gay rights to become folded into the larger spectrum of political protest. Superficial comparisons have been made between Jarman and Andy Warhol, partly because Jarman's Arthouse collective seemed an analogue to Warhol's Factory. But it won't do to push them too far. Warhol was enervated emptiness. Jarman was all cutting-edge urgency.

Warhol cultivated passivity, was about externals. Jarman and those around him went deeper. It was possible to be a Factory denizen and not actually do anything much beyond strike poses and hope you looked cool doing it. Jarman the art student veered away from art when he says he realized quite quickly that he was average, which wasn't, of course, good enough. He arrived just in time to be bowled over by La Dolce Vita (1960) and Scorpio Rising (1964). After sojourns in New York City and California, he returned to London, met David Hockney and Ken Russell, and never looked back. He wound up building sets for Russell's The Devils (1971). By the time he began shooting his own films focusing on gay life, in Super 8 and in poverty, he says he was convinced there was no connection between his world and the Ken Russell world.

Eventually, there was, sort of. And not just in Jarman's wicked reworking of Russell's film in his own The Devils at the Elgin (1974). Both were caught up in the sort of evocative, associative juxtapositions of images in non-linear narrative thrusts that critics, at a loss to better describe, loosely called psychedelic. Jarman's were more focused though, and stronger. It's in the films that comparisons between Jarman and Warhol break down utterly. Warhol was a slick illustrator whose genius may have been in his ability to keep silent, masking the fact that he had nothing to say while being deemed inscrutable. In a time when art blatantly became a commodity, an investment vehicle for nouveau riche collectors seeking kinds of social cachet unavailable from, say, futures in gold or pork bellies, Warhol maxed out the link between art and manufactured commodity. Jarman and his set had things to say, and said them intensely, if not always coherently. In purpose and energy levels, they're polar opposites.

Jarman made dozens of films, many with homoerotic agendas. Derek includes clips from 17 of them, and they frankly suffer a bit from being too scattershot and uncontextualized. Sebastiane (1976), shot mostly in Sardinia, put him on the map. Those arrows in the side of the saint-to-be advanced a sado-masochistic element that repeatedly surfaced, most notably in Edward II (1991), in which Jarman's reworking of Marlowe's dark medieval world included a then notorious red-hot poker scene. Like Jarman's Caravaggi (1986), it's an esthetic crossroads where sexuality and criminality intersect. Jubilee (1978) is an exuberant goulash of punk mischief, anti-royalist and, by not too far an extension, anti-Thatcherite, although not as effective or as esthetically ambitious as his outrage-filled bull's eye, The Last of England (1988). (Outrage, not so much a play on words as a rapier-like literal use of them, was the collective banner under which he staged and participated in many a political demonstration.) His lament for what he saw as the death of much he loved about his country continued in War Requiem (1989), in which he streamed evocative imagery against Benjamin Britten's masterpiece, itself inspired by the impassioned pacifism of Wilfred Owen's WWI battlefield poetry. Jarman's own requiem for his dying self, Blue (1993), is a heartbreaking leave-taking, with his voice and Swinton's evoking keening poetic images against a blue screen.

Given his themes, Jarman's films could easily have stayed at the level of illustrated placards. But his imagery was subtle and imaginative and, it hardly seems necessary to add, advanced independent filmmaking in England and elsewhere. Through so many of his more memorable ones strides Tilden, a tall, latter-day Scottish Joan of Arc, with her flaming red hair and fierce eyes dispelling the glamour that seems so ready to attach itself to her swanny bearing. Part of the bond between them may have been their discovery that each came from a military family. Swinton has said she regards herself as a soldier. One can believe it. Her conviction is so unquestionably, ferociously sincere that she can get away with writing and speaking likes like, "The formula merchants are out in force," making us forget her Oscar and her appearance on international best-dressed lists. Here, dressed down, she is seen, punctuating the film clips, marching through London with a restlessness akin to Jarman's, lamenting the loss of the purity of intention he brought to his work. And which she has brought to hers. Hauntingly, she suggests a soul searching against gray skies for someone and something precious she lost. When she was on art's barricades, Swinton wasn't kidding. You could do a lot worse in the muse department.

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by Jay Carr