THE FILMS OF DEREK JARMAN Part Two

Apologies for the delay on this but here we are again with the second part of my look back at the work of the late, great Derek Jarman.



Region 0 (Cert 15) - Second Sight 1.33:1 - Mono - 91 mins Special Features: Commentary with Toyah Willcox and Peter Middleton, Extract from interview with Jarman 'There We Are John' and two shorts: 'Art Of Mirrors' and 'Gardens Of Luxor'

The two films I'm looking at here, The Tempest and The Angelic Conversation share one subject, or should that be one author, in common. Shakespeare. Jarman's, well, obsession with the Bard is absolutely in keeping with his philosophy of a lost, and he would have argued, better vision of England. In 1979's The Tempest we see Jarman developing a number of the themes from Jubilee with a freewheeling adaptation of Shakespeare's final play that, like the previous film, chimes with the times. By 1979, the punk aesthetic had burned out and a post-punk, New Romantic style was gaining cultural credence. The Tempest is as much about the Winter Of Discontent, the fall of Labour and the ascendence of Thatcher's 'no such thing as society' as it is a dream of regretful Englishness.



Jarman's version of the play is a fantastic piece of poetic cinema combining a reading of the play's setting as a discussion of art and nature as well as the often cited imperialist aspects of the story. It could quite easily be seen as a crystalisation of the attitude of his parent's generation towards the loss of Empire and acts as a complex allegory of an island nation dealing with the secession of nations from the Commonwealth. Prospero's colonial authority is eventually destabilised and he leaves not only the New World to return to Milan but he also emerges from the island's dark, psychological realm, driven by magic and the occult, into a mind state that does not require it. It is Jarman's own meditation on the role of artists and poets in a modern society that, as it collapses, fears and represses the non-linearity of their thinking.



Even though it is clearly a low budget film, it looks beautiful and benefits from some ravishing cinemaphotography from Peter Middleton who makes a silk purse out of the sow's ear of the Stoneleigh Abbey locations by drenching them in shadow, firelight and candlelight. The production and costume design by Ian Whittaker and Yolanda Sonnabend is intricate and detailed, providing a painterly quality to the images whilst also echoing post-punk Romanticism. It is eerie and desolate, a series of rooms within rooms that equate to the state of Prospero's mind. This ornate imagery is supported by a suitably moody and atmospheric soundscape courtesy of Brian Hodgson and John Lewis that's full of rumblings, heavy sighing and booming clock ticks.



At the heart of this visual and aural pleasure are some intriguing performances. Jarman chose to cast against type for Prospero with the virile Heathcote Williams. Williams performance and Jarman's direction suggest that the narrative is his waking dream that he brings about by his own volition. Williams is splendid, bringing a sinister edge to the character, and he's mirrored by the elfin Karl Johnson as Ariel, who hovers through the film in a bright white, and anachronistic, boiler suit. Toyah Willcox makes a splendid Miranda, who again reverses the demure quality of the original into something far more feisty and sexual. Throw in the wonderfully mad Jack Birkett (Borgia Ginz in Jubilee) as Caliban, cackling and laughing like a maniac through most of the film and supplying that surreal image of Caliban suckling his mother Sycorax and memorable cameos from Ken Campbell and Christopher Biggins. What's interesting is the way that Jarman strives to make the language accessible and steers clear of big, theatrical performances, attempting, pretty much successfully, to form the lines within normal speech patterns and intonations.



It is of course worth mentioning the finale, where Jarman defies the conventions of genre and turns the narrative into a Hollywood production number when as Ferdinand (the rather lovely David Meyer) is betrothed to Miranda, dozens of sailors dance around the ballroom as chanteuse Elisabeth Welch provides a wistful rendition of 'Stormy Weather'. This is not merely camp excess but an acknowledgment that sons and daughters must move on from their childhood and become adults and that Prospero's internalised world of magic must cease to be. It is full of melancholy despite the blaze of colour and music.

Second Sight's DVD presents the film in the original academy ratio. The picture quality is excellent considering the 16mm source and that much of the imagery is bathed in shadow. A high definition restoration would lift the colours and details further but for now this is probably the best quality available. There's an informative, detailed, moderated commentary from Toyah and Peter Middleton that throws light on the ensemble spirit of the filming and on Jarman's partcular directorial technique.



Region 2 (Cert PG) - BFI 1.33:1 - Mono - 78 mins Special Features: Interviews with James Mackay and Christopher Hobbs, Jarman in conversation with Simon Field, gallery and booklet

By 1985, Jarman's planned film of Caravaggio had stalled due to lack of money and whilst struggling to raise finance for a major project he busied himself for seven years making experimental Super 8mm films. With the advent of Channel 4 funding in the mid-80s and the ensuing wave of internationally distributed low-budget British art cinema, Jarman was able to develop his status as a major British cinematic artist. An interesting development at this time, and as a result of his frustrations with the mainstream production of films, was his elevation of the Super 8mm work using video and reshooting onto 35mm. The Angelic Conversation was one of the results of this experimentation, some of it derived from the work he did on pop-videos for Marianne Faithful and The Smiths, and which would later become a form of non-linear narrative film that he would develop alongside formal projects such as Edward II, War Requiem and Wittgenstein. This experimental approach would be realised further in The Last Of England, The Garden and Blue.



The Angelic Conversation also connects back directly to Jarman's status as an openly gay artist. By fiddling with the controls of his Nizo Super 8 camera and reshooting wth video and using various effects he produced a dream-like, highly textured, sensual visual journey of two men traveling through various locations where we observe the men bathing, wrestling, embracing and kissing. Interspersed with these images are other visuals of burning cars, radar towers, fences and the use of elements such as fire and water, acknowledging the tumultuous state of British society in the 1980s. Not to everyone's taste, and at 78 minutes perhaps stretching it a bit, the film languidly shows the two men undergoing some sort of spiritual, redemptive transformation. Overriding all of this was Jarman's desire to reclaim Shakespeare's sonnets as 'queer poetry' and the soundtrack merges both the distinctive sound collages of Coil, Simon Fisher-Turner and the superb delivery of the sonnets by Judi Dench.



It's an important film: it continues and develops Jarman's Romantic obsession with Elizabethan alchemy and Dr. John Dee whilst also flying the activist flag against gay oppression in a Britain under Thatcher, which reached a nadir in 1988 with the enactment of Section 28. A private members' Bill had already been tabled in Parliament in 1986 and an amendment to the local Government Bill introduced in 1987 shortly after An Angelic Conversation made it to cinemas in 1985. Jarman's politicisation certainly stemmed from the hothouse atmosphere in the country not only over local government law but also around the spectre of AIDS. Jarman himself was diagnosed in 1986 and The Angelic Conversation is the starting point for Jarman's reputation as an activist film-maker. The imagery of the film, of the two male characters, positioned neither as nor both as subject and object, is superceded by the female voice of Dench on the soundtrack. Jarman here continues with a theme that runs through many of his films, a rejection and an invocation of patriarchal symbols whilst also using a feminine voice as commentator or symbolic 'other'. The film suggests a 'queer', almost formless sexuality rather than an overtly gay one. Even though the enshrining of male sexuality in the film does lay Jarman open to the cliche of gay misogyny, I'd see the film as a blurring of all the sexual distinctions, not just the straight female or the gay male.



It's an intense, lyrical 78 minutes, using the ambiguity of the sonnets to enhance the Gilgamesh like narrative and ritualistic path the two male characters embark upon. Time seems to slow down, speed up and landscapes shift from Elizabethan gardens to dank, sepulchral caves lit by flaming torches. It evokes Pasolini, Cocteau and Anger in its trance like homoerotic charge, playing as a video painting, drenched in a superb music and sound collage, that depicts two men embracing and rejecting desire in equal measure and wherein each of their desires turns in on itself. Narcissistic, romantic, magical. The DVD from the British Film Institute contains 30 minutes of interviews with James Mackay and Christopher Hobbs that are fascinating and enlightening, Mackay's photographs from the shoot, an interview with Jarman and booklet of comments from Colin MacCabe, Peter Christopherson from Coil, and Tilda Swinton's letter to Derek as presented at the 2002 Edinburgh Film festival.

Next time: Caravaggio and The Last Of England

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