Out on a Ledge: The Visionary Films of Derek Jarman

Part of Keyframe’s Filmmaker Spotlight on Derek Jarman

David Hockney was the first English painter to declare his homosexuality in public,” notes Derek Jarman in his 1984 memoir Dancing Ledge. “By example he was a great liberating force, reaching far beyond the confines of the ‘art world’ : his work paved the way for the gay liberation movement at the end of the decade.” Derek is absolutely right. Moreover, as an activist in that very movement, I saw Hockney as a signal figure. In fact the signals he sent out set me packing for California in search of  the sun-dappled pools with beautiful boys in them featured in Hockney’s art. Yet for all of that Hockney has never considered himself to be “political.” Derek, by contrast, was.

As Jarman notes in Dancing Ledge, his “coming out” was less matter-of-fact that Hockney’s: he was tossed out of school when discovered in bed with another boy. This put the brakes on him for several years. But rather than destroy him it gave him his subject and his resolve. For Jarman’s work is entirely devoted to the celebration of same-sexuality. And it came to fruition via a circuitous path.

Trained as an artist, Jarman quickly set painting aside for scenic design for ballet and opera. While he had experimented in making film — 8mm home movies devised purely for his pleasure and that of his friends — he dove in the deep end in 1971 when he designed the massive white sets for Ken Russell’s masterpiece The Devils. Derived from Aldous Huxley’s account of the “witch trials” in medieval Loudon, Russell’s film was a thoroughgoing attack on the murderous machinations of Roman Catholicism, underscoring in scene after scene why Church and State had to remain separate, lest the ravenous political aspirations of the former overwhelm the latter. In light of such visual magnificence, and the much smaller-scaled wonder of his work for Russell on Savage Messiah (1972) it’s no surprise Jarman turned to becoming a film director himself.

Sebastiane (1976) was a massive blow against the bow of what Christopher Isherwood so incisively identified as “The Heterosexual Dictatorship.” Retelling the story of the martyred saint — entirely in Latin no less– Jarman’s film is an explosion of homoeroticism. It’s beautiful undressed cast live and breath gay sexuality with an insistent passion  far beyond that of pornos (where sexual activity resembles the docking of the space ships in Kubrick’s 2001 more than anything alive and human.) “Those boys are too damned pretty,” a mock-shocked Douglas Sirk remarked when the film made its first film festival appearance at the San Sebastian film festival.


After that it was bound for the “happy few” at gay-friendly cine-clubs. So Jarman set his sights on something more ambitious with Jubilee (1978). An evocation of the then-just-emerging “punk” scene, contextualized in relation to British history and Magic (Queen Elizabeth and her sorcerer John Dee are major characters — time-traveling into the present) it  shocked the easily shocked of Thatcher’s England.

The notorious “Clause 28,” which forbade all references to “the love that dare not speak its name” in any work of art getting state funding, provided Jarman with a new target. He had by that time made his version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1979). A marvelously imaginative work, it starred playwright and freelance troublemaker Heathcote Williams as Prospero and depicted the island of the play as a vast ruined abbey strewn with leaves. Faithful to its source The Tempest was also faithful to Jarman’s nature, with copious amounts of male nudity and a memorable serious camp finale in the great Elizabeth Welch sings “Stormy Weather’ to a bevy of beautiful sailors.


By this time Jarman was preparing what he hoped would be his magnum opus, Caravaggio. But having struggled though many scripts (one co-penned with Luchino Visconti collaborator Suso Cecchi D’Amico) and many budgets — none of which proved suitable for conventional backers, Jarman decided to “think small” instead and make a film no bigger than his studio. Perfect, as what would be more expressive for the life of an artist? Released in 1986 it brought Jarman world fame to overlay the cult fame he already enjoyed.


It’s at this point I entered the picture. For while I had corresponded with Derek for some years before, he finally came to L.A. with his film, its star Tilda Swinton, and Spring — the exceeding  black sheep of an upper-class family (real name Mark Adley) who had transformed himself into the very image of gay punkdom. Far more interested in going to “The Pleasure Chest” to buy himself a new dildo, young Spring sauntered forth, leaving Derek Tilda and I to wander around L.A. freely. We decided to walk down Sunset boulevard. And Derek armed with a small video camera, began to shoot. This footage quickly found its way into his next work The Last of England (1988). An evocation of England in dystopian ruin it featured Spring shooting up and having carnal knowledge of a Caravaggio canvas. Plus long walks through ruins — that were in fact the sets of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (Derek snuck on, unbeknownst to Stanley and his people, when they weren’t filming) — and Tilda cast as Brittania herself, rendering her clothes while fires blaze as Diamanta Galas lets loose on the soundtrack in full howl.

No plot of characters here — just figures in a celluloid canvas. This same technique was taken up again in The Garden (1990), a film completed by other hands when Jarman — now seriously ill with AIDS — was thought to be at death’s door. Happily that wasn’t the case. But the cooperative nature of this cinematic enterprises typified his aesthetic. “To Derek film was something done simply and cooperatively with your friends,” Tilda has explained to me. This became quite clear to her when shooting War Requiem (1989), a setting of Britten’s musical masterpiece. For telling Derek of an idea she had for the “Sanctus” he ordered Tilda to go ahead and do it without him — thus saving everyone time and money. The results were stunning.

To be sure Derek had slightly more straightforward “acting” ideas for Tilda in his startlingly savage adaptation of Marlowe’s Edward II (1991) and his lighter-spirited biopic Wittgenstein (1993) in which Tilda was cast as Lady Ottoline Morrell. By this time HIV infection had begun to claim Derek’s sight. Inventive as always he chose to shoot the film with no sets at all — just the blackness of the studio. Rendering Wittgenstein’s life and work on a virtual blackboard, Jarman was able to convey the renegade philosopher’s ideas while lovingly dramatizing the same-sex romance that made his final years happy ones.


Now total blindness beckoned. But this didn’t stop Derek for he made Blue (1993), a film for voices (only one of which was his own) that spoke directly of mortality against a screen of blazing Yves Klein blue.


A final curtain call? Not really. For there was still Glitterbug (1994). Released posthumously it was started by Derek and finished by his friends, made entirely from bits and pieces of film and video shot across the course of his entire intense existence.


And then there’s The Clearing (1993) Directed by Alexis Bistikas it’s shot entirely on Hampstead Heath — a gay cruising ground (like The Ramble in Central Park in New York and the upper trails of Griffith Park in Los Angeles) though which the camera moves clearly evoking someone’s POV. We see that someone at the very end. It’s Derek. Now blind, but somehow “looking” hopefully at the world, Derek is clearly locked in the leafy embrace of homoerotic love.

That’s how I’ll always remember him.

David Ehrenstein is a film critic and writer whose books include Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000 and The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese. He lives in Los Angeles.

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