This month, it's 15 years since the death of Derek Jarman. Why is this significant, you may well ask yourself? At the time of his passing I think two important sea-changes occurred. One, the gradual erosion of a radical, fine art tradition in British film making. Note that he died the same year that commercial British film-making turned a corner with the success of Four Weddings And A Funeral. Two, the figurehead of a period of active gay politics was no more and the political interests of the LGBTQ 'community' became less radicalised to an extent. Note how most of the changes in legislation have been brought about by organisations such as Stonewall rather than by grass roots activism.
Anyway, a good opportunity to look back at Derek's films, celebrate and contextualise them. If you're not familiar with the work of Derek Jarman I would suggest you have at a look at Isaac Julien's film Derek which the BFI is releasing on DVD in March.
Let's have a look at the feature films made in the late 1970s first. Sebastiane (1976) and Jubilee (1977)
Region 2 (Cert 18) - Second Sight 2NDVD 3018 4:3 (cropped) - Mono - 82 mins Special Feature: Face To Face Interview with Derek Jarman (BBC 15/3/93) 40mins
Region 1 (Rated X) - Kino Video K299 DVD 1:66 Letterbox (cropped) - Mono - 86 mins
First of all, let's get the 'controversy' out of the way. Yes, the film contains explicit content and much full-frontal male nudity. When Channel 4 showed it in 1985 there was, of course, outrage from Mary Whitehouse. Interestingly enough, the version screened then had been pan and scanned to avoid showing an offending erection. It was only until the Film 4 channel was launched that the untampered version, in its original Academy ratio as seen in cinemas in 1976, depicting the missing member, was finally seen on British television. Unfortunately, the versions available on DVD, certainly the Second Sight Region 2 and the Kino Video Region 1 have oddly used the cropped versions for their releases. Whether this is deliberate (and who would be offended by an 18 certificate briefly showing a hardon these days?) or just sheer laziness and ignorance about the film's original screen ratio, who knows? Sad to say, the definitive version has yet to make it to DVD. A future release deserves an original ratio, high definition restoration because this is, despite the low budget, a sensuously beautiful film.
...a martyr to his feelings and his faithSo to the film itself. This was Jarman's first feature, made with BBC director Paul Humfress, for the paltry sum of £30,000, and shot on location in Sardinia. It was one of the first films to unashamedly explore desire between men in a physical, erotic sense, at the time never seen to this degree in post-war British cinema, and was also a complex study of the psychological dark side of sexuality, including sadomasochistic abuse and homophobia. Set in a Roman military outpost, the sun baked environment, the wild landscape and the sea creates an atmosphere in which the men form physical and sexual bonds. Their passionate relationships are full of male humour, obsession, romance and violence. At the centre of this whirlwind is the Captain of the guard, Severus, unable to articulate his sexuality, who is determined to make the young Christian soldier, Sebastian love him despite the young man's continual rejection. What's interesting is how Jarman contrasts the charged erotic relationship between two soldiers, Adrian and Anthony, with, essentially, the twin closet cases of Severus and Sebastian. He's offering up two visions of gay desire, on the one hand a free libidinal homosexual desire, almost pre-empting in 1976, in the way he shoots the love-making between Adrian and Anthony, the way sexualised gay images are packaged and sold back to an audience today, and on the other a tortured, existential, sad young man who is a martyr to his feelings and his faith.
He eroticises many of the bodies in the film...These themes are played out with coarse barracks humour (including a pot shot at Mary Whitehouse), a realist evocation of life in a public school or a military barracks and is littered with references to Renaissance and Baroque iconography and art. The film much resembles the work of Pasolini, one of Jarman's favourite directors. What fails is perhaps Jarman's intention to discuss the spirituality of Sebastian. The eroticisation of male bodies within a beautiful landscape, whilst attractive and arousing, dominates the film and the exploration of his celibacy, as a connection to God and a repression of the Dionysian excesses of the opening orgy at the Emperor's palace and the various male interplays in the film, isn't completely successful. His final execution is horribly tragic, suggesting that a gay celibacy might not have much currency in a modern world, but it can also be seen as a victory over carnal excess. The symbolism of water and sun also plays an important part in the psychological drama but, like much of the spirituality in the film, their use is ambiguous. Despite this, moments of quiet poetry are achieved throughout the film, full of lyrical intensity, multi-layered with meaning. However, whilst it can be argued that most of the nudity and homoeroticism is merely present in the film for titillation, it is definitely seen as the obsessional, voyeuristic viewpoint of Severus, played with great frustrated intensity by Barney James. He eroticises many of the bodies in the film - witnessing scenes of Adrian, Anthony and Sebastian in an idealised but dreamlike way in contrast to the naturalism of the rest of the film.
Leonardo Treviglio is moving and subtle as Sebastian and the ensemble playing his fellow guards, particularly Neil Kennedy and Richard Warwick, is realistic despite having to perform the lines in Latin. Yes, it's all in Latin. Don't let that put you off because it actually works very well. Add to this Peter Middleton's colour saturated photography and an evocative electronic score from Brian Eno and it's an impressive first feature from Jarman. It is not the most Jarmanesque of his films, that would come later, but it's an important work in the gay British cinema canon as it was so provocative and groundbreaking for its time. I don't think anyone had seen anything quite like it.
Region 0 (Unrated) - Criterion Collection 16:9 Anamorphic - Mono - 106 mins Special Feature: A Time Less Golden documentary, ephemera from the Jarman archive, trailer, essay by Tony Peake
The original idea for Jubilee was for Jarman to chronicle the day to day life of Jordan, a punk girl he'd spotted at Vivienne Westwood's Kings Road shop. This eventually grew into a non-linear narrative in feature film form, arguably one of the first films to embrace the punk aesthetic of the mid 1970s. However, it was severely criticised by Westwood herself who denounced Jarman and the way he had represented punk by printing an open letter to him on a T shirt. Curiously, although I would agree it does use punk aesthetics, it has more in common with the dystopian visions of Ballard and could be considered a not too distant cousin to Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. More than that, Jubilee is a critique of the punk movement supported by a conscious reaching back into traditionalism and a prescient vision of the how grass roots cultural movements are ultimately commodified and commercialised by the mainstream.
“they all sign up in the end”Essentially, the film shows how Queen Elizabeth I is transported, with her court alchemist John Dee, 400 years into a future England. London has become a grim landscape inhabited by anarchic, violent gangs and Buckingham Palace has become a recording studio. Good Queen Bess finds her 20th Century namesake mugged on a patch of wasteland, her crown stolen by Bod, the leader of a street gang. The film is more or less a series of set pieces, tableaux and proto-pop/rock videos (something Jarman would become very adept at later in his career) and the narrative that is there describes a world where the media is controlled by the utterly mad Borgia Ginz (a sort of cross between Malcolm McClaren and Rupert Murdoch) and all that the disaffected youth, epitomised by Adam Ant's Kid character, can aspire to is a recording contract and Ginz's exploitation. Beyond the framing scenes involving Elizabeth, Dee and Ariel, there isn't much interaction between the two time periods but the power lies in the juxtaposition of the two eras as an ironic two fingers up to the Britain of 1977 that's been run into the ground by Labour and the IMF. Jarman is a very nostalgic filmmaker and Jubilee at the time suggested that the punk movement would eventually sell out. Ginz's bon mot of “they all sign up in the end” prefigures much of Jarman's later chilling comments in his book Dancing Ledge, "the film turned prophetic.... the streets burned in Brixton and Toxteth. Adam [Ant] was on Top of the Pops and signed up with Margaret Thatcher to sing at the Falklands Ball."
She is her own desolation...There is also a Dadaist attitude towards violence in the film. Acts of violence seem almost postures of artistic intent on behalf of the characters and this was something that Jarman had observed in punk itself and the film seems to be saying that the performative use of violence (as in the performance, lyrics, songs of the punk era) often leads to the real thing. This is brought to an astonishingly brutal and emotionally upsetting climax when Mad, brilliantly played by Toyah Willcox, takes revenge on a policeman whom has previously murdered her 'friends'. She barbarically attacks and castrates him but then she collapses and weeps. She is her own desolation at that point, has gone beyond violent posing and committed an atrocious act. All the artificiality of the film comes crashing down at that point because Jarman suggests that this is very real despair and rage and the superb performance he gets from Willcox at that point is one where the playful mask worn by Mad has disintegrated and realism has taken its place.
...a longing for a national British identityJarman also plugs into a wider range of influences besides the punk zeitgeist. The film not only provides a much wilder counterpoint to Kubrick's tight-arsed restraint in A Clockwork Orange but it also echoes much of the work of Lewis Carroll, Jean Cocteau and Powell & Pressburger. It's rough around the edges, often oblique and shambolic but shot through with witty surrealism, horrific violence and understated beauty. The musical numbers spice it up further, from the spiky naivety of Adam And The Ants through to the hilarious performance of Rule Britannia by Jordan and the totally insane androgyny of Wayne County. It also speaks of a longing for a national British identity, something Jarman's work is always bound up with. Here he ambiguously contrasts what he sees as authentic national symbols with the parodic pomp and circumstance of the Queen's own Jubilee celebrations and the nihilism of punk. This reaches a crescendo in the Westminster Cathedral disco sequence which is a collage of visual and aural symbols. A Christ like figure, lit in purple, is mauled by ranks of outstretched arms as Blake's Jerusalem soars over a disco beat where authentic figures like Blake and Christ have been perverted into a realm 'where progress has taken the place of Heaven'.
The Criterion Collection offer the best version of the film available on DVD. It's a high definition digital transfer and it's certainly the best the film has ever looked on VHS or DVD. The colours are wonderfully enhanced and Peter Middleton's photography really shines. Plenty of supporting material, including a good documentary, stills and other bits and pieces from the Jarman archive. Certainly better than the very lacklustre Region 2 release.
Next time: The Tempest and The Angelic Conversation
Cathode Ray Tube Derek Jarman Sebestiane Jubilee