Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Film Review: Derek

Directed by Isaac Julien
Written and narrated by Tilda Swinton


Reviewed by Sophie Mayer

Of late, the BFI have done Derek Jarman proud: they’ve released Caravaggio, Wittgenstein and The Angelic Conversation, all in deluxe editions with commentary and – best of all – with Jarman’s loopy, fantastical Super-8 shorts like Glitterbug, the films he made in his studio and his community around the same time as the legendary Sebastiane. Their raw energy spills from the screen in pouts and flounces and poses and the occasional frank gaze to camera, charged with an intimacy that’s at once sexual and political. We are family, it says.

Jarman was famously a community-builder as much as an artist and agitator. He gathered people to his light, to his generosity, to his curiosity, giving people like costume designer Sandy Powell and actor Tilda Swinton their first breaks, based on a vibration of sympathy and an eye for raw talent. There’s that word again: raw. Swinton says of Caravaggio, the queer artist and murderer who was the subject of Jarman’s most conventional film, that he painted rent boys as saints – then corrects herself: he painted saints as rent boys. It’s an aesthetic – and ethics – that Jarman himself loved, juxtaposing classically-trained actors with circus performers and punks, all spitting Shakespeare or Marlowe or Eagleton with that same freshness.

Vivienne Westwood thought that the middle-class, middle-aged Slade-trained Jarman had co-opted punk for his film Jubilee, assimilating it into the more highbrow avant-garde film community. In the final interview excerpt in the documentary, Jarman tells this story with great relish, taking delight in the fact that he was the only person, aside from the Queen, that Westwood had turned into a T-shirt. Alive to his own multifarious co-optation – by queer rights groups, art movements, AIDS activist nuns, and even gardeners – Jarman seems to have accepted all the attention and all the (mis)reading as part of his role as artist(-as-saint).

Impassioned, articulate (he would have loved Barack Obama, a fellow speaker-in-subclauses), thoughtful: Jarman comes across in the excerpts from interviews, press conferences and TV news as almost donnish. As his notebooks – carefully panned by the camera – show, he was as intellectual as he was instinctual, writing reams and reams of preparatory notes in his distinctive calligraphic handwriting. His legacy is almost overwhelming: boxes and boxes and boxes of material lining the basement of the BFI’s archives.

Julien’s documentary cuts a sharp picture of Jarman from this spillage, presenting Jarman as the Renaissance man he was, and intertwining art and queer life as Jarman’s own films did over twenty years. It’s a film as crammed full of goodies as the two-disc edition that includes it: there are clips from all the features, but also from early shorts – including a startling and sexy one of Jarman having public sex.

But here’s the problem: if you wanted to track that film down and watch it, you’d have a hard time. None of the clips are labelled with subtitles – just one of the symptomatic problems with this documentary. Sometimes a film can be recognised from Jarman’s commentary, but it would take a true Jarmanhead to catch all of them. It’s a rewarding drinking game for the longterm fan, but a somewhat alienating introduction for the neophyte.

Julien and Swinton take the communitarian world of Jarman’s films – as Jarman describes it, he starting out making shorts with and for the people who would watch them later in his studio – and turn it into something hermetic. They’re understandably protective of his legacy, given the neglect it’s suffered since Jarman’s death. But the line between protective and possessive feels like it’s been crossed here: Swinton, alone of Jarman’s collaborators, commands the screen and dictates the shape of the legacy. The films are expected to speak for themselves: we’re rarely told when they were released, how they were financed, how they were received, where Jarman got his ideas – or how he turned them into films.

To me, this feels like the greatest betrayal of Jarman’s pursuit of art in a commercial world. While the film has no reason to be a how-to manual, it elides the hard graft and pragmatism that made Jarman’s films possible. They weren’t made (entirely) by alchemy. The sequence showing the making of Sebastiane, from phone calls in Bar Italia through to sex on the beach in Sardinia, is one of the most rewarding sections of the film, one that comes closest to identifying and revivifying the spirit of Jarman’s own work.

Because, in the end, that’s what this documentary is about: raising a ghost. The 1991 interview with Jarman that’s intercut throughout the film provides a powerful sense of his presence: it seems to be happening in this moment, up until the late footage of Jarman, thin and almost blind, at his last gallery show, and talking about Blue. The film goes looking for him in the BFI archives, and in his garden at Dungeness (which is flourishing), which makes sense – but it also goes looking for him in contemporary glass-and-money London, as Swinton paces the streets affectlessly, her words running in voice-over.

These inserts are frustrating in their obviousness – yes, London has changed and the places that Jarman filmed and fucked have been concreted over – but also in their stylistic flatness. Julien’s Fantôme Afrique installation pieces use the ghostly walker to brilliant effect, but here the footage feels banal, tacked-on. Swinton’s blank gaze adds to the sense that the film is closed off from those of us outside the charmed circle. It’s utterly in opposition to Jarman’s own sense of his films as put forward in the interview: that they are always about uncovering secrets – and, one could add, setting ideas and images free to scatter and cartwheel through the consciousness. Derek is worth watching as a catalogue of these images – but to uncover the secret of life, go to the films themselves.

Sophie Mayer is a writer, editor and educator. Find out more at



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