It’s the anniversary of the birth of Derek Jarman, possibly my favourite director. If he were still alive today, he’d be 70, and he’d be fabulous.
My first exposure to Jarman’s work was possibly his most accessible film, Jubilee, filmed during two weeks using a script that changed regularly as filming progressed, influenced by the strengths and weaknesses of its cast, during the year of the Queen’s Jubilee, 1977, and released the following year. Working titles of the film included the subtitles of “An Anarchic Comedy of Sex and Violence” and “A Time Less Golden”. The overall tone and aesthetic of the film is heavily influenced by the newsworthy punk scene of the day, but met criticisms from the self-appointed faces of that scene, including designer Vivienne Westwood, who shortly after released a t-shirt “An Open Letter to Derek Jarman”, with the front and back design being a barely coherent and incredibly homophobic rant that, as best as anybody with decent reading comprehension could tell, spends around two-hundred words to say nothing more than “I hated your film, and you’re a fag.”
My opinion differs from Ms Westwood’s (who has never apologised for her apparent homophobia in the letter, leading one to assume that not only does her opinion of the film still stand, but so does her apparent opinion of “fags”). From the very first time I saw Jubilee, I saw something about myself; this was a film about oppression, a film about the Crown, a film about history, a Queer fable and parody of morality tales, a film about England, and most importantly, it was a film about what made Derek Jarman, well, Derek Jarman.
This is the way it was and is, but not the way it was told. —Derek Jarman
All of his films are like that, or so I would come to learn. He doesn’t re-write history, he doesn’t re-interpret the facts, he simply makes history relevant to his life, and his life was that of a middle class youth who rejected that life for his own, the life of a Queer Englishman who grew to reject the hushed dual life of a lavender marriage for one of the relative freedom that the world of art and theatre could offer, a defender of male femininity even when he appeared only slightly effete on most given days, a radical traditionalist with emphasis on the radical.
I am certain that the world I lived in is preferable to the one my parents lived in. —Derek Jarman
There’s something about Jubilee that says everything I ever wanted to about my British identity indoctrinated into me by my grandparents. There’s something hard to articulate about it, and must be experienced to understand. Something that only people who understand it innately will ever understand, even if those who do not can still enjoy it, still see the inherent value in it.
Jubilee, though, is not his first film, nor is it his most notorious.
Looking at historical figures and wondering: were they gay? They may have had the same sexual preferences but ‘gay’ is a late twentieth century concept. I always felt uncomfortable with it; it always seemed to me to exude a false optimism. —Derek Jarman
Sebastiane is Derek Jarman’s first feature, though technically it’s credited as a co-write and co-directorship. It’s not my second exposure to Jarman, that position is held by his biopic of Caravaggio, but it was my next after, and after Jubilee, became my most-sought.
Sebastiane is an infamous film and one I have previously written about. Two things that really stand out about this one in British cinema: It is the only film by an English director to have a dialogue written completely in a foreign language, and also that nearly the entire thing is shot with the cast in little more than loincloths, and often not even that —only the opening scene is any real exception. Also of note, it is the only film I know of written entirely in reconstructed Latin vulgaris, the common Latin of the Roman peasants rather than the “classical” dialect of the upper classes. Jarman was also very consistent in his claim that the primary reason for the film’s rampant nudity was that they’d run out of budget for costuming, and in context, it made some sense.
An orgasm joins you to the past. Its timelessness becomes the brotherhood; the bretheren are lovers; they extend the ‘family’. I share that sexuality. It was then, is now and will be in the future. —Derek Jarman
The films of Derek Jarman, as his life progressed, became increasingly more personal. This is evidenced even before he received his diagnosis of being HIV-positive in December of 1986. 1980’s The Tempest takes the classic Shakespearean play and subtly morphs it into a homoerotic fable that, if Jarman’s diaries and published prose are to be believed, had been something of a personal interpretation of the story since his adolescence. 1985’s The Angelic Conversation, another tribute to Shakespeare, is composed of a series of silent film clips laid over atmospheric music and recitations of Shakespeare’s sonnets, hand-picked by Jarman for apparent homoerotic qualities, and read by Judy Dench. The end product is something as autobiographical as only an art film can be.
Yes, all men are homosexual, some turn straight. It must be very odd to be a straight man because your sexuality is hopelessly defensive. It’s like the idea of racial purity. —Derek Jarman
Even at his most serious, there’s a clear and distinct humour permeating his films. His last film, made while blind from AIDS-related illness, is Blue; the entire film’s visuals is nothing more than a blue screen, while bignettes of monologues are read and atmospheric music plays. There’s something very tongue-in-cheek about that, a man who always made films about life and history and identity as he saw it in a poetic sense, is making a film that will give the audience a very literal interpretation of the world as he now sees it.
Until I’d enjoyed being fucked I had not reached balanced manhood. When you overcome your fear you understand that gender has its own prison. When I meet heterosexual men I know that they have experienced only half of love.
Because as an unreconstructed man you had to be in control. It is about control. If you aren’t the dominmant partner in the sex act then you are emasculated, you are unsexed. It took a long time for me to realise the falsity of that. ‘He’s uptight, tight arsed’: you’ve got all of these colloquial expressions about anal sex. It’s different to overcome that conditioning. —Derek Jarman
Possibly the primary feat that mainstream Amerika will regard Jarman for as as the director who “discovered” actress Tilda Swinton, or the man to whom Swinton was “his Muse”. Even Swinton rejects these notions, stating that, if any-one was Jarman’s Muse, it would be himself. Furthermore, it was not Jarman who “discovered” Swinton, if anything, it was her own talents, including Edinborough theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and a television mini-series based on the work of Percy Bysshe Shelley that brought her to Jarman’s attention. What kept their working relationship to progress as long as it had, though, was a friendship and fondness of working together.
His background, though, was as a painter and in theatre design. He only started working in the medium of film when a friend gave him a Super-8 home movie camera in the early 1970s as a gift. This is apparent in just about every one of his films, as the visuals are deeply important to the meaning. His biopic of Caravaggio is given mid-Twentieth anachronisms in much the same way the painter himself painted Biblical and Greco-Roman figures in attire and with props contemporary to the 16th Century. The visuals in Sebastiane often come across as a Neo-Classical painting from the Renaissance. And every little cut-away clip during a lengthy soliloquy in The Tempest is just as important as the words.