This past February, I got to sit down and watch fully closely the work of a British film renegade, one open to gay themes when it was still such a closeted subject. One of the more outspoken figures in the 1980s and 90s, Derek Jarman was never meant to shoot mainstream works. Watching the social upheaval and decay leading to the long era that was Thatcher’s Britain, Jarman did not conform to the Victorian values she advocated for. Even as he was dying of AIDS, Jarman did not slow down, working all the way to the day of his death in 1994.
Born during World War II, Jarman came of age in the Swinging Sixties of London as an art student. He also worked on stage productions as a stage and costume designer, but Jarman finally worked in movies as a production designer in Ken Russell’s scandalous The Devils. It was a style that resonated with Jarman’s art instincts and was edgy in putting out the more graphic images and shots that initially made the film X-rated. Eventually, Jarman moved on to make his own experimental short films before he got his chance to make his full-feature debut and do it in a bluntly, queer style.
Here are some of his most notable films:
As in later works, Jarman would take a historical subject and reimagine it in a modern and queer way; the first scene itself makes the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut very tame. Widely controversial when released, it depicts the life of St. Sebastine and his legendary martyrdom which Jarman purposely makes the film strongly homoerotic. The men are naked throughout (at least one erection is shown) and it dresses up the titular saint as a gay icon, a man who refuses to fight in battle because of his strong convictions as a Christian that war is wrong. The dialogue is all in Latin as it was spoken back then, giving Sebastiane the very rare title of an English production that needed English subtitles.
Like Sebastiane, Jarman takes the life of a figure rooted in history – in this case, the 17th-century artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio – and inserts postmodern anachronisms from eras much later than they appeared. The titular character goes from street rat to painter thanks to the investment of a Vatican-connected priest and still indulges in drink and sex with men and women. In addition, this film was the debut of two major actors working today: Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean. Bean plays a street fighter, who Caravaggio brings in as a muse and Swinton is the fighter’s girlfriend who also has eyes on the painter. Despite the modern touches, Jarman follows the story of Caravaggio’s demise.
War Requiem (1989)
Jarman’s film is entirely based on Wilfred Owen’s poems put in the requiem score by Benjamin Britten in 1961. Jarman could not add original dialogue or special effects to the movie; only the score and voiceovers reciting the poem could be played. Yet, Jarman makes it a formal picture with haunting shots that reflect the pain of war not just from the First World War, but throughout the 20th century. The inserts of archive footage from wars after the Second World War places Owen’s words as a call for pacifism instead of bloodshed. This film is notable because it is the last movie done by Sir Lawrence Olivier before his death and continues the collaboration with Tilda Swinton and Sean Bean.
The last movie Jarman saw released before his death only has, per the title, blue on the entire screen. Just full of blue, with no action. It reflects Jarman’s state at the time, going blind with only shades of blue being seen through his eyes. The rest is a voiceover monologue with several voices, including himself, Swinton, and Nigel Terry. It talks about what his daily life is like as a man with advanced AIDS and the prejudice he dealt with as a gay man under the Conservative/Thatcher era that showed little care for the pandemic and its victims. This is Jarman’s farewell to life and acceptance that he is going to die, but leaves behind an impressive legacy for others to follow.
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