The end of em­pire

Mav­er­ick film­maker Derek Jar­man is the sub­ject of a Lon­don ex­hi­bi­tion, writes James Christo­pher

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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.

The Times

Pic­ture: Nina Kell­gren

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

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