JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Derek (Director: Isaac Julien) - August 12, 2008


4.5 4.5
76 min.

Reviewed for the 2008 Inside Out Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival
Graceful fade to Blue

This homage to one of the world’s most creative, impassioned artists (cross-references below) paints a fascinating portrait of Derek Jarman’s life through the filmmaker’s most extensive on-camera interview and a letter of retrospection written and read by long-time collaborator and friend, Tilda Swinton.

Jarman’s early days are notable for being caught in the act—at 10!—then repressing his sexuality, enduring the physical wrath of his father and slipping over to America (devouring, then smuggling home a copy of William Burrough’s Naked Lunch) and Canada to broaden his horizons and perspective as the heady ‘60s fed his penchant for being different. Starting off his cinematic experience with the Wizard of Oz had a profound effect on this Friend of Dorothy, but his Yellow Brick Road had far more deadlier perils.

Once back studying at the Slade School of Fine Art, Jarman’s studio soon became a favoured venue for underground-film nights—including Kenneth Anger’s sex-sadism-Nazi-biker fest, Scorpio Rising—where anything goes in Super 8 or on the couch. The gifted painter’s talent and honesty caught the eye of Ken Russell, giving Jarman a first-hand primer on film production as production designer for The Devils (1971).

Ever the quick learn, Jarman soon crafted his début full-length feature, Sebastiane (1976), which he describes as the “first homoerotic movie ever made.”  Many others followed—most notably Caravaggio and Edward II—some of them even made money (much to the envy/horror of the “legitimate” British film establishment who collectively peed in their knickers when Chariots of Fire (1981) garnered a quartet of nods from Oscar.

Jarman’s life-long notoriety and consistency (“You lived so clearly the life of an artist,” says Swinton) extended beyond the studio, gallery and all sizes of screens (many “home movies” are effectively spliced into director Isaac Julien’s beautifully balanced work). An ever-so-active member of Outrage (founded in 1990, an in-your-face political action group dedicated to keeping the rights of lesbians and gays in the minds of governments and on the front pages of the press), the vocal association even found its way onto the screen in Edward II. As well as the general social difficulties for LGBT, Jarman’s contracting HIV-AIDS in 1986 and then outing his positive status to the mainstream media had the desired effect of raising important issues even as he risked the scorn, snickers and accusations (“You’re a murderer”—having had so much sex in the earliest days of the “plague”) of the increasingly nervous establishment (surely no respectable folk would ever come down with God’s revenge on queers!).

As his own symptoms inevitably worsened, Jarman produced one last film before retiring to Dungeness (Prospect Cottage with its spectacular rock garden, literally in the shadow of a nuclear power plant—carcinogen source of a wholly different kind) to paint his way off the planet. Blue is a collage of texts and thoughts spoken by Jarman, Swinton, Nigel Terry, and John Quentin (“…his blue jeans around his ankles…”). Issues/experiences of AIDS are never far from the surface whose accompaniments include harp and a soundscape of the sea. The screen never shifts from a wash of blue that immediately brings to mind the “false screen” used for the special effect juxtaposition of subject matter onto places or into situations that only merge into one on through the magic of technology—o like the incredibly imaginative artist who spent a lifetime trying to find his true backdrop and a voice with which to share his insights.

What could follow the “official” end of this detail-rich peek into Jarman’s truly fantastic life, with the passed-on directives from Swinton, “less chat, more action …less dependence more love” just etched into memory? Nothing less than an encore (Jarman’s The Tempest, 1980) version of “Stormy Weather,” sung by a long-in-the-tooth diva (Elizabeth Welch), surrounded by two ranks of Pierre et Giles attired sailors. Adieu extraordinaire! JWR

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Director - Isaac Julien
Cinematography - Nina Kellgren
Editor - Adam Finch
Sound Designer - Simon Fisher Turner
Narrator - Tilda Swinton
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