The Films of Derek Jarman at BAM Cinématek
What does it mean to gather in the cinema in the context of a death? Most retrospectives in this city come on the heels of something positive, like a new film or the celebration of a centennial. The Derek Jarman series being held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music this month is different. The great British filmmaker, painter, writer, and gardener died of complications related to AIDS in 1994, at the age of 52. The 20th anniversary of this loss presents the occasion to take in the work of a visionary, controversial filmmaker, but it is also a moment of somber memory. How does one approach these screenings, by their nature caught between cinephile excitement and mourning?
Jarman is not the only queer auteur to have lost his life much too soon. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s murder comes to mind, as well as Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s overdose. Yet the specter of AIDS changes the legacy of both Jarman’s public life and his films. It forces us to confront something more than simple tragedy. First, we are reminded of the continuing crisis caused by the virus and the importance of remembering the political war waged by artists and activists against the stone-hearted indifference of government. On a very basic level, Jarman’s late memoirs and films are a time capsule of the righteous, heroic anger of a generation left out in the cold by Thatcher and Reagan.
But there is something altogether more complex about Jarman—unlike Pasolini or Fassbinder, he knew he was going to die. It’s a blunt but important truth. He first tested positive for HIV in 1986, shortly after the release of Caravaggio. To say that this changed the quality of his work would be both an understatement and a misguided reduction of his career. What is true, however, is that his later films confront mortality with renewed rage, mysticism, and wisdom. His work does not quite slay the angel of death, but it does refuse to accept the finality of his chill. Jarman’s films survive not as the relics of a departed victim, but as living texts with ever more to say.
One can say this about the director because he treated many of his subjects as if he believed in their immortality as well. His films are mostly period pieces that insist on the continued relevance of their subjects by propelling their ideas into the future, spurning the tasteless preservative jelly of the costume drama. Jarman despised the typical BBC historical or literary adaptation. He once referred to Chariots of Fire as a “damp, British Triumph of the Will.” Instead, he placed his period films in a temporality that often seems entirely separate from standard, linear Western chronology. In Modern Nature, his diary of the years 1989 to 1990, he briefly alludes to this. “There is a romance in the camera that I touched in The Angelic Conversation. I see it all over the Pasolini films—something vulnerable, an archaic smile. I see it in our films, nowhere else.”
The Angelic Conversation (1985) is a beautifully simple film made up of homoerotic images, vague landscapes, and a hypnotic soundtrack of music by Coil and a selection of Shakespeare’s sonnets read by Judi Dench. Jarman’s approach is warm, both aesthetically and emotionally. A benevolent light is always present, whether beaming down on the repose of lovers or emanating from a torch that the young men carry into ancient caves. Like Pasolini in his Trilogy of Life, he insists that innocence and sexuality are complementary rather than mutually exclusive concepts. The Angelic Conversation, which reasserts the homosexual elements of the Bard’s sonnets to the “Fair Youth,” is the film most thoroughly emblematic of this “archaic smile.”
That said, this style can be seen in every one of Jarman’s films, dating back to the beginning. His first feature, Sebastiane (1976), places the story of its title saint on a remote outpost of the Roman Empire. It’s dominated by images of nude men lounging in the sun of Sardinia, challenging the ostensibly celibate title martyr with their naturalized and appealing sensuality. In one sequence two men share a slow-motion erotic embrace while splashing about in a rock pool. It’s a moment that would have been shocking in 1976, but which today is remarkable for its commitment to achieving a homoerotic sublime without any actual sex. The most iconic of these smiles might be in Caravaggio (1986), a scene in which Ranuccio (Sean Bean) and Lena (Tilda Swinton) relax in a hammock and enjoy their newfound wealth by sharing a kiss with their mouths full of doubloons.
In all of these cases the light falls on the actors as if they are sainted figures in a medieval illuminated manuscript, frozen forever under a warm and timeless sky. Sexually free and emotionally calm, they are neither set in the present nor the past, becoming temporal oases to which audiences can flee. The liberated spaces of Sebastiane, The Angelic Conversation, and Caravaggio don’t particularly resemble the time periods of their source material but it doesn’t matter. The films replace conventional linear history with a much queerer, rounder time.
Dovetailing with this approach is Jarman’s penchant for anachronism. An early example is the finale of The Tempest (1979), in which Shakespeare’s world is suddenly interrupted by Elisabeth Welch performing “Stormy Weather.” Jubilee (1977) takes place entirely in a time out of joint. It begins with Queen Elizabeth I, who asks the natural philosopher John Dee to take her into the future. She ends up in the Punk London of the late 1970s. This clash is doubled when the actress playing Good Queen Bess, Jenny Runacre, appears later as a contemporary punk. The 16th and 20th centuries have a great deal more in common than one might think.
This strategy continues through his final films: Edward II (1991) tosses modern technology and a contemporary gay rights march into the 14th century; Caravaggio includes electric lighting. These props and scenarios are used as weapons against the rules of the historical genre. Jarman would never force his ideas into the restrictions of a specific, “researched” world because such a thing is never particularly honest in the first place. Instead there is a whirlwind of costumes, props, and language that fit together in new ways. The fact that these contradictions assert the status of the film as film art, as opposed to a Jane Austen adaptation that would ideally pretend the camera does not exist, certainly helps as well.
Of course, the combination of these two stylistic elements, the archaic smile and the anachronism, doesn’t exactly defeat death, but it does allow Jarman to treat historical objects with more nuance, and project them into the present. Ancient Roman sexuality is extremely complex in Sebastiane, much more so than every other narrative of the period that sees Christianity as chaste and paganism as extreme in its licentiousness. Here, the idealized sexuality of the military camp is opposed to both Sebastian’s Christian/sun-worshipping chastity and the exploitative sexuality of the Roman court. The temporal structure of the film propels this nuance into an ahistorical, universal space that keeps it alive even 20 years after the death of its author. It frees the film’s presentation of difference within homosexuality from the distant border of classical antiquity, giving Sebastiane increased relevance as we struggle to define gay identity in a present rapidly moving beyond the legal oppression of heteronormative Christianity.
One could read any of his films this way. But it is not until the later work, in the context of Jarman’s long struggle with HIV/AIDS, when he begins to confront death itself. With his resistance to stilted history in mind, it’s not really a surprise that none of his films actually include a character that is explicitly HIV positive. Part of his mission, if such a word can be used here, was to resist the stereotyping of the “gay cancer” and its implicit notion that straight society couldn’t relate to those afflicted even if they wanted to. His books confront this head-on, particularly Modern Nature and At Your Own Risk (1991). His films work much more obliquely.
War Requiem (1989)is an especially abstract project. It is essentially a visual setting of Benjamin Britten’s 1962 masterpiece, itself a choral and orchestral setting of the traditional requiem mass interspersed with the World War One poems of Wilfred Owen. The soundtrack of Jarman’s film is made up entirely of the 1963 recording of the piece. He pairs it with balletic scenes of soldiers preparing for war, including a climactic death scene for a soldier played by Sean Bean. The Sanctus movement is accompanied by a six-minute-long take of Tilda Swinton braiding her hair and mourning expressively, reacting to the music as if it were the memory of a lost love. On a very basic level, War Requiem highlights the homoerotic quality of World War One and soldiering in general, but reaches ever higher than that as well. It becomes a stunning expression of grief and loss in all contexts—applicable to AIDS but never in such narrow terms.
The Last of England (1987) is completely different. An experimental representation of a cleft nation, the film isn’t so much about AIDS and Thatcherism as it is about their collision, and the destruction of the nation that followed. If anything it has even less of a plot than War Requiem, instead taking the form of an extended poetic manifestation of the righteous anger and deep sadness brought upon by the coexistence of aggressive political ignorance and widespread tragedy. Jarman constructs scenes of dystopia inspired by the tumult of the 1980s. Weaving together images evoking the English Renaissance, the cradle of English Nationalism, and a rapidly approaching nightmare once again ignites any calm sense of historical definition. Everything is on fire, past and future both.
His final films head in the direction of dispensing with time altogether, replacing it with nothing but that archaic smile. Edward II (1991) is a veritable festival of anachronism, Wittgenstein (1993) a theatrical production in empty black space. Blue (1993) is an entirely blue screen accompanied by music and voiceover. The script creates poetic diversions, moments of imaginative eroticism, and memorials for the victims of AIDS. In part, Jarman takes advantage of this image-less form to relate the experience of the disease without the often strained tearjerker narratives that had, by then, been embraced even by Hollywood.
It also turns its filmmaker into something of an angelic presence. In 1991, Jarman was actually canonized by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a drag performance and activist organization based in San Francisco. Essentially the face of AIDS in the UK, his reputation as a hero and advocate has sometimes preceded his art. Blue can be read as a distillation of both sides of his public presence, even though that the narrationis mostly not in his own voice. Jarman has transformed the cinema into a temple of blue light in which the script, read by Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, and John Quentin, is a spiritual presence. The archaic smile of The Angelic Conversation finally becomes a real space with Blue, a space outside of time into which one can enter and imagine.
In At Your Own Risk (1991), Jarman celebrated a small personal victory. He had outlived Margaret Thatcher, or at least her tenure as Prime Minister, which ended with a grunt in November of 1990. It was a bittersweet victory, because he was unable to outlive Thatcher the woman as well. But now, a year after the confused spectacle that was the Iron Lady’s funeral, things look a bit different. Perhaps Jarman has an outside shot at outliving her after all. The world has taken an enormous deep breath in the two decades since Blue. If a sequel is possible, it is Joachim Pinto’s What Now, Remind Me?, which was released this summer. Queer filmmakers are not only addressing AIDS but building on the artistic achievements of its first era. Moreover, Jarman’s work is not going away and its temporal wizardry is set to smile on, unbounded, for the rest of linear time and beyond.
Queer Pagan Punk: The Films of Derek Jarman runs until November 11 at BAMcinématek.
DANIEL WALBER is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. He holds a MA in cinema studies from New York University. His writing on film and opera has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, Dok.Revue and Indiewire.