Michael O'Pray: Derek Jarman: Dreams of England

By Catherine Lupton

Death, Pasolini once remarked, is the condition of meaning. Yet it is hard not to feel that a certain indecency haunts our compulsion to pass judgement on a life that has ended. This sense of impropriety seems especially acute when the life in question is that of Derek Jarman. Having chosen to be open about his HIV+ status, Jarman found himself battling against the assumption that he was already dead, such that even properly posthumous commentaries seem tainted by the same unjust supposition. The popular image of Jarman is of a Magnificent Exception, one of those eccentric creatures (like Oscar Wilde, William Blake or Michael Powell) so beloved of English cultural mythology, but (and here's the rub) often reviled and marginalised during their actual lives. His protean creative achievements impishly confound the heavy-handed categorisation dealt out by cultural criticism, his prolific autobiographical writings fiercely nurture his idiosyncratic individuality and chronic mistrust of labels. We might complain that the plea not to be pigeonholed is the weariest of clichés, yet Jarman's work has done so much to transform the familiar landscape of English (film) culture in the last two decades, that in his case we are compelled to take it very seriously

Michael O'Pray's book Dreams of England – the first complete critical study of Jarman's films to be published in England – bears witness, both explicitly and implicitly, to the kind of unease just described. The Introduction records how the idea for the book arose from interviews with Jarman which O'Pray conducted in the early 1980s, but that it only came to be written much later, by which time Jarman's health was palpably in decline. Unable, understandably, to face writing about the work of a dying friend, O'Pray abandoned work on the book, and was only able finally to finish it after Jarman's death in 1994.

Rooted in an ongoing dialogue with its subject, Dreams of England is unsurprisingly patterned on respect for the integrity and diversity of Jarman's creative output .Yet O'Pray also seeks to take steps outside this charmed circle, by locating Jarman's singular life and work within a broader historical context, interpreting it as part symptom of, and part cogent and impassioned response to, the social and cultural forces which have shaped the character of English nationhood since the end of the Second World War. Reading Dreams of England reveals an unspoken tension between these two approaches, a tension which certainly has positive and productive consequences for the book, but which also, at times, works negatively, blocking and inhibiting the full realisation of O'Pray's critical project

The impulse towards respect pays dividends. O'Pray strikes a successful balance between his chosen focus on the major (better-known) films, and an appreciation of their place within a polymathic creative continuum that embraced (among other activities) painting, writing, gardening and set design for both stage and screen. Similarly, the attention accorded to Jarman as an individual creator is nicely counterpointed by an illuminating discussion of his role as a collaborative partner, who opened up space for others – notably the actress Tilda Swinton – to realise their own artistic ambitions. Jarman's early Super-8 'homes movies', and his arm’s-length relationship with the English avant-garde film scene in the 1970s, receive a long-overdue assessment (although I personally felt that O'Pray should have given that scene a little more credit for the degree of diversity which enabled Jarman to obtain public funding and exhibition opportunities for his films at all). It is only with the detailed accounts of the major films, however, from Sebastiane to The Last of England, that O'Pray really hits his stride, and produces the most satisfying and accomplished parts of the book. At his best – when discussing Caravaggio and The Last of England – O'Pray is a compelling and sophisticated analyst of Jarman's films, able to weave together fascinating details of their production histories with striking insights into how the historical, and profoundly political, themes of these two films are realised through the shifting kaleidoscope of Jarman's visual styles. O'Pray ranges from the staged and enclosed Baroque theatrical space of Caravaggio, to the free-form hand-held experimentation of The Last of England. He also proves skilled at unpicking the motley fabric of Jarman's eclectic and frequently arcane interests and preoccupations - the sources of his 'obsessive archaeology' of recurrent themes and images – and able to explain everything from alchemy to queer theory with the same dispassionate clarity, and without stooping to hasty qualifications and judgements.

Yet amidst these indisputable strengths, a seam of weakness runs through Dreams of England. Up to a point, O'Pray's stated ambition to set Jarman's films within the interlocking social, historical, political and cultural forces which make up our sense of Englishness - is successful. He invokes a tantalising range of antecedents and parallels for Jarman's insistent probing at the phantoms of the national psyche, including the work of the English mystical visionaries Blake and Palmer, and the lyrical neo-Romanticism of Humphrey Jennings. O'Pray eloquently expounds the paradox of Jarman's identity as artist and Englishman as it unravels across films like Jubilee, The Angelic Conversation and The Last of England. Nostalgia for a pre-capitalist Renaissance Arcadia of humanist love between men is twinned with anger and despair at the ravages wrought by capitalism, imperialism and social inequality – those darker enterprises which also sprang from the ambitions and confidence of the Elizabethan Age, taking root in the green and pleasant land and its inhabitants. Precisely because such insights are so apposite, O'Pray frustrates at those points in the text where he apparently lacks, or loses, the nerve to push them harder, further and deeper. It is as if he is afraid, by digging too deeply, of uprooting some tender plant from the well-kept garden of Jarman's creative persona. In his discussion of The Last of England, for example, O'Pray quotes Will Self’s apposite commentary upon the film as an extraordinarily apt, yet arbitrary, exploration of the duality of English identity: 'its beauty and brutality, its sensuality and its darkness'. A golden opportunity to open up the book's central theme is thrown away with the tepid and undeveloped suggestion that this divided nature 'probably reflects the Jungian concepts that informed The Angelic Conversation a few years earlier'.

Prey to a similar reticence, the final chapters of the book prove a disappointment. O'Pray might reasonably be excused for discomfort, when faced with the task of discussing those films which were shadowed by the deterioration of Jarman's health. Yet, although War Requiem is admittedly a patchy achievement and not a project Jarman was ever happy with, the last four feature films build triumphantly upon his record of moving and provocative cinematic originality, and deserve more than the rushed and sketchy treatment which they receive here. O'Pray seems to have run out of steam, which is a pity, because he lets slip the chance to take his project full circle and integrate the final works fully into what is otherwise a powerful and convincing appraisal of Jarman's filmic oeuvre.

Catherine Lupton is doing post- doctoral research on the French Lettriste movement