Works of art made under the auspices of grave illness or impending demise require a delicate approach from the critic: both an observational clarity and a genuine empathy. Derek Jarman’s final feature-length film Blue (1993) is a freestanding aesthetic construct, but it is nonetheless determined by its existence as a final, courageous act. Even as his health buckled under the strains of the AIDS virus, Jarman continued to produce works not simply considered the heroic gestures of a dying artist, but beautiful films in and of themselves. After his HIV-positive diagnosis in 1986, he released six feature-length films (his first collaboration with Tilda Swinton, the acclaimed film Caravaggio, was released in 1986 before his diagnosis), three short films, and 15 music videos for artists such as The Smiths, the Pet Shop Boys, Suede, and Bob Geldof. Jarman embodied the postmodern, punk version of cupio dissolvi: transcending the fear of death in pursuit of an exuberant life. Blue was first screened during the 1993 Venice Biennale, followed by the Edinburgh Film Festival and the New York Film Festival later that year. In 2014, 20 years after Jarman’s death, a film without images may very well teach us how to look more deeply.
The sweeping, subliminal power of color field paintings, like those of Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko, had seldom been captured onscreen until Jarman’s film, which successfully translates the paintings’ overwhelming experience of captive viewership. The film is a single-shot, saturated flooding of the screen in Yves Klein’s patented International Klein Blue. Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, John Quentin, and Jarman himself serve as narrators against the color field. They recite a loose narrative of the filmmaker’s life; it is interspersed with poetic meditations, descriptions of the bodily ravages of HIV upon him and his friends, and slices of daily routines as he diminishes. Swinton’s voice, bathed in echo, is like an angelic presence whispering to and about the protagonist. An endless list of maladies and side effects (night sweats, psychosis, nausea, chronic joint pain, kidney failure) are ascribed to the only known “therapy” for AIDS patients. To these, the protagonist haplessly responds, “What am I to do?” There are memories of London, the grotesqueries of a hospital ward, elegies, and mythic Eastern rituals. Simon Fisher Turner’s ambient soundtrack (with additional contributions by John Balance, Brian Eno, Momus, Peter Christopherson, Karol Szymanowski, and Erik Satie) accompanies sentences of lucid dreaming laced with quiet resignation. Greek choruses chant twisted descriptions of anal sex, scatalogical fetishism, and sadomasochistic foreplay. Exposing an intensely paranoid and homophobic English social structure, the script includes readings of the public announcements that constantly probed potential sufferers: “HIV? AIDS? Do you have HIV/AIDS?” The buzz and drips of medical equipment at hospital wards are counterbalanced by the thumping waves of bass at a gay club or the gentle simmer of ocean waves. The viewer (more accurately, the audience) is taken by the hand into Jarman’s psychological canvas. Van Gogh’s suicide is imagined as a wicked sea of yellow wheat fields spotted with black crows; Blue suddenly becomes the film’s secondary hero. The protagonist’s companion, simply called “H.B.,” is the one who anchors his senses and delays his panic as his disease progresses. Still, Blue is personified as a savior and sanctuary that even H.B. cannot see or describe. Blue is catharsis, escape, redemption “that transcends the solemn geography of human limits,” while colors like yellow and green are categorized as sick, evil, or menacing.
Marked with a heavy sense of foreboding, the film trembles and pierces like a death rattle. With a running time of one hour and 19 minutes, Jarman’s unwavering blue screen addresses multiple ironies. As his condition deteriorated, Jarman’s permanent field of vision became filtered through a dense blue veil: his own frail existence would, until its terminus, be reflected through a highly specific wavelength. He grieves his imminent death, just as he does with the names of his friends lost to the illness, yet is no martyr to a singular cause. The film is a multi-layered text augmented with the sounds of a world he is bound to miss, but it embraces those senses without bitterness or regret. Jarman addresses his fading life so lovingly, it is as if he could somehow carry his passion over to whatever place awaits after death.
Blue screens at Tate Modern, London, through April 6th. On April 25th, Carolee Schneemann will introduce a special screening of the film at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of the series Art of the Real.