When I think of the films we made together, they feel like family albums, records of a long life lived. Frankly, the friendship and the life we were living weigh more on my mind than do the films, which came out of our conversations and were like symptoms, evidence, and traces of the days and nights spent sitting around a kitchen table shooting the breeze. We valued and value the films, but the conversation was the prize for us, certainly for me—and considering that Derek once said that he would like for all his work to vanish after his death, I believe that he would agree.
—Tilda Swinton, speaking to Fandor for a research interview in 2014
Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman would have turned seventy-two this year. The life and work of the English artist, who passed away two decades ago in February 1994, is currently being celebrated in London with the ongoing festival “Jarman2014.” Up to now the festival’s cultural events have, of course, included film screenings, particularly within the largest Jarman film retrospective ever assembled, curated by William Fowler for the BFI Southbank and featuring all eleven of Jarman’s completed features as well as several shorts. It has also included art installations and exhibitions of his work across different media, plus talks, conferences and even guided trips to his Prospect Cottage and cherished garden, located in Dungeness and still maintained by his former partner Keith Collins. These tributes together form an appropriately multifaceted homage; as Jarman’s longtime set designer Christopher Hobbs says in an interview in the new commemorative documentary The Gospel According to St. Derek (2014), “I’m sure he didn’t think of himself as a filmmaker—he thought of himself as somebody working with a new kind of brush.”
The brush that Hobbs especially has in mind is a Super 8 camera, the first incarnation of which Jarman began using in the early 1970s to record myriad color-soaked shorts (including 1971’s A Journey to Avebury, one of nine Jarman films in the Fandor library). He would frequently project these small silent films onto warehouse walls for friends, often with his own running commentary. Jarman would go on to make masterful feature-length works that utilized Super 8 such as the elegiac romance The Angelic Conversation (1985), whose young male lovers’ hazy and indelible motions are acted out with the words of fourteen of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (read aloud by Judi Dench) as echoing soundtrack accompaniment, and the post-apocalyptic vision of London called The Last of England (1987), which impressionistically imagines city-dwellers surviving amidst the rubble left in Margaret Thatcher’s wake.
Many years later, shortly after Jarman’s death, some friends of his completed an assemblage of pieces from several of his Super 8 works shot between 1971 and 1986 into his last film, the nearly hour-long Glitterbug (1994). The film features images of the director excitedly clowning on his film sets with collaborators, including regulars such as Hobbs, costume designer Sandy Powell, composer Simon Fisher Turner, producer James Mackay, and several actors. “I always felt that my role was to find a family within the films,” he said in 1986, a claim to which these Super 8 images attest. For Jarman, filmmaking was always foremost a social endeavor to which he brought—for both his own and other peoples’ entertainment—no less than himself.
Jarman was born in 1942 in London to a half-Jewish mother and a native New Zealander father serving as a pilot in the Royal Air Force. He followed boarding school with four years of reading English and History at King’s College London, then studied Painting at London’s Slade School of Fine Art. From painting he fell into set design, first for live theatrical events (including dance and opera) and then for films, after which he turned to film directing.
His disparate intellectual and artistic interests found their way into his films, each feature-length work of which typically took as a starting point a preexisting artwork or set of works from another medium. The source could be a Shakespeare play (as with 1979’s cinematic staging of The Tempest), a group of paintings (1986’s loose biography Caravaggio) or an operatic oratorio (1989’s War Requiem, whose scenes of wounded and recuperating First World War soldiers unfold in illustrative accompaniment to a performance of the composer Benjamin Britten’s notes). From there, he and a group of close friends that he drew around him would build an overflowing world.
These worlds are literally etched in Jarman’s leather sketchbooks, which he would buy ten at a time in northern Italy and then fill with pasted-in photographs and three-dimensional props like flowers and feathers in addition to elegantly handcrafted poems, phrases and illustrations as he prepared his films. The sketchbooks (several of which are currently on display at King’s College, and nearly 200 pages from which have been reproduced in the 2013 Thames & Hudson publication Derek Jarman’s Sketchbooks) give suggestive evidence of how Jarman imagined a film in its entirety during pre-production, and then left himself free to create a different work during the shoot, even with the most seemingly basic elements. For instance, one can see within the sketchbooks notes for a film called Bliss that contain a large handwritten dedication to “Yves Kline” [sic] and the word “Blue” etched repeatedly in gold letters across a blue background. The film to which these pages eventually led, called Blue (1993), turns the letters into sounds as several different voices (including Jarman’s) speak hymns to the imaginative power of the title color over a pure blue film-length background.
“I believe in my fictions,” Jarman wrote in his sketchbook for The Last of England; he also once declared that, “People say to me, ‘You make fantastic films’ and I say, ‘No, I make documentaries.’” His sentiments complemented each other. The films were devoted to turning fantasy into actuality through giving art the weight of life, in keeping with the wizard Prospero’s identification in The Tempest of himself and every living creature around him as “such stuff that dreams are made on.” In Jarman’s funny and moving biographical film Wittgenstein (1993), the anguished Austrian philosopher (played by Jarman regular Karl Johnson with a forever-furrowed brow) insists that the world and its objects are in themselves their own essences, without interior meanings. He does so against a black background on a plainly adorned, near-bare stage across which parade actors decked out with clothes and makeup of bright primary colors, as though modeling reality’s pleasures.
The films move rapidly and lift viewers with unexpected cuts or musical cues whenever their tones risk growing sad. Their energy befits a creator who was racing to beat Time’s clock. Jarman spent at least his last eight years living with AIDS, a diagnosis that he publicly claimed to have received in December of 1986 and which friends have said that he revealed to them earlier. He expressed what he had not as a condition to be pitied, though, but rather as a challenge to be greeted. His frequent actress Tilda Swinton (whose film debut came as a model and lover to the titular painter in Jarman’s Caravaggio) says in The Gospel According to St. Derek that, “I think we got about four films made off of the back of being Derek’s last film.” In each case, he treated his illness like an obstacle that, as with any logistical hurdle on a film shoot, could be worked around.
Jarman felt self-enjoyment imperative. He sought it and strove to use his time in ways that pleased him, and believed in the ideal (per his 1992 written manifesto At Your Own Risk) of “a world where we are all equal” to do the same. His films value the myriad kinds of people that appear in them, celebrating all shapes and sizes of human bodies and many of the ways in which they might play together. When Jarman was eleven he had been caught in bed with another boy at boarding school and humiliated by teachers in front of his classmates for it, an incident that he recalled to have marked him. His feature films decry repression of individual desire by showing the body as beautiful, beginning with his debut feature Sebastiane (1976, and co-directed with Paul Humfress, also the film’s co-writer and editor), whose images of naked male Roman soldiers lusting after each other on a sun-drenched Sardinian island were filmed less than a decade after the English government had lifted a centuries-long national sodomy ban. Sebastiane recounts the last days of Saint Sebastian, who was executed ostensibly for being a Christian and who the film depicts as actually dying a martyr to the decree of his love-struck, spurned and jealous commander.
Sebastiane’s dialogue is spoken entirely in Latin (albeit with Cockney accents), helping the film’s story feel like it belongs to another era. By looking backwards, though, Jarman was also looking forward, as he would do with all his ostensible period films. “How to make a film of a gay love affair and get it commissioned?” he asked in writing nearly fifteen years later, while preparing a film adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s drama Edward II (1991). He then answered his own question with, “Find a dusty old play and violate it.”
He had decided by then to increase the visibility of politics in his works, first due to a trip to Moscow that he had taken to present The Tempest, and then later due to Section 28 of England’s Local Government Act 1988, which forbade anything deemed to be the intentional promotion of homosexuality. The declaration of this law—repealed only in 2003—led Jarman to state in opposition that his films “would definitely be there to promote homosexuality from now on.” His impressionistic tone poem of a feature, The Garden (1990), presents among its several storylines that of a gay couple whose members are unjustly arrested and killed. Edward II’s king dearly loves another man during an era when he must marry a woman; in one scene, the viewer can see contemporary protesters from the gay rights organization Outrage bearing signs with slogans like “Stop violence to gay men” written on them while the military tortures Edward’s lover.
After Edward II’s release, however, Jarman chose to shock his public again by making a film with no nudity, as the fully clothed and frustrated Wittgenstein, uncomfortable inside his own body, tries to transmute himself into ideas. He seeks ways to surpass his corporal limits, with artistic creation coming to seem the most fruitful. Jarman mounted Wittgenstein’s simple staging in such a way that it could accommodate his mounting blindness, and in a sense settled on the philosopher’s solution as his own. By the time of Blue, his vision had worsened along with the general state of his health, and his filmmaking had grown richer and more evocative in response.
Jarman told a friend about Blue—in which his voice is heard both bitterly and bemusedly recounting his days as “a walking chemical laboratory” in the manner of a poetic running diary—that “I’ve finally done what I’ve always had to do surreptitiously, which is make a film about myself.” It’s to the artist’s credit that this statement serves as a useful guidepost to his work while being rebuttable on several levels. In The Garden (1990), Jarman himself had appeared onscreen variously as a filmmaker, a gardener, and a dying Christ, and his other films are filled with so many martyred dreamers and romantics onto which he projected himself that it would be hard for a Jarman viewer not to eventually get the hint.
The films are also about him, at a deeper though still self-evident level, by dint of being filled to the brim with his desires, obsessions, rages, and tastes. His delight in anachronism can be seen in Sebastiane’s opening sequence, a Roman orgy clearly staged in modern London, as well as in his subsequent feature, the time-travel narrative Jubilee (1978), in which Queen Victoria and her sorcerer John Dee are zapped centuries ahead into the same city’s punk scene; his affection for varied bodily types can be seen in the large and small punks adorning Jubilee’s bombed-out landscapes and in all the fat, short, and pale figures wandering Prospero’s halls in his follow-up feature, The Tempest; his classically melancholy, tender wish to preserve a beauty bound to fade imbues Prospero’s farewell to his magical powers as well as the looks that the visually isolated lovers give each other in The Angelic Conversation, the care that Caravaggio brings to immortalizing a mortal beloved through painting her, and the gazes cast by several of his characters upon each other in all the feature films that he made afterwards.
One of the lessons that Jarman’s films teach is that you can make art about yourself and your immediate concerns in ways that can touch other people. “He was urgently interested in the here and now; his costume dramas all happen in the present tense,” his former collaborator Neil Bartlett wrote in a recent article for The Guardian about his ways in particular. “No matter how angry or sad it is, his work is always positive.”
Jarman’s enduring legacy is one of positive energy. Coursing throughout his films today is his love, belonging still to a lover’s spirit that has long outlived its flesh.
Thanks to Cynthia Beatt, Heinz Emigholz, Tony Rayns, and Tilda Swinton—all friends of Jarman’s—for research help.
Aaron Cutler keeps a film criticism site, The Moviegoer, at http://aaroncutler.tumblr.com.