Derek Jarman

By James Marcus Tucker

wittgenstein-derek-jarman-1.jpgWittgenstein, 1993

A pivotal personal discovery took place late one night when an odd looking little film called Jubilee screamed its chaotic and wonderful imagery into my darkened suburban teenage bedroom. It was the early 1990s, an era whipped up by AIDS hysteria, myopic to the coming millennium, where good taste is dictated by straight guys’ Queer Eyes, or sanitised à la Will & Grace for the prime time masses. For a 13 year old gay boy in those darker days, this vision stood alone, and it shone proudly. I was finally able to put a name to this most ‘shameful’ face many years later when searching the net for Jubilee – the red title card stamped firmly into my memory.

Derek Jarman died 13 years ago this year, and through the website I now run I have discovered just how many other lives have been touched by his example. In the forum, where people claim to have discovered the beauty of his work through many different routes – his writing, his gardening, his films and his painting, one female poster writes about Derek thus: “I feel that I have much to thank Derek Jarman for; he opened my eyes to a world that I would have known nothing about if I hadn't seen his films and been spellbound by those images… Without Derek opening that door for me, I feel I would now be living in a blinkered, monochrome, mundane world without any idea of the carnival of colours, people, creativity and sensuality that were all around but hidden from day to day sight. Derek’s visions seem to speak to the soul and anyone who is lucky enough to hear that voice is blessed.”

I too became transfixed by the world Derek would whip up – making, as he did, home-movies “gone ever so slightly grand”. Even in the most nightmarish of his visions, there is a utopia present; that of filmmaking done for the sheer passion of it, the sheer necessity to scream an antidote to what else is assumed. This aspect comes across so acutely in his work, and it makes me nostalgic for a time and a group of artists that I was not even part of.

angelic-conversation-derek-jarman.jpgThe Angelic Conversation, 1985

I suppose you could say my affection for Derek’s work largely rests on the erotic. It was certainly this aspect that held my attention throughout Jubilee that night – but it was more than just sexual. For the first time a very secret emotion became validated. I like to wonder just how many other people were watching that night, suddenly feeling as if someone had spoken out for their own inarticulacies. Derek was often criticised for being pornographic. Watching Sebastiane it’s not hard to see why, but then the critics got the concept wrong. You only have to watch any number of Hollywood movies made before and during this period – or most music videos nowadays for that matter – to see the male gaze at its most blatant and vulgar, dressed up as film art. Derek flipped the idea on its head – true film art disguised as the most blatant, vulgar homosexual pornographic gaze.

We have to fast forward 10 or more years to find Derek’s work becoming more introspective and poetic. The Garden and Blue both dealt so openhandedly and passionately with his homosexuality and HIV diagnosis that you feel all borders between the man and his work have been completely destroyed. His work had always bridged the personal and the political, however now the personal became the transcendental.

Despite it being 16 years old, The Garden keeps growing in my imagination. Experiencing this work of sheer luminosity, I think of the gay man David Morley beaten to death in London less than two years ago for no other reason than that he was gay. I think of religious intolerance and our PC age that tells us to tolerate this intolerance – which Derek never did. As John Berger rightly pointed out, art should judge the judges and it is no insignificant artwork that dares take on the meanness of the Catholic Church. The Garden was released on DVD in 2005 and now, hopefully, it can give a new generation the insights of an oppositional voice expressed through visual poetry.

caravaggio-derek-jarman.jpgCaravaggio, 1986

This February, the BFI released three more Jarman features – The Angelic Conversation, Caravaggio and Wittgenstein – on dvd. What made Derek’s short Super8 work so compelling is realized in longform in The Angelic Conversation – the in-camera effects, the slow frame-rate, the homoerotic gaze, the lyricism and meandering pace. His cinema of “small gestures”. There is no anger here – it’s pure magic, the camera spellbound by earthly angels. Caravaggio is often referred to as Derek’s masterpiece – its staging, cinematography and subject matter so perfectly in sync. It is one of his most accessible and the biopic of an artist by an artist calls for clear parallels, but the 35mm production somehow feels austere when compared with the joyfulness of The Tempest or the passion, anarchy and anger of Jubilee or The Garden. Wittgenstein, made during a period in which Derek had become virtually colour blind and very weak, reflects just how resourceful he and his collective could be – making something so grand and involving with the minimum of sets and materials. Derek may have inadvertently paved the way for Lars Von Trier’s more self-conscious approach in Dogville 10 years later.

It was however, a creative “make do” approach he had applied throughout his work. Filmmakers can so often blame their lack of work on the lack of funds, but Derek made the scarcity of finances a creative drive. The use of props was often dreamed up for no other reason than they felt right. For all the subsequent theorising over his work, his was an almost entirely anti-theoretical approach to filmmaking. Tilda Swinton cuts her wedding dress with shears in The Last of England. Why? It would seem stupid not to! It was a style geared to open interpretation and experimentalism – not commercialism or box office takings, and it is greatly missed in the current British cinema.

wittgenstein-derek-jarman-2.jpgWittgenstein, 1993

So, on this 13th anniversary the BFI have paid their tribute, but my own act of memorial started as a quest for the most appropriate gesture. In what became my own personal filmed tribute, a male body is intricately painted, bathed in blue and green light by Sister Morticia of The Order of St Derek Jarman. Angels, the number 13, words and phrases from Derek’s oeuvre form a painted skin, and sections of his poetry and writing are subtly whispered over the soundtrack.

It seemed fitting to pay tribute this way – Super8 home movie making for the YouTube generation. Just as Jarman felt the hand of Pasolini on his shoulder filming The Garden at Dungeness, so too did we feel the guiding hand of Derek as we honoured his love for celluloid, sexual freedom, the process and above all, beauty.


James Marcus Tucker is a film and video maker living in Brighton