ARTIST, FILMMAKER, DESIGNER, WRITER, POET, GARDENER, ACTIVIST.
The Hebden Bridge Picture House recently screened Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio (1986) from a 35mm print in their ‘reel’ film series. The print was rather worn with quite a few scratches but the definition and contrast were fine and the colour palette was great. Running for 93 minutes the film was originally by the BBFC classified at 18 and is now reclassified at 15. It was funded by the BFI / Channel 4. The script by Derek Jarman was developed from an idea by Nicholas Ward Jackson who was also associate producer.
The cinematography was by Gabriel Beristain, using Fuji film processed by Technicolor. This was excellent photography; the colours were vibrant and evocative of the artists’ work, especially in the sequences as he created his paintings. The Production Design was Christopher Hobbs who recreated the Italian settings in a London studio. As with all of Jarman’s films the design combined period recreation with anachronistic contemporary styles. The editing by George Akers worked up a complex series of flashbacks across Caravaggio’s life. Simon Fisher Turner’s music, as with the design and narrative, combined period style with the contemporary. .
Nigel Terry played the adult Caravaggio and Dexter Fletcher the young artist. Sean Bean, early in his career and looking beautifully muscular, played Ranuccio. Michael Gough was at his urbane and ironic best as Cardinal del Monte. Tilda Swinton played Lena; Nigel Davenport Gustiani; and , and Robbie Coltrane in an unusual role was Scipione Borghese. The budget of about £500,000 was extremely well spent and the film looked more expensive.. The film was awarded a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival.
The larger than usual budget [for Jarman] accounts for the number of well-known actors in the cast list. This was the first film on which Jarman worked with Tilda Swinton, who was to become a close friend and colleague. The film traces episodes in the life of the C16th painter, presented as the flashbacks of the dying artist. The film has a stronger plot than is usual in a Jarman film, but its overall effect is one of a series of tableaux. The film displays homoerotic imagery but also explores the social and economic side of the artist’s life. And the film explores the labyrinthine recesses of church and church patronage in the period.
Derek Jarman’s parents married at the beginning of World War II and his father went off to serve as an officer. The family moved around in his childhood and his father was part of the post-war reconstruction in Europe. Derek had a traditional boarding school education. So his formative years were in a post-war England where cultural changes lagged behind major economic and social changes. The cultural changes became noticeable in the 1960s with political activism, the development of Gay Liberation and of the Feminist movements. There were associated developments in the world of film. In both the USA and the UK avant-garde filmmakers, in an Underground Cinema, experimented with alternative formats like Super 8 mm and 16 mm whilst working way outside the conventions of mainstream cinema.
Derek Jarman studied at King’s College and then the Slade School of Fine Art. Here he developed his artistic skills and interests. But he also ‘came out’ as a homosexual. Along with Fine Art he also studied Theatrical Design. It was in the latter field that he first achieved notice and paid employment: for a production at the Royal Opera House.
He and a friend occupied a glorified squat and it was at a party held there that he met Ken Russell. Whilst they were rather different artists there are intriguing overlaps between these two ‘enfant terrible’ of British culture. Russell invited Jarman to work on the set designs for his infamous The Devils (1971). The film has still not had a cinematic release in a full uncut version. Jarman’s sets were notable and one of the critically praised aspects of the production. Jarman also worked on Russell’s subsequent film Savage Messiah (1972).
It was in the early 1970s that Jarman started experimenting with Super 8 mm film. He went on to produce a large number of experimental Super 8 films and also what were effectively Super 8 ‘pop videos’, especially of Punk Rock bands. Jarman continue to work on Super 8 after he progressed to 16 mm and 35 mm filmmaking. So two later feature length films, The Angelic Conversation (1985) and The Last of England (1987) were originated on Super 8. Derek recalled being influenced by Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger and also Stan Brakeage.
He entered cinematic filmmaking with Sebastiane (1976) shot on 16mm in colour and running for 85 minutes. It had Latin dialogue with English subtitles. The film was originally given an X certificate and is now classified at 18. Megalovision, James Whalley and Howard Malin. Co-directors Derek Jarman and Paul Humfress. Script: James Whalley and Derek Jarman. Cinematography Peter Middleton. Production Design Derek Jarman. Editing Paul Humfress. Music Brian Eno. Cast: Leonardo Treviglio, Barney James, Neil Kennedy, Richard Warwick, Ken Hicks, Gerald Incandela, Christopher Hobbs. Budget £35,000.
The film is set in the 4th Century and presents the story of a Roman soldier Sebastiane, later canonised by the Catholic Church as a martyr. The film was an impromptu affair. It was filmed in four weeks on the Island of Sardinia and the production crew was very much a gay circle of friends. The film is self-consciously homoerotic and remarkably explicit for the period. The use of Latin dialogue is almost unique. It achieved a certain cult status, especially in Italy and Spain. Jarman recalled that in the USA it circulated on the porn cinema circuit. He also reckoned that there was quite a box-office return for exploitation distributors. The film already displays qualities one associates with Jarman: a painterly visual sense, less concern with narrative and sometimes anachronistic depictions of period and settings.
His next feature was Jubilee (1978). Shot on 16mm in colour and running 103 minutes. The film was originally certified as an X and later reclassified – first at 18 then at 15. A Whalley-Malin Production. Scripted by Derek Jarman. Assistant director Guy Ford. Cinematography Peter Middleton. Production Design Kenny Morris and John Maybury. Costumes Christopher Hobbs. Editors Nick Barnard and Tom Priestley. Music Brian Eno. Cast: Jenny Runacre, Little Nell, Jordan, Toyah Wilcox, Wayne County, Adam Ant, Ian Charleson, Karl Johnson, Neil Kennedy, Richard O’Brien, Jack Birkett. Budget £70.000.
The film envisages a time travel journey by Elisabeth 1st forward to England in the 1970s. The film is provocatively iconoclastic, really inventive and often feels completely improvised. The crew was a mixture of gay activists and performers and members of the punk rock world.
The film appeared when the British Board of Film Censors, developing a relatively liberal treatment for films deemed ‘adult’, was coming under increasing fire from conservative moralists, including the Festival of Light. Jarman recalled meeting with a censor from the Board, whose concern was less with the film film’s content than the likely response of moral critics. It seems that they agreed a five-second cut from one sequence. The current release runs for just on 106 minutes, three minutes less than the original 109 minutes. However, it is listed by the BBFC as ‘uncut’?
In 1979 Jarman filmed a version of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. This was also shot on 16mm but had a larger budget, £150,000. The film was mainly funded by producer and director Don Boyd: who also supported the later The Last of England and War Requiem (1989). The film was made in an old country house and involved a number of familiar colleagues of Jarman. Apart from a rather camp finale the film was relatively traditional in its treatment of Shakespeare’s classic play.
Jarman continued to work on Super 8 and also experimented with the relatively new VHS video format. His The Angelic Conversation, originated on Super 8, was supported by the BFI onto a 35mm format and given an airing by Channel 4. A gay affair was accompanied by readings from Shakespearean sonnets by Judi Dench.
The next full feature film only appeared in 1986. This was partly due to the furore around explicit films created by moral critics. The MP Winston Churchill moved an Obscenity Bill in Parliament and claimed that Sebastiane and Jubilee were films
‘‘that the British public should not be allowed to see’!
Jarman response was to comment that if Rainer Werner Fassbinder was working in Britain he would probably be forced to still rely on Super 8.
In 1990 Jarman was diagnosed with Aids and this became a theme in his film The Garden. For part of the filming Jarman was in hospital and relied on his collaborators to work on the film, which he oversaw from his bed. The film is set in his home and garden near the Dungeness Nuclear Power Station. Gardening had been an interest since his childhood. The film offers a very subjective viewpoint, combining memories and creations. However Jarman still take issue with homophobic moralist, in particular the campaign around Section 28 in relation to education and the debates with the established church regarding homosexuality.
‘The Garden’ Dungeness
Despite his illness Jarman went on to make three more feature films. In 1991 he directed an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s play, Edward II. This was a modern dress adaptation with a number of familiar colleagues both in front of and behind the camera. The film is about gay and class relationships in hierarchical society. Crucially Jarman changed the ending from one of violence to one of union.
In 1993 Jarman directed a film about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. This started as a TV programme but thanks to BFI support it developed into a feature film. As usual there were number of familiar collaborators in the production team. Also, somewhat bizarrely, the producer was the 1960s radical activist Tariq Ali and the script was by Marxist-leaning academic Terry Eagleton. The film opted for minimal sets but with notable costumes and lighting.
Jarman’s final film was Blue (1993). This was a return to his experimental film work. Accompanying a continuously blue screen, a cast of the voices of his frequent collaborators read from his poetry and diaries and trace the progress of Jarman’s illness. There is an evocative soundtrack by Simon Fisher Turner.
Derek Jarman remains one of the most distinctive voices in recent British cinema. The films are full of memorable images and increasingly these enjoy evocative sounds and music. There is a substantial library of Super 8 work, experimental but extremely varied. The features have enjoyed a life at the cinema and on video and television [mainly Channel 4]. Jarman is probably most noted as an angry voice and an iconoclast – somewhat in the vein of his early mentor Ken Russell. However, whilst these films [like Russell’s] present themselves as narratives, offering some sort of story, they frequently feel like a series of episodes and tableaux. Jarman’s roots in Fine Art and Design are apparent, the strongest impressions left are usually a particular sequence or a particular example of mise en scène.
The films depend strongly on collaboration. Asked about the ‘co-operative nature of film-making’ Jarman responded
“You should try and create an environment where people can be creative with people coming up with ideas. The chance for people to come together to make something wonderful.”
One gets a strong sense of this collaborative process from his films. Derek Jarman clearly had the skills and affinities to draw people out and to enable a pooling of resources.
Jarman also claimed that he had little grasp of film technology, though he must have developed a sense of film design work in his early forays. And his work with video and Super 8 made intriguing use of film speeds and camera effects. He recorded that
“I think that it was fortunate that I was not actually trained in cinema.”
suggesting that such training bought with it a host of conventions that he wished to avoid.
“But then why should I have to be a director (in the ordinary sense of the word)? I’m not.”
Yet his films still bear a distinctive imprint, Jarman would be accorded the status of auteur – recognisable style and themes. This is partly apparent in the controversial aspect of his films, their explicit ‘queerness’ and their challenging of establishments. Jarman’s experience as a homosexual in what was until recently a very repressive society is voiced in all his films. And he offers a particular antipathy to many of the organised religions with their attempts to control sexuality. It is noteworthy than in Sebastiane this Christian saint is presented as a sun worshipper.
Yet the films often have a strong sense of tradition. Wikipedia lists his nationality as ‘English’ rather than British. And his upbringing proceeded the shocks and changes of the 1960s and his world was established before the multicultural changes of the 1970s and 1980s. Jarman himself admitted that his experience shaped and limited his work and there were aspects of modern Britain that were only reflected marginally.
Apart from the Underground filmmakers already mentioned Jarman recorded the impact of The Wizard of Oz (1939) and La Dolce Vita (1960). At other times he praised Jean Cocteau and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Intriguingly he recalled just missing the opportunity of being an extra on Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) when that director was working in London.
Jarman was a very accessible artist. There are numerous interviews in which he was always open, courteous and slightly self-deprecating.
Developed from the notes written for a series of screenings at Bradford’s National Media Museum. Films with production details were screened then.
Derek Jarman: A Portrait Artist. Film-maker. Designer. This includes a series of articles to coincide with a major exhibition at the Barbican in London. The book is beautifully illustrated, though the chapters on the films are not that detailed. Take 10 Contemporary British Film Directors by Jonathan Hacker and David Price includes a more detailed study of Jarman’s films up until 1990. Isaac Julien’s film profile Derek (2008) includes on the DVD version includes a substantial interview with Derek Jarman by Colin McCabe from 1992 and some examples of his Super 8 work.