Painter, stage designer, author, diarist, gardener, and, above all, film maker, Derek Jarman found plenty of opportunities in his output to be original. Throughout all his artistic works the same concerns and themes make themselves felt; gay liberation, an un-ironic commitment to values associated with ‘high culture’, a highly charged sense of sexual outsiderdom, and a willingness to incorporate his personal space into an artistic realm.
Jarman’s cinema was always intensely personal. In producing his films on shoe-string budgets, as artisanal rather than commercial projects, he championed a DIY aesthetic that questioned the decade of immense stylisation; Dirty Dancing and Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, eschewing this for a more visceral and provocative use of colour, sound and visual juxtaposition that characterised his work by its poetic vision rather than its narrative pace. Jarman’s approach to making film was always low budget and slightly atomised. He made most of films on Super-8, simply because it was cheap, ‘£3.50… gave you three minutes at 24 frames a second.’ This led to a compiling of various snippets of film cuts waiting to be properly produced, and gives many of his films their characteristic jumpy, fragmented and frenetic aesthetic. His final film Glitterbug (1994), which was released posthumously, is a compilation of many years of this footage that draws attention to the basic apparatus of its making.
He continued to produce Super-8 footage throughout his life, constantly experimenting with stop-motion photography and re-filming, and developed a personal cinema relatively untrammelled by financial stringencies, which refused to be pigeon-holed, restricted, or conventionalised by a growingly commercial industry. Jarman would refer to himself as ‘cine-illiterate’, and commented regularly on the advantage that the lack of formal filmmaking training gave him. Although his own expertise developed over the course of his career, he continued to rely on the skill of his collaborators both behind and in front of the camera, thus drawing out ideas which might have otherwise remained unspoken.
In early films, the director can be seen, parading across the screen with friends or simply alone, musing to overdubbed operatic-style compositions likely discovered during his time on the stage. Jarman’s friend and associate filmmaker Isaac Julien commented, ‘in a prophetic sense he foretold the ways in which artists would be working now […] the interdisciplinary approach to making work was part of Jarman’s oeuvre.’ First and foremost a painter, and a graduate of the Slade’s fine art course, Jarman seemed destined for art and design, first making a name for himself as a stage designer. Consequently, he worked as a production designer with Ken Russell on The Devils (1971), an esoteric and flamboyant adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s novel The Devils of Loudun (1954), in which a 17th century Roman Catholic priest is executed for witchcraft. Russell’s elaboration of historical fiction was to play a huge part in the making of Jarman as a pioneering filmmaker with one foot in the contemporary world and one in the historical.
Jarman’s first two films, Sebastiane (1974) and Jubilee (1978), early predecessors of his highly charged visual style, highlighted Jarman’s main concerns as a gay filmmaker. By contrasting two periods of English history, the Renaissance and Britain on the occasion of Elizabeth II’s 25th year on the throne, Jubilee is a clear attempt for Jarman to come to terms with the Renaissance, accentuating the homoeroticism implicit in early-modern constructions of gender, and making use of this to oppose contemporary sexual oppression in both cinema and society. Likewise, in Sebastiane, Jarman’s protagonist is a Christian, homosexual martyr, highlighting the disparity between widely accepted notions of sexuality and religiosity. This method of filmmaking, juxtaposing the contemporary with the historical past, was a regular trope of Jarman’s, and he consistently made clear how far from enlightened contemporary ideas of sexuality and gender-norms actually were.
This is evident in his film of the life of Renaissance painter Michele Caravaggio. Like Sebastiane, in which the Roman legion relaxes in the surf with a Frisbee, Caravaggio (1986) avoids the strictly re-creative urge of the historical biopic in favour of a postmodern anachronism – we hear, as well as witness, motorcycles and pocket calculators in what appears to be the 17th century. Caravaggio is also characterised by its contemporary restaging of the historical paintings by which we now know the artist. The set-ups constantly reassemble Caravaggio’s canvases and, indeed, imitate other artists of that period, and the anachronism is none the more obvious as when Caravaggio’s fiercest critic begins pummelling away on his typewriter in the bath.
This restaging of historical drama with the instruments of contemporary life was a thought provoking foray into the falsely constructed world of cinema. Many filmmakers of the period, including Ken Russell and Cerith Wyn Evans, were influenced by Jarman’s method. His insouciance towards cinema’s visual code made room for a queer, postmodern playfulness that questioned the inflexibility of historical place markers and the assumptions that came with them. In the face of a grand line of homosexual art, literature and cultural heritage, early ‘80s Thatcherite severity and the Section 28 act were made to look look shallow and disaffected in Jarman’s films. Similarly, in the oeuvre of Ken Russell, there are few happy or long relationships between opposite sexes. Instead, only forbidden or unconsummated relationships seem to last or end in love, and his films regularly stage this delineation by contrasting it with slightly outmoded customs or societies.
The portrayal of homosexual love comes to its apotheosis in Blue (1994), the most uncompromising and original of Jarman’s films. Made during the terminal stages of his illness, he was diagnosed eight years before as HIV+, Jarman’s film is a meditation on the conflicts and difficulties of homosexual relations in that period. Just one colour provides the complete image-track to Blue, and the film is particularly evocative in the knowledge that Jarman made it close to blindness. It depicts the inadequacy of visual art in a world invisible to its maker, and stands as a metaphor for the blindness of contemporary society where gay rights are so-oft overlooked. The unchanging blue-glow of the screen is accompanied by a soundtrack in which four voices, including Jarman’s own investigation into his experience with the virus, provide an account of the eponymous ‘blue’ that seems sometimes a human figure, sometimes a feeling, or simply an experience in itself. Blue provides a demanding and exciting cinematic spectacle despite featuring no moving image. It stands as Jarman’s final refutation of the constraints of traditional filmmaking, a fitting testimony to his personal vision. Jarman’s method was always unconventional; his challenge to cinematic constructs stand as apposite symbol of his refutation to the strict cultural delineations, from sexuality to the norms set by historical precedents, of the present he so impishly subverted.
‘Intimate Shooting: The cinematic method of Derek Jarman’ is an article written by Ross Fraser-Smith. You can read more about Ross on The Dots and WordPress.