The Saturday Auteur

Derek Jarman: the enfant terrible whose brilliance unnerved the establishment
By Cal Brockel | Film+TV | 11 September 2021

Still from Caravaggio by Derek Jarman, 1986

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of The Saturday Auteur

In the final moments of Derek Jarman’s 1993 biopic Witgenstein, John Maynard Keynes tells a story to the dying philosopher. He describes an intelligent man caught between a pure frozen world of philosophical logic, and the rough true Earth that was really all around him. He was marooned between Earth and ice, and that was the cause of all his grief. Jarman himself did not suffer this fate; in his art he never sacrificed the emotional truth of experience for neat idealistic cohesion.

Still from The Last of England by Derek Jarman, 1987

1970s and Jubilee

A multidisciplinary poet and artist, Jarman’s first job in cinema was designing sets for Ken Russell’s The Devils (1972), which he did alongside experimenting with his own Super-8 shorts.

Jarman began his career with radical confidence. He was openly gay in an era when homosexual acts were only recently decriminalised (1967) and yet his films are unapologetically queer. He pulled historical figures and stories into his own boldly sensual world. An act of rebellious reinterpretation of the iconography of England – an England that was still staunchly set against Jarman.   

His first feature was the controversial retelling of the martyrdom of Saint Sebastiane, Sebastiane (1976). Iconoclastic and camp, the work celebrates homosexual desire with an overtness that made waves. It was at once sensitive and stark and shared many of the DIY elements that distinguished Jarman’s early films.

Sebastiane also featured the punk icon Jordan Mooney, whose look fascinated Jarman. She inspired his next film, Jubilee (1978), which may well be the greatest documentation of the punk movement. The film is a dystopian romp through an alternative present through the time travelling eyes of Queen Elizabeth I. Mooney plays Amyl Nitrate, an anti-historian, providing an account of the world as the film flits around violence, sex, fascists and performance. (The only violence in the film that does not feel performative comes from the police.) A key theme of the film is how everything can be corrupted, even the nihilistic punk energy of our main characters. But as Jenny Runacre’s Bod says, “Don’t cry. Crying won’t change anything. Help me make these firebombs instead.”

Still from Jubilee by Derek Jarman, 1978

1980s and Caravaggio

Still from Caravaggio by Derek Jarman, 1986

Jarman continued his feature work with a highly original adaptation of The Tempest (1979). It’s one of the most filmic renditions of Shakespeare, eschewing some of the verbosity and bringing in dark and absurd imagery that’s borders on Lynchian.

Alongside Jarman’s features were numerous shorts and music videos, each developing his signature choppy, montaged style. This painterly stylistic approach he brought to his shorts can be seen in his montage features like The Angelic Conversation (1985). 

Still, ‘The Garden’ by Derek Jarman, 1990

Jarman’s most accessible work came in 1986 with Caravaggio. The rough and ruddy baroque visuals and emphasis on class chimed with an 80s audience that was seeking a post-punk arthouse. The film is more traditional in narrative and performance than his earlier work. It was the first film role for Tilda Swinton who shines in this film as the doomed Lena.

At the same time, Caravaggio is no departure from Jarman’s own artistic progression. It once again explores the complex sexuality of a historical figure and centres the male form. Every frame explores the relationship between sex, death, money and exploitation. The church’s decadence and self-righteousness were mirrored in Thatcher’s Britain  – it was still the powerful who decided what was considered ‘profane love’.  These themes were later explored further in The Last Of England (1987); Jarman’s anti-Thatcherite montage which features a man getting aroused by a Caravaggio painting of a cupid.

In the latter part of the 80s, Jarman was diagnosed as HIV positive. He had become a major voice in gay liberation politics in Britain, perhaps most notably in the battle against section 28 – which prohibited the ‘promotion of homosexuality’ in schools and local authorities, a law that was only repealed in Scotland in 2000 and in the rest of the United Kingdom in 2003. Jarman was increasingly unwell over this period. He made the deeply personal The Garden from his home in Dungeness with his closest collaborators. Maintaining the feeling of memory and dream, as though falling in and out of consciousness, the work opens with the line: “I bring you a journey without direction, and no sweet certainty.”

1990s and Blue

Still, ‘The Garden’ by Derek Jarman, 1990

Jarman’s farewell film Blue was released in 1993. Visually, it contains nothing but an unchanging screen of International Klein Blue to reflect the blindness that had now taken the filmmaker. The film is made up of diaries and poetry written by Jarman as he examined his illness, and confronted his coming death, set alongside a soundscape by Brian Eno. The wistful struggles described are all the more powerful for the visual stillness. The inescapable blue seeps out of the screen and lights the room it’s viewed in. The bright blue is there even when the watcher closes their eyes. For Jarman ‘Blue is darkness made visible’.

Wittgenstein, on his deathbed, lamented, “I’d like to have written a philosophical work consisting entirely of jokes. Sadly I didn’t have a sense of humour.” Jarman had a sense of humour, he had a sense of the power his erotic, funny and playful films would have. He was never afraid to chart his own messy path. He wasn’t searching for artistic purity, but raw unashamed expression.

Still from Jubilee by Derek Jarman, 1978

In his final years, Jarman resolved to get as much out of life as possible. This is perhaps most touchingly on display in his beloved garden: set against a nuclear power station at the filmmaker’s Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, a beautiful array of plants grow from hard shingle amid the wind and salt from the sea.

This final flare of creativity during his decline was an earthy distillation of what came before. While Jarman also made sculptures from the flotsam and found objects washed up on shore; breathing new life into debris. There is the natural (volcanic black tar, chunks of land, driftwood totems) mixed with the unnatural (photographs, horsewhips and barbed wire) set amongst cultivated, hardy native plants. Jarman’s sculptures share so much with his montage films that set the natural human form against concrete, rubble and decay.

Jarman’s Dungeness garden still survives as a testament to resilience. Recently saved from being sold after a highly successful £3.5m campaign, the building and garden is now preserved by Art Fund.  In Jarman’s own words:Every flower is a triumph.”

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