8 April 2014
Derek Jarman’s final film, the exquisite Blue, gets a glorious re-screening in London’s IMAX cinema.
I first saw Derek Jarman’s Blue in late 1994, in a nearly empty movie theatre in my university town. I’d known nothing of Jarman until I read the New Zealand Film Festival programme notes, and learned that he was gay, an experimental film director who had died of an AIDs-related illness only a few months earlier. The listing in the programme had no illustration – just a white box framed by a black square – as the Festival’s resources hadn’t quite stretched to full colour printing. Could a film really be about nothing? And more importantly, who was this apparently prolific gay filmmaker I’d never heard of?
Watching Blue was a revelatory experience. It was one of the first truly “experimental” films I remember watching – a blue screen for 90 minutes over which a soundtrack plays, mixing Jarman’s first-person narrative with a Zen-like musical score by Simon Fisher Turner. It was also one of the first gay-themed films I’d even seen – dealing openly and unapologetically with gay identity, and harnessing the miseries of the AIDS epidemic into art.
After the screening, I sought out and read Jarman’s essay collections At Your Own Risk and Modern Nature, which I think was the point where I first fell in love with him. Here was a gay culture cowboy who’d sprung from the respectable middle-classes, taken a walk on the wild side (via art school in London in the 1960s) and embraced the eventually taken up permanent residence in the counter-culture. His writings were intelligent and impassioned missives from the front line of gay life. Even his most savage and despairing polemics about HeteroSoc (his term for homophobic society) were infused everything with a gorgeously baroque, poetic sensibility, and a playful Puck-ish wit. And he was gorgeous, in a ravaged, unkempt Sephardic way. It seemed like a cruel existential joke that I’d discovered Jarman, only to have “lost” him to AIDS.
Jarman gathered around him a Bloomsbury-esque group of merry pranksters, many of whom, like Tilda Swinton, John Maybury and Sandy Powell, have gone on to have distinguished careers in the arts. Together, they made experimental films on shoe-string budgets that fused punk, poetry and queer theory. More than any other filmmaker since Kenneth Anger, Jarman was dedicated to portraying and exploring gay male desire: his film of Marlowe’s play Edward II was the first time I’d seen two men kissing on screen. His diagnosis with HIV in 1986 – in those days, still a death sentence – propelled him into further activity, and created some of the most articulate chronicles of the AIDS epidemic and the homophobia of Thatcherite Britain.
Though it was heartbreaking to think that I would never get to meet him, his writings and the example of his life were a formative influence in my accepting my own sexuality and becoming a writer. Emboldened by re-readings of At Your Own Risk, I started writing about being gay in a weekly column in the university newspaper – called, cheekily, “Fag Ends”. Jarman’s writings and film (now much more easily accessible since the birth of DVD) have stayed with me through the whole of my adult life, and form an ongoing reference point for my own work. I’ve visited his cottage and garden in Dungeness, and keep a photo of him on the wall above my writing desk. He stares directly at the camera through brown sad eyes, like a weary Doberman, while his big bushy eyebrows curve upwards into a suggestion of mischief. “Risk! Risk everything”, the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield once said, and this feels like Jarman’s legacy, too.
Though it seems strange to say that you miss someone who you never met, I miss not having Jarman around these days. There’s no one around in gay culture quite like him. Even though we now have more openly gay and lesbian artists than ever before, no one, not even the very witty and erudite Stephen Fry, can fuse politics, poetry, humour, and whimsy quite as provocatively and fantastically as he did.
This year, for the 20th anniversary of Jarman’s death, the BFI hosted a two-month season of his feature films and shorts, boldly titled Queer Pagan Punk, in recognition of his straddling of 1960s counter-culture, the 1970s artistic avante-garde and 1980s-era gay politics. Blue was the final film screened, at the IMAX cinema, and introduced by Fisher Turner and Keith Collins, Jarman’s lover at the time of his death (referred to as “HB” in Blue and in Jarman’s diaries). It was, the organisers said, the biggest audience for a cinema screening of the film held in the UK – and definitely on the biggest screen. (In 1993, Blue reached a larger audience when it was screened on Channel 4 TV, with a simultaneous stereo broadcast of the soundtrack on BBC’s Radio 3).
Blue is part meditation, part battle cry, a phantasmagoria of voices, sounds and memories floating around and above the azure blue screen. In the later stages of his illness, Jarman started to lose his sight. “The doctor… detected blue flashes in my retina,” he narrates. “I slip into a blue funk”. The blue screen affords us a “view” of Jarman’s sightlessness – denied of a moving visual image, we become, like him, acutely aware of and dependent on sound to find our way. Viewed one way, the blue screen is a morbid image: a reminder of Jarman’s failing grasp on life, and the symbolic “death” of cinema. A blank screen is the perfect correlative for a generation of gay men wiped out by AIDs and a homophobic society that refuses to acknowledge their existence. If I lose my sight, will my vision be halved?
It’s a frightening prospect, but Jarman, even the cock-eyed optimist, finds a new means of creative expression in a single colour. “O Blue arise O Blue ascend O Blue come in”, he intones, with the solemnity of a pagan rite. The blood of sensibility is blue,” he reminds us. “I consecrate myself/To find its most perfect expression.”
And so he does, his memory recalling “Blue Bottle buzzing/Lazy days”, “Pearl fishers/In azure seas”. Blue allows Jarman to forget his ravaged physical present and fly into the freedom of his imagination: “Blue transcends the solemn geography of human limits.” He offers his audience Blue as a portal to a new kind of seeing: In the pandemonium of image/I present you with the universal Blue/Blue an open door to soul/An infinite possibility/Becoming tangible.” By submitting to sightlessness, we, like Jarman, can access a realm of emotional experience that all cinema longs to attain: the realm of pure sensation.
Simon Fisher Turner’s gorgeous score matches Jarman’s prose with grace and incredible beauty. Music and text feel completely seamless, but speak to and echo each other, like dancers. He has particular fun with Jarman’s lines “Impatient youths of the sun/Burning with many colours”, moving from Zen-like tubular bells and synthesized strings into the feverish pump of a 70s disco track. “I have walked behind the sky”, Jarman exclaims, as he seeks “The fathomless blue of Bliss.” The feeling is entirely mutual. Watching Blue becomes a moving and deeply personal experience, akin to dreaming.
As we nestled into our reclining armchair-sized seats at the back of the IMAX cinema, I had to catch my breath. 20 years had passed since I’d been a student and first taken myself off to the film festival on my own to see “a gay film”. The ugly homophobia that Jarman took arms against has dispelled, somewhat, at least in the Western world, and there’s now genuine concern for the oppression of gays in Russia and Uganda. Gay marriage is legal, and metropolitan gay culture has, for better or for worse, become gentrified and commodified. The rise of retro-viral medications means that AIDS is no longer a death sentence and people living with HIV can live mostly healthy lives. Even the epidemiology of the disease has changed – once called “the gay plague”, most people living with HIV are now heterosexual women. Gay and lesbian people are slowly, if still somewhat narrowly, making their presences felt in media, the arts, sport and politics. It seems that the world Jarman lived, raged against and died in no longer existed.
With that in mind, Jarman’s film felt less like a battle cry from the eye of the storm – his politics are sealed in a time capsule of the early 1990s. Jarman’s rage at a complacent government and a depoliticised gay scene feels obsolete, but also, more troublingly, self-indulgent: ever the thespian, there’s a sense in which he revels poetically in his despair and alienation. His relatively early death means that his rage can die with him, sealed as a grim momento of the early uncaring days of the AIDS epidemic.
I wonder, though, whether he would have stayed as relevant a voice had he lived. Some artists are defined by their sense of exclusion from the world: if you took away Jarman’s alienation and placed him in liberal gay-friendly London in 2014, would he still have anything to say? Perhaps he would have applied his supple poetic mind to another creative or political path. Then again, perhaps he would have turned into yet another grizzled Peter Tatchell-like retro activist, still banging on about how much more fun free love was in the 70s and condemning modern gay life as pretentious and fatally bourgeois – tolerated because of his contribution to the past, but very much yesterday’s hero.
While there are many people, gay and straight, for whom Jarman’s life and work will endure as a torch-bearer for a radical form of gay politics, his true legacy will, I think, be as an experimental artist. Colin MacCabe’s obituary in The Independent was eerily predictive in this sense:
The final importance of Derek Jarman’s work will be decided in a future for the image which it is impossible now to predict. Whether the full potential of audio-visual technology will be used to expand or limit our imaginations is now in the balance. What is certain is that wherever there is a willingness to experiment and collaborate Jarman’s work will be a primary point of reference.
What a treat it was to revisit this wonderful film, reflect on my past and escape into the Blue again. Farewell Derek, you fabulous beast. I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave.