The Last of Jarman

Following the burst of activity in the late ’70s that produced three features in four years – 1976’s Sebastiane, 1978’s Jubilee, and 1979’s The Tempest – pioneering queer filmmaker Derek Jarman spent the first half of the ’80s chasing financing for a film about Baroque painter Caravaggio, which didn’t see the light of projector bulbs until 1986. By a cruel quirk of fate, that was also the year Jarman learned he was HIV positive, a diagnosis he received in late December with characteristic gallows humor. As he wrote in his diary, “The young doctor who told me this morning I was a carrier of the AIDS virus was visibly distressed. I smiled and told her not to worry, I had never liked Christmas.”

Painfully aware of how little time he had left, yet determined to make the most of it, Jarman set his sights on smaller, personal projects that didn’t require the largesse of a hidebound film industry that never had much use for him or the controversy his films invariably kicked up. Coming one decade after the incendiary Jubilee, 1987’s The Last of England was Jarman’s second salvo on the state of the nation, this time after eight years of Tory rule under Margaret Thatcher. That’s just one of many reasons for the pessimistic title, along with the footage of boarded-up homes, fenced-in housing estates, and abandoned buildings decorated with National Front graffiti.

Filmed in Super 8 – a medium Jarman had been working in since the early ’70s – The Last of England was shot without a script, a practice he carried over to 1990’s The Garden, a mix of Super 8, 16mm, and video effects that probes the oft-contentious intersection between religion and homosexuality. Incorporating footage of a Gay Pride parade, The Garden alternates scenes of Tilda Swinton as the Virgin Mary with a gay couple reviled by society at large and put through the Stations of the Cross for their sins. Unsurprisingly, that would not be his last word on the persecution of gay men in Britain.

“I have a deep hatred of the Elizabethan past used to castrate our vibrant present.” –Derek Jarman, Queer Edward II

The feature that represents Jarman at his angriest and most overtly political is his 1991 adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, an entirely studio-bound affair as rife with deliberate anachronisms as Alex Cox’s Walker. Its story concerns the love of King Edward II (Steven Waddington) for the disgraced Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan), who is called back to court by the newly crowned king, having been sent into exile by Edward’s father. Gaveston’s return ruffles the feathers of the church, the nobility, and Edward’s wife, Queen Isabella (Swinton, a constant presence in Jarman’s films from Caravaggio onward). All in their own ways seek to keep the lovers apart, which inspires Edward to moan more than once, “Was ever a king so overruled as I?”

As much as Jarman’s Edward II can be seen as a plea for acceptance (or at the very least tolerance) of its central gay couple, he doesn’t shy away from allowing Tiernan’s Gaveston to come off as petulant and vindictive. One of his first acts upon being bestowed the titles of Lord High Chamberlain and Earl of Cornwall is to take revenge on the Bishop of Winchester (Dudley Sutton, late of Ken Russell’s The Devils, for which Jarman did the production design at the start of his film career) for being instrumental in his banishment. Jarman shows Gaveston’s more tender side, however, when Edward’s nobles contrive to have him sent away again and the lovers’ parting dance is to Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” sung by Annie Lennox. He then raises the specter of police brutality in the scene where Gaveston is slain by the king’s enemies and stages a full-on protest by gay rights organization OutRage!, newly formed the year before. There were a handful of scenes, however – including Edward’s infamous demise by hot poker – that Jarman couldn’t be on set for due to his worsening illness, forcing him to leave them in the hands of his co-writer and associate director, Ken Butler.

“Don’t think I’m afraid of dying. It’s death that gives life its meaning and shape.” –Ludwig Wittgenstein

Butler performed the same functions on Jarman’s next feature, the unconventional 1993 biopic Wittgenstein, a playful film about a philosopher who admitted he had an underdeveloped sense of humor. Butler’s presence on set was a necessity as Jarman’s sight had been failing him for years, a condition that led to his final work, 1993’s Blue, being an entirely aural experience, with the only visual component a screen filled with the title hue.

As personal a statement as Jarman could make on film without exposing so much as a foot of it, Blue’s soundscape is made up of music, sound effects, voices, and actor Nigel Terry reading selections from the director’s diaries alongside ruminations on his loss of sight and playful associations with the color blue. (The latter are an extension of his book Chroma, which covered all the colors of the rainbow.) Throughout, his biting sense of humor is in full effect, particularly when Terry rattles off the laundry list of side effects of just one of the AIDS drugs keeping Jarman alive. Also palpable is his sadness as a recitation of names turns into a requiem for those who have gone before him. Blue is a film born of sadness, of anger, of fear, of rage, and of resignation. “My mind bright as a button, but my body falling apart.” That is the tragedy of AIDS, succinctly captured in 76 minutes.

When Derek Jarman died on February 19, 1994, he left behind a dozen features, nearly as many books, an array of music videos, and dozens of Super 8 films. A selection of these were edited into the 54-minute collage Glitterbug, scored by Brian Eno and broadcast on the BBC’s Arena a month and a half after his death. Without Jarman to write the commentary for it, Glitterbug went out without any narration, but coming from someone who spent his last years making his private life as public as possible, the identity of the man behind the camera is never in question.

Jarman’s films are currently streaming on the Criterion Channel as part of “Queer Britannia: A Derek Jarman Retrospective.”

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

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