By DENNIS LIM
Published: May 25, 2008
WITH each passing year the British artist and iconoclast Derek Jarman seems at once more important and more marginal. His place in history as a pioneering gay filmmaker is secure, but his work remains little seen, and the spirit in which it was made seems further away than ever.
Leon Morris/Getty Images
Politics and aesthetics were inseparable in the films of Derek Jarman.
Derek Jarman’s film “Caravaggio” (1986), with Dexter Fletcher.
Mr. Jarman died of complications from AIDS in 1994, at 52, and perhaps the time is ripe for reappraisal. “Derek,” a documentary tribute by Isaac Julien that had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January, will screen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from June 9 through 16. On June 24 Zeitgeist Films, the distributor that helped introduce Mr. Jarman to American audiences, is releasing “Glitterbox,” a DVD set that represents a cross section of his films: the neo-Brechtian biopics “Caravaggio” (1986) and “Wittgenstein” (1993); the homoerotic reverie “The Angelic Conversation” (1985); and his monochrome valediction, “Blue” (1993), as moving an epitaph as any artist has ever composed for himself.
Mr. Julien’s “Derek” combines clips from Mr. Jarman’s movies, excerpts from a 1990 interview and a ruminative voice-over by Tilda Swinton, who also served as executive producer. In an e-mail message, Ms. Swinton, a frequent collaborator of Mr. Jarman’s whose first film role was in “Caravaggio,” said the documentary had been prompted in part by the blank looks she received when talking about him to aspiring filmmakers.
“It feels like the correct time to be reminded of an ancient tradition that has always served civilization well,” she said, “that of the independent, truth-telling poet provocateur.”
Mr. Jarman himself, despite his tendency toward rebellion, drew heavily on the example of previous generations. His poetic sensibility owes a debt to the outlaw lyricism of Jean Cocteau and Jean Genet. His taste for the baroque calls to mind British filmmakers like Michael Powell and Ken Russell (who hired him as a set designer). There are also kinships with the bad-boy iconoclasts he memorialized: Caravaggio, the painter who revolted against the refinement of the Renaissance, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, the philosopher who regarded the academy with hostility.
Mr. Jarman once lamented that heterosexuals had so colonized and despoiled the screen — his actual phrasing was less polite — “that there’s hardly room for us to kiss.” He made it his mission to create that room. His first feature, “Sebastiane” (1976), an ancient Roman idyll that made explicit the gay subtext of the sword-and-sandal epic, was not just candid but also celebratory in depicting homosexual desire. It sparked some condemnation but was among the first films showing an erection to make it past the British censors.
Despite the dandyish elements of Mr. Jarman’s work, he was at heart a punk filmmaker — a connection reinforced by “Jubilee” (1977), which dramatizes punk’s “no future” nihilism with the help of a time-traveling Queen Elizabeth I. Mr. Jarman called himself a “controversialist,” but he was no mere troublemaker. Aesthetics and politics were, for him, inseparable. His signature combination of beauty, wit and anger was a polemical stance.
His filmmaking career coincided with the reign of Margaret Thatcher, an archnemesis and a kind of negative muse. In public and in films like “The Last of England” (1988), he railed against what he saw as the ruinous greed and soullessness of Britain in the ’80s. Thatcher-era policies scaled back government support of the film industry, but inhospitable conditions only seemed to bolster his do-it-yourself resourcefulness and sense of artistic community.
Trained as a painter, Mr. Jarman appreciated the communal aspect of filmmaking. “I think he made films primarily for the company,” Ms. Swinton said. “Working with him was to work alongside him.”
Mr. Jarman’s life fed his art, and vice versa. It was not a surprise that his impending death became central to his work. Fighting the stigma of AIDS just as he fought the stigma of being gay, he spoke openly about his H.I.V.-positive status. The films that followed the diagnosis of his disease, especially “The Last of England” and his anachronistic Christopher Marlowe adaptation, “Edward II” (1991), are notable for their fury and lucidity.
By the time he made “Wittgenstein,” not long before his death, his eyesight was failing — hence the boldly exaggerated color scheme. His final feature, “Blue,” which for 76 minutes pairs an aural collage with a solid screen of deep blue (the shade patented by the painter Yves Klein), seeks both to represent and to transcend his blindness and the abyss of mortality.
Today Mr. Jarman is considered the founding father of what came to be known as the New Queer Cinema, a loose grouping of filmmakers — among them Todd Haynes (“Poison”), Tom Kalin (“Swoon”) and Mr. Julien (“Looking for Langston”) — who emerged in the late ’80s. But as Mr. Julien said in an e-mail message, “Derek paved the way for independent filmmakers, period — not just queer filmmakers.” Of particular relevance, he added, was the way Mr. Jarman “prophetically refused to be tied to a single medium,” insisting on a continuity among his works in film, installation, painting, sculpture, design and poetry.
Mr. Jarman in some ways seems well remembered in his native country. The Film London agency recently established the Jarman Award for young filmmakers. The garden he tended at his cottage on the English coast has become a tourist attraction. But as “Derek” suggests — with scenes of Ms. Swinton wandering around pristine present-day London, as if looking for traces of him — much of what he stood for has vanished. In other words, it is hard to imagine an oppositional artist like Mr. Jarman emerging, let alone thriving, in the current climate.
Mr. Jarman took pride in remaining outside the British film establishment, in never being marketable enough to count as an official export. With that in mind, how does Ms. Swinton think he would have reacted to her recent Oscar win for “Michael Clayton”?
“I think he would have laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed,” she said in her e-mail message. “And then,” she added, referring to her golden statuette, “he would ask me for the thing to melt it down into an artwork.”