Derek Jarman was one of the most creative, idiosyncratic, and controversial filmmakers to come out of Britain. A deeply independent filmmaker, he embraced low budget filmmaking for its aesthetics and ethics, welcoming the opportunity to innovate and work with friends, but also to resist the way films were traditionally conceived and made, and thus willingly unsettle audiences. Jarman was openly gay and his films often foregrounded repressed gay history, at times boldly linking it to contemporary queer issues.
His best-known films are fascinating, irreverent explorations of gay figures – Caravaggio, Edward II, Wittgenstein – using either stunning minimalist sets or lush tableaux to testify to their complex lives. Jarman also created looser, stream-of-conscious films, such as The Last of England, War Requiem, and The Garden, dreamlike, often wordless, constructions. In them, one can sense Jarman reflecting on his own mortality after he was diagnosed with HIV.
With The Tempest and Edward II, he loosely adapted Elizabethan plays, but contemporary culture also inspired him, including the 1970s British punk movement as seen in Jubilee. One can trace Jarman’s concerns through his films: the social realities of Thatcher’s England, sexual politics and the AIDS crisis, religion and spirituality, and gardening. “I’ve always felt that the cinema needed more autobiography,” Jarman once noted. His last film, his most direct musing on his life, is the unforgettable Blue.
Marking twenty-five years since his passing, east London’s Close-Up Film Centre hosts a programme running until 30 September 2019, which looks away from Jarman’s more well known narrative works to focus on a selection of lesser-screened poetic experiments, shown in new digital restorations by the BFI and LUMA foundation.
Jarman was originally a painter, as is evident in a number of his films, and when he turned to filmmaking he was open to all formats. He regularly filmed in Super 8, using it as a kind of note taking, and then incorporating the footage into his features but he also made short Super 8 films. Jarman designed sets for the opera and ballet and eventually for filmmaker Ken Russell. He went on to collaborate with a host of actors, artists, writers, musicians, and activists, notably muse Tilda Swinton, and was an influence on a generation of artists and filmmakers such as Isaac Julien, whose Derek pays tribute to him.
Super 8 was Jarman’s primary medium in the 70’s, and celebrating this body of work, Close-Up hosts a special screening on 28 September of seven of Jarman’s shorts, including 1975’s Sebastian Wrap, filmed in Sardinia during a break in the shooting of Sebastiane. Jarman points his camera into a sheet of Mylar, which acts as a partial mirror. Made in a single take, Sebastian Wrap is typical of the style of filming that Derek adopted in this period and marks a shift from costume and set to a more freeform hand held approach.
The evening will conclude with Waiting for Waiting for Godot, one of the last films that Derek shot and edited with Super 8; this was filmed at a rehearsal for a RADA student performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, directed by Gerard McArthur, with a set by John Maybury and featuring Sean Bean and Johnny Phillips. Jarman restricts his filming to a monitor screen that was part of the in house recording of the play. Although he utilises a slow filming speed and the image is somewhat obscured and blurred it is still recognisable as Beckett’s play. This hybridisation of film and video would mark Derek’s work of the period in such films as Imagining October and The Last of England.
Feature image: Still from Journey to Avebury, Derek Jarman, 1973 (via Close-Up Film Centre)