December 06, 2008

Our winter of Are we discontent with Derek Jarman?

Hello all. A small group of us have been having the occasional post-screening discussion in response to the Jarman retrospective now on. As I noted yesterday, none of us have been quite sure how to gauge our encounter with Derek Jarman. Weighing in below are Brecht Andersch, our projectionist, and Stephen Hartman, film-loving psychoanalyst! (You may remember them from our summer of Alexanderplatz). If you have thoughts, we’d love to hear them.

Stephen Hartman: So fond of techno am I that I have always refused to listen to—I’m sure I’ve even said “hated”—opera without knowing much about it. Then, recently, a dear friend set out to convert me. We spent a wonderful evening listening and comparing. As I write now, my new heroine Régine Crespin is belting out Verdi. Alas, me…a convert?

Unfortunately, diving back into Derek Jarman after many years had the opposite effect. Where I was once an Act Up boy overwhelmed by the poetry of The Garden and in tears at the New York premier of Blue (which, I hope, will still reduce me to rubble), I left Caravaggio mildly interested, The Last of England bored, and The Garden all but obtunded. People change. And the films and music that give us identity age. I embraced Jarman in the 1980’s because the lush sensibility mixed with righteous indignation and a certain academic veneration of beauty had operatic strength. Why now, I wonder, does Jarman’s vision seem dated dull? Postmodern without punch? Operatic in its hysteria but without a unifying beat?

There are so many magnificent images. Yet, in the way they knit together, something seems lacking, unmetabolized. It was, of course, a very different time. People were dying of AIDS everywhere with no end in sight and WMD’s were circling around the American southwest on train tracks, set to launch at any moment. It was a jittery time: melancholic even in advance of death. Jarman captured thanatos well—if not with a kind of aesthetic hyperbole that could be hypnotic or off-putting relative to your anger at the unassimilated thud of yet another death.

At some point, though, the fat lady sings and there is resolution. I’m afraid that for Jarman, at least in the films we have seen so far, the tragedy is still pending. I’m going to try to go back to that time of waiting for the inevitable. But it is rubbing me the wrong way now that my heroes are the ones armed with hope rather than despair.

Brecht Andersch: While I must confess my previous encounters with Jarman’s work didn’t make me a fan, and this extensive retrospective has not been a conversion experience, I’ve nevertheless found some elements in the work to admire and enjoy, such as:

1) This is an artist of confidence and audacity – Jarman is a man full of feeling and passion, and whatever fears he faces regarding the difficulties of expressing a complex and thorny vision are met face-on and dispatched.

2) His work is deeply personal – each film seems to tell a version of his own story, or provide an update as to how events have affected the development of his vision. Many of my favorite filmmakers, writers, and artists work in this mode.

3) The filmmakers he emulates and to whom he pays repeated homage are artists I admire immensely: Michael Powell, Cocteau, Pasolini, Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopoulos. At one point in The Last of England, a rapid-fire montage of black and white imagery alternating with shots dominated by red or blue (in a manner clearly influenced by Anger and Markopoulos) is immediately followed by a homage to the ending of Pasolini’s Salo: two soldier/terrorists dance near a fire burning in the middle of the street, machine-guns slung over their shoulders as they waltz…

4) Jarman has a bold and unusual sense of color and film form in general, and the results are often beautiful. One technique he employs repeatedly is to blow up super-8 Kodachrome to 35mm. As a lover of this now almost defunct “home movie” stock, I find it very exciting to encounter its deep, saturated reds and blues on the big screen, though, as I’m also something of a film purist, the pixels acquired from the video intermediate of The Last of England are a bit disconcerting. More to my taste is that super-8 Kodachrome moment in Jubilee—blown up directly to 35mm—in which a ballerina performs, out-of-doors and nearby a fire. Through deft in-camera editing and graceful camera movement and zooms (Jarman no doubt operating the camera himself) Jarman becomes his dancer’s partner, and the film and the world come alive…

5) Jarman is unyieldingly honest, his work over-stuffed with contradictory impulses and ideas. Just when I’m ready to write him off as an unredeemable chiliast, for example, he makes a whole film—Wittgenstein—dedicated to the story of a man who must learn to live with all of life’s roughness and confusion. As alluded to above, each of Jarman’s films is a chapter in a too-early concluded spiritual autobiography, and this kind of rigorously honest self-appraisal—in a quest for a deeper encounter with Self—is extremely attractive to me.

Comments (2)

  • I saw the Caravaggio, Edward II & War Requiem screenings. I’m still having a hard time expressing coherent thoughts about these films. It’s clear that Jarman always studied up on his source material, no matter how he ended up manipulating it on film. I do feel that the movies have become dated, but I would be sorry to miss some of Tilda Swinton’s performances. The films are certainly artsy-looking & dramatically blunt, but at least Jarman is always true to his own aesthetic. One feels that it is definitely one man’s vision, however idiosyncratic, up there on screen.

  • I saw Jubilee recently for the first time. I left there wondering in a head scratching kinda way, was this the vision of the future per the punk movement ? However Days later I found myself thinking about this film and turning it over in my head. I can see where the effect of the film would have been different in its time but it is resonant even 30 years later.

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