Derek Jarman and the Memory Palace of Life

This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of Rain Taxi. Elements were also used in my video essay "Profane Love: Derek Jarman & Caravaggio", which I began work on shortly after writing this piece.

Derek Jarman and the Memory Palace Of Life

by Matthew Cheney

Derek Jarman
University of Minnesota Press ($18.95)

Derek Jarman
University of Minnesota Press ($18.95)

Tony Peake
University of Minnesota Press ($24.95)

Derek Jarman died in 1994, leaving behind him one of the most important bodies of work of any artist or filmmaker of his generation, an oeuvre that challenged orthodoxies of sexuality, politics, and aesthetics. Though best remembered for such films as Jubilee, Caravaggio, and Blue, Jarman was also a prolific writer, particularly as a diarist. The University of Minnesota Press has been reissuing many of his published works in uniform paperback editions; additionally, they have reprinted Tony Peake’s 1999 biography of Jarman.

Though very much of its time, Jarman’s work has sustained its power and relevance long beyond its creator’s death. Having found meaning and pleasure within the bohemian, anti-establishment world of the late ‘60s British avant-garde art scene, Jarman never hesitated in presenting an identity for himself that was defiantly queer. At first, this was not a political identity. In his 1992 memoir/journal/manifesto At Your Own Risk, Jarman wrote that “I danced the sixties away but I didn’t see that as hedonism; it was a REVOLUTIONARY GESTURE — you should have seen the way the other students reacted to two men kissing in public. I believed we could bring change with individual actions, it wasn’t linked to any conventional political blueprint. One person in one room quite cut off could change the world.” During the early 1970s, Jarman attended many of the meetings of the Gay Liberation Front, but though he enjoyed the more pranksterish elements of their activism, Peake quotes him as saying he “disliked these well-meaning rather lonely people laying down the law … there was an element of joylessness about it.” His early films were proudly queer (a label he came to prefer to “gay”), but their queerness was in service to their countercultural core. Jubilee (1978), his second feature-length film, was an anarchic vision of an apocalyptic England (or an apocalyptic vision of an anarchic England) full of punk rockers. With the arrival of AIDS and Thatcherism in the 1980s, though, Jarman would become radicalized, his bohemian individualism and sense of humor evolving into furious, confrontational queer communalism.

While Jarman was alive, and in the years immediately following his death, he tended to be celebrated or denounced for the didactic qualities of his art. Tony Peake’s biography both demonstrates and suffers from this, for though the book is well researched, comprehensive, and even-toned in its presentation, it was nonetheless a product of Peake’s friendship with Jarman, and so his assessment of Jarman’s individual works is not as useful as his narration of the events and contexts of Jarman’s life. Of Jarman’s most popular and accessible film, 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."

This is a telling moment in the biography. What disappoints 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" — 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. In At Your Own Risk, Jarman wrote, "I wouldn't wish the eighties on anyone, it was the time when all that was rotten bubbled to the surface."

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. It is from this time that most of his books were published, because in addition to wanting to use his art to goad a better society into being, his awareness of how little time he likely had led him to try to fit in as much as he could. That he did so while suffering the effects of his illness and medications testifies to his extraordinary will to live. “I’m hanging on to life for dear life,” he wrote in his last diaries, collected posthumously as Smiling in Slow Motion. “I would rather be alive than dead, I’m too curious about the here and now.”

Jarman's first book, Dancing Ledge, was published in 1984. It introduced the style that, with variations, would be common to most of Jarman's autobiographical books from then on: a collage of short sections, often journal entries, well illustrated with stills from the films, pictures of his paintings, snapshots. The progression of this style, though, is generally toward the less and less mediated — the sections in Dancing Ledge and Kicking the Pricks (1987) mix dates and titles, while Modern Nature (1991) appears as a journal with daily entries arranged in monthly chapters for January 1989 to September 1990. At Your Own Risk melds both styles, giving us chapters named for decades (1940s to 1990s), and within those chapters sections that are sometimes dated and sometimes not, with fragments of journal entries, conversations, reminiscences, newspaper stories. Its polemical purpose and death-sentence urgency make it feel more revealing, less shaped and curated, than the earlier books. Smiling in Slow Motion picks up where Modern Nature left off, providing edited versions of Jarman's journals from 1991 to his death.

Smiling in Slow Motion lacks the energy and brio of some of the earlier books, but it is an important document not only for Jarman aficionados, but for anyone interested in the history of AIDS and society in the West. Most of the entries in the book are not interesting in and of themselves, and even close readers of Peake’s biography will at times be overwhelmed by the parade of jotted names and events. But it is easy to forget now what AIDS meant then, and what it was to live day by day as a man sentenced to the disease’s slow, painful death in a society where privileges of race and class do not allay the fact that your sexuality and illness make your very existence into a cause for public disgust. Now, people of means in countries with solid medical infrastructures can often live with their HIV status as a chronic condition, and public tolerance of certain expressions of homosexuality has progressed remarkably — enough that Jarman’s writings can serve not only as a valuable reminder of how many people fought and died before the present moment was achieved, but of what it meant to be one of those people: to live and fight and die.

It would be a tremendous mistake, though, to reduce Jarman’s importance to his death. What Smiling in Slow Motion also gives us is an account of the daily life of a creative person, someone whose creativity was not limited to one mode. Jarman fought against all sorts of odds to maintain his artistic vision and also to create a community of fellow artists. He never had large budgets for his work, and though visual art and writing don’t require major investors, film is an expensive medium. Jarman reduced the expense in many ways, since he began not as a filmmaker but as a painter, and his initial interests were not those of even the most frugal narrative filmmakers. He worked as a set designer on Ken Russell’s The Devils, which gave him an entry into the world of movies, but his own film aesthetic grew from experiments with an inexpensive super-8mm camera. He developed extraordinarily expressive techniques with his super-8 films, using the medium’s limitations as a tool to create lyrical imagery full of grain and gauze. His first three feature films — Sebastiane (1976), Jubilee, and The Tempest (1979) — were all made on 16mm and then blown up to 35mm for exhibition, a process that affected both the qualities of their images and their cost. He spent nearly a decade trying to raise the money to make Caravaggio, his first film shot on 35mm. That experience seems to have inspired him to create the cinematic equivalent of mixed media, and so War Requiem (1987), The Last of England (1989), and The Garden (1990) all incorporate multiple gauges and stocks, including video. Jarman’s last three features, Edward II (1991), Wittgenstein (1993), and Blue (1993) were all shot on 35mm, but they still exhibit minimalisms of mise-en-scene that, while forced on Jarman by limited funds, provide intensely focused meanings. In the last years of his life, Jarman was going blind, and Blue was Jarman’s ultimate attempt to fuse the personal, political, and aesthetic. Peake writes,
He had long wanted to make on celluloid the sort of statement about AIDS he had been making with paint. Two things had defeated him: the impossibility of visualizing an unseen virus and the difficulty of avoiding sentimentality, almost inevitable in any realistic or semi-realistic treatment of the subject. With no image, simply a field of blue, and a complex soundtrack that mingled poetry with an account of losing his sight and coping with the general disintegration of his body, he had found what seemed to him the perfect way of addressing his own concerns while taking his audience on an elegiac journey toward immateriality. What had started as an homage to Yves Klein had, after many years and many incarnations, become a film about its maker.
Because he lived his art, and because his art was his life, and because he was before anything else a visual artist, Jarman’s least compelling writings are his film scripts. The University of Minnesota Press has recently added to their Jarman offerings with Jubilee: Six Film Scripts, which presents one produced script and five unproduced ones. These are historically and biographically important, but they are less interesting even than most screenplays in that the unproduced scripts are so drastically incomplete — they can only give us the barest glimpse of what might have been. Jarman typically used his scripts as springboards and general blueprints, not stone tablets carved with marching orders. The words are full of imagery, but that is no substitute for the images he would have created (or, in the case of Jubilee, did create). Peake’s summaries of the unproduced films will be adequate for all but the most obsessive readers.

Jarman knew that books of his films were reductions, and for some of his major works he created books that included a version of the script along with ancillary materials to make the book an expression of its own. It’s a shame these have not (yet) been reprinted, because Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio provides not just the script, but extensive commentary by Jarman and evocative on-set photographs by Gerald Incandela; Queer Edward II is a multitextual presentation of the script alongside Jarman’s commentary interspersed with mottos of queer supremacy (“heterosexuality: an exercise in cultural narcissism”); and Wittgenstein contains both Terry Eagleton’s original (realistic and traditionally biographical) script for the film and then Jarman’s shooting script with production photographs on the facing pages. These books give us screenplays as intentional art objects, and stand as works separate from the finished films.

The Angelic Conversation (1985)
Peake’s biography demonstrates well that Jarman was fueled by a contradictory mix of impulses: the individual and the communal, the traditional and the avant-garde, the conservative and the radical. Anyone who has paid much attention to his books and movies would see this also: the focus on solitary figures and group actions; the fascination with England’s past coupled to a despair about England’s present and future; the desire to resurrect a lost golden age and the desire to just blow it all up. Jarman’s was an aesthetic of alchemy and collage: formally, thematically, emotionally. He transmuted his greatest despairs into his greatest rages, his individual vision into communal action, his fascination with texture and shape and color into expressions of political and philosophical purpose. His interest in the past may have been tinged with nostalgia and idealism, but he always pulled away from those temptations, insisting that his histories were of the present.

Ultimately, Jarman’s oeuvre is a testament to perception and memory, the twin capacities of mind and body that allow us to make something of life. Among the many haunting entries in Smiling in Slow Motion is one for Boxing Day of 1992:
My doctor Mark, telling me he was leaving to do research, said: “I have good news for you, you have survived your doctor!” Everything has gone so quiet in the last four months I feel as if I have survived myself and most of my friends. Do I make a list here just to remind myself? Peter, Terry, Howard, David, Tom, Karl, Ken, Patrik, Billy, Robert, Tommy, Paul — most of them in their twenties and thirties — all had a bright future snatched from them. As I record their names I wonder where, or on what words, my pen will stop. It should be “Amen”.

The Last of England (1989)

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