Profane Love: Derek Jarman and Caravaggio
I created the above video after failing at writing about Caravaggio for The House Next Door and the Summer of '86 series. I had a pile of fragments, quotes, scenes I wanted to somehow refer to, but couldn't make any of it cohere. A month or two ago, I thought about trying again by creating a sort of collage, and figured if it was too weird or unfinished for The House, I could at least post it here and be done with it. But as I looked over the collage, it felt more like some sort of script to me. "Wouldn't it be nice," I thought, "to make a film about Caravaggio?" In all my copious spare time. But the idea nagged at me, and finally I sat down to see what such a thing might look like. I transformed the essay-collage into a script-blueprint, recorded the narration, and then tried to fit images to it. I thought it would take an afternoon. It took substantially longer, and involved various software failures, lots of thinking and rethinking, a willingness to put up with some frustrating compromises after headache-inducing hours of work, and some serendipity.
In the end, I like what came out. Given endless time, there's plenty I'd change, and it's still very much a text essay that became a video essay rather than something that was conceived from the beginning as a video essay, but that's okay. Maybe I'll conceive some video essays now.
Below the cut, I'll post the script as originally written. It went through some edits as I put the video together, so this is essentially a shooting script rather than a transcript. But one of the problems I faced in putting the video together was how to signal quotations, and I never really solved that problem, so the script will at least help make it clear what is and isn't a quote.
PROFANE LOVE: DEREK JARMAN AND CARAVAGGIO
preliminary script-like object for narration
by Matthew Cheney
Death and nature made a cruel plot against you, Michele;
Nature was afraidYour hand would surpass it in every imageYou created, not painted.Death burned with indignation,Because however many moreHis scythe would cut down in life,Your brush recreated even more.—Cavalier Marinoquoted in
TITLE: NATURE WAS AFRAID
White letters on black, the obligatory credits.
The black background is different now -- still black, but more textured, with some white light reflected off the gloss at the lower left corner.
A film by Derek JARMAN.]
The paintbrush in the hand covers the diagonal texture with horizontal texture.
The paint is all black, but the single reflected light allows us to continue to see the texture.
The paintbrush in the hand is always painting quickly, always with black. What had been a flat screen shows depth: the force of the brush makes the canvas stretch. The sound of the brush on the canvas mixes with distant sounds of singing and chanting. The pale arm is vivid against the black.
Derek Jarman's Caravaggio was released in the summer of 1986, and though not exactly a blockbuster, it has endured as Jarman's most popular and accessible film, a fact that has not helped its reputation among many Jarman afficionados.
In his 1999 biography, for instance, Tony Peake said that, "for all its many fine and subtle qualities, Caravaggio exudes a whiff of staleness, even flatness." Peake makes a point of noting that a year after it was released, Jarman himself watched the film again and said he thought it was "too assured".
What may disappoint some of the more doctrinaire Jarman fans about Caravaggio is its complex and sometimes contradictory presentation of sex and politics. Especially in his post-Caravaggio work, Jarman was a determinedly didactic filmmaker, but his intuitions were more artful than his public statements, and his films were always more layered than he said they were.
In one of the best studies of Caravaggio, a monograph for the BFI in 1999, Leo Bersani and Ulysse Dutoit discuss "Jarman's willingness to sell himself short for the sake of being immediately recognized and applauded by a particular audience"--
[PHOTO OF JARMAN AND ACTIVISTS]
the audience being militant gay men and AIDS activists. "That willingness undoubtedly helped make him famous," they say, "but it also had the unfortunate result of bringing him a fame that was a tribute to his limitations rather than to his very real talent."
"Limitations" seems to me the wrong word, though, because the films themselves easily overcome their original didactic intent, and Jarman's fame (or infamy) was a useful weapon against prejudice and injustice in England in the 1980s and early 1990s. The rhetoric was neither subtle nor nuanced, but it was fighting against lifetimes of repression, a legal system that was explicitly discriminatory, a public that seemed convinced plagues only kill perverts, a media environment that thrived on sensationalism, and a disease that was daily killing scores of people in midst of life.
[AT YOUR OWN RISK COVER]
In his 1992 memoir/journal/manifesto At Your Own Risk: A Saint's Testament, Jarman wrote, "I wouldn't wish the eighties on anyone, it was the time when all that was rotten bubbled to the surface."
[LAST OF ENGLAND APOCALYPTIC SHOTS]
At the end of 1986, Jarman learned for certain what he had suspected for a while: he was HIV positive. This fact would shape the rest of his work profoundly, adding a new urgency to it, a new anger, and, at last, an elegiacal lyricism both heartbreaking and inspiring.
[FADE LAST OF ENGLAND TO BLUE]
[FADE BLUE TO FIRST SHOTS OF CARAVAGGIO]
Thus, Caravaggio stands on a cusp: it was Jarman's fourth and most commercial feature film, and it was the last feature he made before he knew for certain that he was HIV positive.
[DANCING LEDGE COVER]
Jarman's first book, Dancing Ledge, discusses his ideas for the film of Caravaggio -- a film that he had been working toward since the late 1970s. The book was published in 1984, a year before he would be able to start filming the movie.
FROM DANCING LEDGE: “I’ve started the third Caravaggio script… Looking back over the first scripts, the narrative seems strong enough but the dialogue is dry and rather pretentious. … There is nothing more excruciating than English Historical Drama, the stuff that is so successful in America and is usually introduced by Alistair Cook as Masterpiece Theatre; in which British stage actors are given free reign to display their artificial style in period settings.”
[IMAGE FROM BRIDESHEAD REVISITED]
TITLE: ART LOVER, ART OBJECT
[MONTAGE OF WHAT IS DESCRIBED]
In one of the earliest scenes, Caravaggio announces its major themes. A dying Caravaggio lies on a cot in Porto Ercole. A voiceover has told us some of his thoughts and dreams and memories. He fades into sleep as the image fades to black, then fades in on Caravaggio at twenty years old, newly arrived in Rome, without much work or money. He sits on some steps in an alley, painting. A balding, red-faced man approaches and picks up one of the finished paintings lying around. In the script and credits, he's known only as the Art Lover. They talk price. Another man, older than Caravaggio but younger than the Art Lover, watches -- manager? Pimp? Caravaggio and the Art Lover agree on a price, they go inside. Cut to a swirling scene of intoxication -- the Art Lover, his shirt unbuttoned, his trousers at his heels, stumbling around Caravaggio, who dances round and round while tossing a bottle of wine from hand to hand. Caravaggio collapses onto some bedding and pulls out a knife.
[SCENE: “Oggetto d'arte!" he says to the Art Lover. "Ed io sono molto caro." And then he translates: "In plain English, mate, I'm an art object and very very expensive -- you've had your money's worth.”]
Art and desire commodified. Desire for art is desire for the artist. The art lover as john. The artist as whore.
[FREEZE ON CARAVAGGIO’S FACE]
[MONTAGE OF WHAT’S DESCRIBED BELOW]
These ideas will be reiterated later with nearly all the characters that enter Caravaggio's life. He will use the man he seems so often to desire, Ranuccio, as a model for The Martyrdom of St. Matthew, and to achieve a particular look, he will fill Ranuccio's mouth with coins. He sticks the last coin in his teeth and makes Ranuccio take it with his own teeth, the closest the two men come to a kiss. In the next scene, Ranuccio and his lover, Lena, play with the coins, covering their bodies with them, passing them from mouth to mouth, tossing them around until finally they fall together in love. Art, work, love, sex. Everything is fungible.
[LENA’S DEAD BODY]
Ranuccio's fate becomes a tragic one when he lets love unbalance all the other elements of life. He kills Lena.
[C & R CONFRONTATION: "You murdered her!”, "For you! For us!”]
Ranuccio says he killed Lena "For love!". What we don't know is whether this really was for some sort of love -- it could have been from being spurned by Lena,
[LENA AND CARDINAL SCIPIONE]
who decided she could get farther in life with the pope's nephew than with Caravaggio or Ranuccio. It's possible Ranuccio has mistaken the desire to possess with the desire for love.
Caravaggio's feelings are clear, though.
[AUDIO: In plain English, mate, I'm an art object and very, very expensive.]
[CARAVAGGIO KILLS R]
As an art object, Caravaggio revels in his power.
[C & ART LOVER SLO MO]
It's there in the scene with the Art Lover, Caravaggio thrilled to taunt, thrilled to be desired, thrilled to control all the terms of the transactions.
[C & R’s BODY SLO MO]
By killing Ranuccio, though, he shatters the systems of prestige that gave him his power.
He hands his enemies, the powerful people who resent his influence, the perfect excuse to shift the balance.
[C IN EXILE WITH JERUSALAME]
And so he is exiled, with only the mute Jerusalame as a companion, the assistant he raised as a son, loyal beyond all others, living outside desire, in service to art and the artist, his loyalty unaffected by the passions of commerce. He is, above all else, a silent witness.
TITLE: ANGELIC CONVERSATIONS
[CLIPS OF YOUNG JERUSALAME, LATER, ETC — jumps through time]
Caravaggio is deceptive. It seems like an artsy biopic. It jumps back and forth in time, but usually gives us enough signposts for the progression of events to be comprehensible. It is tempting to watch and evaluate it as we would any other narrative film.
[SLOW CLIPS, MAKE SEPIA]
Doing so produces meanings, but leads to a whiff of staleness, flatness.
[FADE TO ANGELIC CONVERSATIONS]
Instead, we should remember a film Jarman made just before it and a film he made just after it. Angelic Conversations was shot in the summer of 1984 on Super-8, then transferred to videotape and blown up to 35mm for release in the fall of 1985. Jarman used the video transfer to capture a frame rate well below that of [standard] film, and to alter and degrade the image, creating a dreamy stop-motion effect. It is a lyrical rather than narrative film, with the soundtrack consisting of music and Judi Dench reading 14 of Shakespeare's sonnets.
[PAUSE TO HEAR JUDI DENCH]
Against the sounds float the images: two young men wandering around through caves and gardens and cliffs; they embrace; they kiss.
[EMBRACE & KISS]
The world beyond them is full of symbols of surveillance and violence, but the world they are able to create for themselves is less ominous, its violence usually sublimated.
[SYMBOLS OF SURVEILLANCE AND VIOLENCE]
[LESS OMINOUS IMAGES OF THE BOYS]
The film is pastoral, hypnotic, enigmatic, often beautiful and strangely touching, occasionally tedious. (More than occasionally for some critics -- the Scotsman's reviewer, William Parente, called it, "Possibly the most boring film ever made.")
[THE LAST OF ENGLAND TITLES, MONTAGE]
After Caravaggio, Jarman made another lyrical film, though one quite different in tone from The Angelic Conversation. Filmed throughout 1986, often by Jarman himself with his Super-8 camera, The Last of England is apocalyptic and overtly violent, like the screaming id The Angelic Conversation repressed. In early 1987, Jarman began wrestling with all of the footage he had shot or found, creating a rough cut that editor Peter Cartwright then helped him give further shape to. He commissioned music to mix with other collected sounds, and added some voiceover read by Nigel Terry (who had played Caravaggio).
[SOUNDS & NIGEL TERRY VOICEOVER]
"To some," biographer Tony Peake wrote, "it is a nightmare vision of Great Britain; to others, a vision of the nightmare that is Great Britain. For Jarman it was almost certainly the latter, as well as being a haunting and elegiac account of an entirely internal voyage, through despair and desecration into the welcoming arms of night."
[SPLIT SCREEN: LAST OF ENGLAND & CARAVAGGIO]
[SCREEN TAKEN OVER BY CARAVAGGIO]
[SPLIT SCREEN(S) OF CARAVAGGIO JUXTAPOSITIONS]
Caravaggio would seem to be exactly the opposite sort of film -- and in many ways, it is. But to appreciate its complexities and to enter into its emotional depths, we must remember Jarman's collage instincts and try to hold the film's many repetitions of incident and image in mind. It is a more classically balanced film than The Angelic Conversation or The Last of England, but it is still a film that conveys its meanings through juxtapositions, and it is still a film that gains energy from its mix of imagery and sound.
TITLE: A NARRATIVE OF PAINTINGS
FROM DEREK JARMAN’S CARAVAGGIO: THE COMPLETE FILM SCRIPT AND COMMENTARIES BY DEREK JARMAN (1986):
“The narrative of the film is constructed from the paintings. If it is fiction, it is the fiction of the paintings.”
[PAINTINGS AND FILM JUXTAPOSED]
“I have tried to create every aspect of the film in the ambience of the paintings. This world floats like an altarpiece supported by the sound, which we recorded ourselves in Italy… Even the rain was recorded in our hotel.”
[SCENES DESCRIBED BELOW]
“The visual grammar of this film was vital: a blue globe, the only blue in the film — Caravaggio said ‘blue is poison’ — is balanced perfectly by a blue pot in Profane Love; the camera pans across our still lifes only once to reveal the studio table, the work bench; the ivy crown of Sick Bacchus is echoed by the gold crown with which the Cardinal replaces it. Small gestures; but nothing is left to chance.”
“I have followed the pattern of Michele’s life in the film. Moments of violent action, which are recorded by his biographers with all the gusto of the yellow Press, contrasted with the calm of the studio, where even the most rowdy models are reduced to silence as they pose before the brush — or the camera. With charp concentration, the smallest gestures are fixed on the canvas…”
“Michele is a strange mixture of vanity and humility, with a confidence born of extreme doubt; a much quieter man than his biographers have allowed, secretive and withdrawn. The sudden aimless outbursts in a bright undifferentiated world are balanced by the darkened studio, where a controlled light shines that tells the story. This story, as it grew, allowed me to recreate many details of my life and, bridging the gap of centuries and cultures, to exchange a camera with a brush.”
[HOLD ON C’S FACE]
[FADE TO JARMAN’S FACE]