Letter to an angel: Isaac Julien's 'Derek' features commentary from friend and colleague Tilda Swinton. (Photo courtesy Frameline)

The World of 'Derek' at Frameline32

Max Goldberg June 25, 2008

It goes without saying that sexuality is never far from the surface of Derek Jarman’s films, something he himself is clear enough accounting for in the lengthy 1990 interview which forms the back bone of Isaac Julien’s documentary portrait Derek. Over the sepia, postwar home movies that Jarman worked into films like The Last of England (1988), the artist recounts getting caught in bed with a boy during prep school and being "raked over the coals" for it—something which caused him to redirect any sexual energy he had into painting and collecting into his twenties, and later persisted in the vacuum-sealed air of solitary fixation in which his films seemed to play out. Later, accompanying shots of nubile lads and Scorpio Rising (1964) leather, Jarman emphasizes his desire to have sex in public as a kind of a revenge on the society which would repress his desires—a neat enough corollary for the let-it-blurt axiom of his serviceable film style. This contrast between amour fou and a rigid sense of self-preservation rivets Jarman’s collected works, though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from Derek, a documentary tribute which does not seek to enlarge or complicate the filmmaker’s legacy so much as succor its loss.

Julien, himself an art-school polymath, draws a tight circle around Jarman. The film’s narration is limited to the 1990 interview and frequent Jarman actress Tilda Swinton’s "Letter to an Angel" (available in full as an extra on the Edward II DVD). Derek traces the director’s career with straining linearity, not stopping to annotate any of Jarman’s armchair musings. Julien has a wealth of primary images to draw upon for these segments, since Jarman so compulsively manifested his passions onscreen, if anything, hedging more towards autobiography as his career progressed. Swinton conjures a paradise lost with her overheated direct address, sniveling that "things have gotten awfully tidy" since Jarman’s death. The text is read as a voice-over, with Swinton thudding through steely London, dutifully staring at the camera as Julien accents her anomie with slow spasms of rack-focusing.

These scenes can be as stuffy and ostentatious as the worst of Jarman’s work, though Swinton and Julien’s grief is genuine. "I remember the sea," Swinton begins, "I remember the garden; I remember the cottage; but most of all, I remember you, dear Derek." Jarman’s compulsive drive to visually realize his inner-life ensured his place as artist-as-icon, and Swinton and Julien aptly pay tribute to his singularity with their hermetic hagiography.

It’s a powerful evocation, though there’s a problem with any Jarman documentary which doesn’t so much as mention Christopher Hobbs (a key collaborator who worked as a production designer on all his films after 1986’s Caravaggio), or one which can let the director’s offhanded claim that his films really aren’t "arty" sail by. Jarman, who studied at the Slade and ran with Andrew Logan’s loft scene before designing sets for Ken Russell, was, of course, as arty as they come. From Sebastian (1976) on, he pitched his films between the crumbling euro-grandeur of R.W. Fassbinder and Pier Paolo Pasolini and the shockproof flash of American avant-garde filmmakers (especially Kenneth Anger and Andy Warhol). In spite of lapping up on the shores of New Queer Cinema, the most direct impact of Jarman’s cut-and-paste theatricality was probably on music videos, a bridge he himself crossed working with kindred UK aesthetes like The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys.

No matter how much Jarman may have seemed to enjoy defacing beauty (a typical image, from The Last of England, offers a bird’s-eye-view of a young buck thrusting atop a classical portrait), his films are also deeply romantic. There is always the question with Jarman’s films whether he’s relishing or lamenting all those blasted post-apocalyptic landscapes. Shattering paradise doesn’t seem make him believe in it any less, and Derek captures this overriding exuberance in visual terms, offsetting the fleshy pinks and browns of Jarman’s original footage with the cold digital blues of Tilda’s haunt.

also gleams some of the Jarmanian frisson simply by excerpting from the films themselves, perhaps winning over a new generation of curiosity-seekers. Julien probably quotes most frequently from Jubilee (1977) and The Last of England (1988), which make sense, since they’re probably Jarman’s two fiercest portraits of England’s rank-and-file decay. Frequently billed as the first punk rock movie, Jubilee seems less remarkable in hindsight for its Brechtian sloganeering ("The world’s your oyster, so eat it!"), masochism (the documentary excerpts a brutal post-coital asphyxiation) and Adam Ant-supplied affectation than for its surprisingly conservative frame. Like a warped version of A Christmas Carol, the film’s depravities are presented by an oracle to Queen Elizabeth I, living in a golden age accompanied by a androgynous poet-counselor. The gay men in the film are tortured and murdered by men-in-uniform—a recurring theme in Jarman’s work—but despite the punk mantra of "no future," the director holds fast to an idyllic vision of a "pure" past. It’s something which would come up again and again in his many Renaissance dramas and infatuation with Shakespeare, Caravaggio, Christopher Marlowe and, of course, Jesus Christ.

Jarman was a persistent rouser from the start, but he seemed to take new resolve during the Thatcher years—he responded to this perceived foe by stepping up his political advocacy and blurring the lines between drama, manifesto and autobiography. Drawing on home movies and stock footage, the poetry of T.S. Eliot and Allen Ginsberg and the banshee wails of Diamanda Galás, The Last of England is the closest Jarman ever came to achieving a visionary cinema of social unrest. The film’s delirious docu-fiction swirl oddly resembles Guy Maddin’s latest, My Winnipeg, though the tone of The Last is England is distinctly dire. Jarman discovered he was HIV-positive soon after finishing the film, and keeping true to form went loudly public with his disease—the moment he really became the saint of Julien and Swinton’s making.

The gaunt director was still perfectly capable of archness or questionable provocations in his later films, but they were streamlined enough to make his weaknesses seem like strengths. Where previously critics argued Jarman’s style wasn’t sufficiently cinematic (whatever that means), it’s hard to imagine anyone but a painter like him would have been capable of Blue (1993), his monochrome recital of AIDS. Derek doesn’t distinguish amongst Jarman’s accomplishments, but one is finally left with the sense of his being a desperately necessary filmmaker—for being an openly gay man (the film’s inclusion in the Frameline festival is a no-brainer), but also as an artist acting with impunity in a society not eager to acknowledge difference. If homosexuality and England were his two great themes, that still doesn’t account for the brash jouissance of cinema Jarman. It’s a kind of pride, an adolescent urge to dispense with convention, a quality which Swinton evokes as the "whiff" of the school play in Jarman’s movies. A recurring image of The Last of England shows a young boy guiding a boat through dark waters with a sparkling torch, and this, finally, is Jarman’s pose. Fourteen years after his death, his work still speaks loudly to the risk of discovery.