A Swan Song Self-Portrait in Sound: Derek Jarman’s “Blue”

Part of Keyframe’s Filmmaker Spotlight on Derek Jarman

Derek Jarman at a screening of “Blue,” his meditation on life and death.

It’s true what you’ve heard about us gays: sometimes we date outside our own species. For example, my partner of 12 years doesn’t care that much about movies. When he told me during our first months together that his favorite film might be Derek Jarman’s Blue, I initially accepted this as a caustic pronouncement: he’d rather look at nothing, I thought, than look at a movie. Indeed, it’s hard to escape an undertow of privation while watching Blue, not just because its premise is the imminent demise of a great filmmaker (still absurdly undervalued by all but the most self-selecting audiences,) but because its form is austere enough to come across as a mid-level gallery gimmick. For 76 minutes, the image never wavers from a static field of the eponymous hue – a conceit tough for any filmmaker’s audience to bear, especially when compared with the rococo anachronisms of Jarman’s Jubilee and Edward II, the kaleidoscopic stocks and slashing textures of The Last of England and the dissimilar but equally sensuous encounters of body and light in Sebastiane and Caravaggio.

The maker of Blue has not, however, said goodbye to complexity and depth in fashioning this one-of-a-kind swan song. The film may be monochromatic in color but is anything but in feeling or theme, even if a certain degree of mental drift or even boredom inevitably manifests as part of the experience. To watch or even to love this film is not to repudiate cinema but to recognize and re-confront it. Beyond arriving so carefully at this rich shade of lapis, Jarman has endowed the image with visible grain and a luminous aura, which it retains even in digital formats. Blue thus becomes a medium for cinematic contemplation and introspection; its self-imposed constraints alter or illuminate the viewer’s relation to film, becoming closer in spirit to Warhol’s Empire or Sokurov’s Russian Ark than to the cathode void of the Setup Menu screen.

Still, with all due respect to its visual register, Blue’s richest achievement is its soundtrack, which weaves between naturalistic and abstract elements. Jarman squats among the clinks and chatter of a restaurant, brazenly entitling himself to feel exhausted by other people’s worries, as he ruminates on the siege within his marrow and bloodstream. Over looping sounds somewhere between a failing ignition and a grinding gear, he recites the daunting health hazards not of AIDS itself but of the clinical-trial drugs devised to combat AIDS. Tilda Swinton, one of three Jarman stalwarts lending cameo accompaniment, bobs in at moments to offer koans from great literature. Jarman shares the mic, as it were, with rock, dance, and orchestral music, but he is the real show, percolating with bitter social reproofs, doctor’s-office anecdotes, ironic quips, and dada self-descriptions (“I am a mannish, muff-diving size queen with bad attitude”). His poetic reflections are, as ever, an unabashed blend of the pointed and the purple, the insolent and the poignant. Most tender is a final apostrophe, read by Nigel Terry, to a lover in some remembered summer, possibly one of too many predecessors into early death: “Salt lips touching / in submarine gardens . . . / His blue jeans / around his ankles / bliss in my ghostly eye . . .”

Given such sensitive recitations and intimate disclosures, whether or not they are always flattering, the pathos of Blue is not merely contextual. Nor is it constant, which is hardly surprising given the jagged, angry figure Jarman refused to stop cutting in an increasingly Thatcherized England. His inimitably British, radical-materialist take on gay identity guaranteed that Jarman never separated sexuality or self-image from history, or from his rigorous semiotics of what we represent of ourselves and “our” culture.

Jarman was “a crucial progenitor” of New Queer Cinema.

These aspects of Blue make it pertinent to more than Jarman’s own career. The movie debuted in 1993, as Philadelphia took its florid-weepie stab at narrating AIDS, as Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman’s indispensable Silverlake Life captured the disease in excoriating real time, and as Schindler’s List launched a thousand ships into the old melee over whether collective, epochal trauma can or should be staged in mimetic images, however solemnly mounted. Blue settles on different, gutsy answers to the same quandaries faced by those films. It’s also indivisibly a rebuke and an apotheosis of the vital, sensuous, pastiche-driven New Queer Cinema movement of the early 1990s, for which Jarman represented a crucial progenitor, a comrade-in-arms, and an overtly politicized avatar too little emulated.

Occasionally Blue risks becoming repetitious or remote, in part because of the formal conception, and in part because Jarman’s tones and critiques had become familiar. He also exercises the diarist’s prerogative—to say nothing of the entitlement of those about to die—of voicing an idea or an emotion for which he alone is the audience, or of embedding a tacit message to the lover he will leave behind. Still, Blue is too lively to be a dirge, too transfixing, coherent, and unexpectedly voluptuous to be a walk-through installation. It is also too eccentric and acerbic to be a lament, and too scabrous and personal to serve as anyone’s eulogy but Jarman’s own. Like its maker, Blue operates within a few limits but sails right over most others. Both man and movie earned the right to consider themselves unrepeatable experiments, which is just what they’ve turned out to be.

Nick Davis writes essay-length film reviews at his website, which includes a performance-by-performance history of the Best Actress Oscar. He is also a professor of film, English, and gender studies at Northwestern University.

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