The end of empire
Maverick filmmaker Derek Jarman is the subject of a London exhibition, writes James Christopher
DEREK Jarman, the British filmmaker who died of AIDS in 1994 at 52, was a one- off. In his paintings and films, he mixed high art, sex, flippancy, invective, politics and desire. He did it with barely any money. He courted outrage, which he loved, and his legacy is potent.
Jarman is one of the few original thinkers that British cinema has produced. Actually British cinema had very little to do with him, which is probably why he faded so rapidly into the ether.
Jarman broke all the school rules. He was playing with Super 8 art house films in the late 1960s and ’ 70s, before anyone had the slightest clue what art house meant. He was shamelessly fond of highbrow Shakespeare and lowbrow froth. And even more shamelessly queer. Who else could possibly have made Sebastiane ( 1976), the first homosexual feature film that enjoyed itself, in Latin? Certainly not Andy Warhol.
In Jarman’s biggest films, from the punk rock anthem Jubilee in 1977 to the achingly personal Blue in 1993, he set the gold standard of cinema experiment for an entire generation.
The establishment cleverly absorbed what Jarman had to offer and thanked him by trying to marginalise his greatest hits. On August 17, 2002, eight years after Jarman’s death, Tilda Swinton, his most famous and glamorous muse, published an epistle entitled Letter to an Angel . What would dear Derek make of our brave new world of filmmaking, she pondered.
Jarman is the subject of a retrospective exhibition, curated by Isaac Julien, at London’s Serpentine Gallery. The centrepiece is a 12- hour interview with Jarman, conducted by his great friend and producer Colin McCabe.
In a documentary film, Derek , Julien has hard- boiled that last will and testament down to a mere 76 minutes. It was shot at Jarman’s fisherman’s cottage on Dungeness Beach in Kent, after a death scare in March 1990. It’s a story about a wonderful individual and a document about life in England from the 1950s to the ’ 90s.
McCabe has implanted vintage splinters of Jarman’s Super 8s and recruited Swinton to do a voice- over. Swinton’s thoughts rattle around the soundtrack as she stomps moodily across London Bridge, cursing life, the film universe and everything in between. The actor, who won an Oscar last month for her supporting role in Michael Clayton , starred in seven of Jarman’s best films, including Caravaggio in 1986, Edward II in 1991 and Blue . She is one of those rare British actors who can regularly call the shots in Hollywood if needs be.
‘‘ I wouldn’t say that I’ve become mainstream,’’ Swinton says.
‘‘ The significant point is that the major studios have been employing people like Andrew Adamson, Spike Jonze, David Fincher, and Francis Lawrence — top- end mavericks — who have thought of me when putting together their $ 200 million features. Time was when no one would have known who I was.’’
Jarman has always been her guiding light, she says. ‘‘ The first time I met him ( as a young Cambridge graduate in 1985), he opened the door of his flat in Phoenix House with a camera up to his eye and never stopped shooting.
‘‘ Derek made filmmakers out of all of us who worked with him. Our work came out of the preindustrial atmosphere of an art context, not the segregated professionalism of industrial filmmaking. This is the atmosphere I carry with me everywhere, like an amniotic sac. It is the only way I know to work.’’
Swinton’s public lament for this lost, almost romantic style of independent movies has helped to make a truly exciting exhibition and an overdue reckoning of an unpredictable auteur. The Serpentine has scraped together long- lost Jarman artworks and delicate Super 8 films, preserved by producer and cinematographer James Mackay.
Jarman made an impression for several reasons, McCabe says. He was charismatic, creatively brave in his work and was one of the first famous people in Britain to admit, in 1986, that he was HIV- positive.
‘‘ Sebastiane was not a very good film at all,’’ McCabe says. ‘‘ But the impact of its release was sensational. There were queues around the block. It was the first film of its kind. It was supposed to be a joke. Boys speaking Latin to each other? Derek called it his gay- lib film. It was the first genuinely ‘ out’ film ( that) just celebrated being gay.’’ Jarman was also prophetic. ‘‘ In retrospect, one sees how much he saw,’’ McCabe says. ‘‘ Derek was uncannily aware of the way Thatcherism incubated new Labour; and the fake patriotism of the Falklands war; and boomtown Britain.
‘‘ Films like Edward II and The Last of England were very prescient. He was obsessed by the way his parents’ generation dismantled the empire and created a welfare state. He was aware how self- confidence had evaporated and what you get in its place.’’
An award has been initiated in Britain to find an artist- filmmaker ‘‘ who is to our times what Derek Jarman was to his’’. The judges are looking for work that enshrines the spirit of Jarman: collaborative, irreverent, not afraid to embody high art and visual daring.
Irreverent: Isaac Julien and Tilda Swinton, Jarman’s most famous muse, at the filmmaker’s grave. Julien has curated a retrospective on Jarman
One- off: Jarman’s 1986 film Caravaggio