Derek Jarman (1942-1994)
Leading avant-garde British filmmaker whose visually opulent and stylistically adventurous body of work stands in defiant opposition to the established literary and theatrical traditions of his sometimes staid national cinema. With influences ranging from the eccentric writing-directing team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger to seminal gay aesthetes Jean Cocteau and Kenneth Anger, Jarman advocated a personal cinema more dedicated to striking imagery and evocative sounds than to the imperatives of narrative and characterization. His comments on one of his strongest films are revealing: The Last of England works with image and sound, a language which is nearer to poetry than prose. It tells its story quite happily in silent images, in contrast to a word-bound cinema."
Like the noted American underground filmmaker Anger, Jarman displayed a fascination with violence, homoeroticism, gay representation and mythopoeic imagery. Proudly and openly gay, Jarman shared news of his HIV infection with his public and incorporated his subsequent battles with AIDS into his work, particularly in The Garden (1990) and Blue (1993). Excavating and reclaiming suppressed gay history was an ongoing project that informed his several unconventional biopics: SEBASTIANE (1975), Jarman's sun-drenched directorial debut about the martyred Christian saint; the unusually accessible and slyly anachronistic Caravaggio (1986); the raw and angry modern dress version of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II (1991); and the stark and theatrical Wittgenstein (1993).
Trained in the fine arts, Jarman began as (and remained) a designer of sets and costumes for ballet and opera. He made his first films (super-8 shorts) while working as a set designer on Ken Russell's THE DEVILS (1971) and SAVAGE MESSIAH (1972). He continued to paint and exhibit his work at London galleries while making his own films, which also reflected a painterly concern with composition. Jarman's features, shorts and music videos display an artist's lively interest in contemporary and historical English culture. In JUBILEE (1978), Queen Elizabeth I is conducted on a tour of a futuristic England in which violence and anarchy hold sway; the film became something of a beacon of the punk movement in the late 1970s. Jarman's take on THE TEMPEST (1979) was a typically irreverent and somewhat rambling reworking of Shakespeare's play. The WWI poems of Wilfred Owen, set to the music of Benjamin Britten, shaped War Requiem (1988), a powerful essay on the wastes of wars past while commenting on the modern ravages of AIDS.
Jarman's feature about the painter Caravaggio was perhaps his most popular film. This stylishly rendered biopic dramatized the conflicts between the artist's need for patronage, his religious beliefs and his sexuality. Noting that Caravaggio consistently painted Saint John as muscle-bound, Jarman suggested that the painter found sexual as well as aesthetic elation with the street thug he used as a model. The director also had fun creating filmic facsimiles of some of the painter's best known works. Curiously, although it undercuts narrative conventions by using heavy-handed anachronisms—typewriters, motorbikes—the film nevertheless reiterated one of the hoariest clichés of Hollywood biopics such as LUST FOR LIFE: i.e., that art is little more than immediately recorded experience, "life" thrown directly onto the canvas; the process of artistic creation is completely glossed over.
Like the celebrated American underground filmmaker Stan Brakhage, Jarman was a compulsive film diarist. He chronicled much of his life on super-8 film and incorporated this footage, blown up to 35mm, into his more personal, non-linear narrative films. Jarman's super-8 movies of beautiful young men in dramatic landscapes featuring caves, rocks and water lent a lushly romantic mood to THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION (1985), a non-traditional rendering of Shakespeare's sonnets. Last of England, a raging, despairing, and emotionally overwhelming vision of Britain as an urban wasteland, intercut shots of Jarman writing in his room with excerpts from home movies shot by the director, his father, and his grandfather and surreal tableaux of violence and degradation. Pastoral sequences of Jarman's childhood evince a longing for simpler times for the filmmaker and the nation. Jarman described himself as one of the last generation to remember "the countryside before mechanization intervened and destroyed everything."
Though much of Jarman's work is intensely personal, it was also supremely collaborative. He worked with many of the same people—in front of and behind the camera—on each of his projects. He welcomed and encouraged contributions; significant Liverpool sequences in THE LAST OF ENGLAND were shot by members of Jarman's crew without his direction. Composer-sound designer Simon Fisher Turner provided powerful scores and/or densely layered soundtracks for CARAVAGGIO, THE LAST OF ENGLAND, THE GARDEN, EDWARD II and BLUE. Distinguished actor Nigel Terry starred as the tortured Caravaggio, and his rich deep voice narrated THE LAST OF ENGLAND and parts of BLUE. Jarman's most important performer was the prodigiously talented Tilda Swinton, whose intensity and unusual beauty graced THE LAST OF ENGLAND, WAR REQUIEM, THE GARDEN, EDWARD II, WITTGENSTEIN, BLUE and Jarman's segment of Aria (1988).
In his last years, Jarman was an outspoken advocate for the rights and dignity of gays and PWAs (Persons With AIDS), but art remained his primary cause. A champion of film art and a dedicated experimentalist, he was a critic of, and at odds with, what he saw as the stifling, repressive commercialism of mainstream cinema. Always struggling for funds, Jarman produced his first seven features for a combined cost of only $3 million. His final film, Blue, was his most unconventional—an unchanging field of blue over which we hear voices and sounds. Blind and mortally ill, Jarman remained a visionary film maverick. He authored a number of books, including a 1984 autobiography, Dancing Ledge. Jarman succumbed to AIDS complications at age 52.