derek jarman - a tribute, part three, the last

It has taken me longer than I intended to start writing this part. I wanted to avoid the autobiographical slant of the first two parts, but when an artist becomes special to you, personal to you, it's hard to untangle your biography from your reactions. And I wasn't really sure where this part was going, or how to approach it. Obviously the intent was to persuade those of you who are not already convinced that Derek Jarman is one of the great film artists. But it wasn't clear how to go about it, in fact I was unclear until the last sentence. And the I realised: images.

Film of course is composed of images. Jarman was a painter as well as filmmaker (writer, gardner etc.). It should have been obvious, it was obvious, it was so obvious that I assumed it had already been covered. In fact I simply skirted round it. Images. Images and depth. Jarman's films are memorable. They contain such memorable images that even if you don't pay attention watching them, or hate what you see, you will find the images coming to you at strange moments.

But they are not 'painterly' images. I can think of no worse insult. 'Painterly' films are staid and boring. 'Painterly' films are pompous and slow. 'Painterly' films are too busy watching themselves to do anything interesting. 'Painterly' films are static, 'painterly' films are heritage shite, 'painterly' films are Girl With A Pearl Earring, and nobody needs that. Jarman's images are fast, or slow, or repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated. But they are vital and alive. Jarman realised that film isn't painting. It has to move and writhe and live and confound expectations in a different set of ways.

Now, as a tease, I'll end there for now, and add a little more tomorrow, or at a later date...

[19 Oct 8] Take Angelic Conversation. Very few things happen. Very few things happen extremely slowly. Very few things happen extremely slowly again and again. And out of this repetition and slowness images emerge - some of which are unique to this film, some of which crop up in other of his films, in the same form or transformed.

A young man carrying a what might be a log on his back walks and turns in smoke. He goes nowhere. Sometimes the smoke might just be a flaw in the film, or a trick of the light. At other times it thickens, is clearly smoke from a fire. Smoke drifts through most of Jarman's films. Most notably in association with bonfires, or more often flares.

Half naked or clothed, male or female, indoors or out, in darkness or in the day, in black and white or colour, with sound or without, flares feature frequently in Jarman's film making. Having lent my copy of Angelic Conversation to a friend I can't check, but I'm sure a character, walking outdoors, and shot at least in part in colour, carries a flare along a country road.

Fire of course accompanies both these. Bonfires, flames making abstract marks against darkness like brushstrokes. Objects in the flames blackened and destroyed.

The flare of light in the lens. From mirrors, windows, flares, the sun. From the earliest Super8 footage flares of light burn his lens.

Military/Official installations
Whether it be the fences of military camps, Dungeness power station, or abandoned installations, symbols of governmental and institutional power emerge often in the films. Interestingly they are generally fairly discreet - here just a fence and what I assume is a radar device spinning on top of a building - and that only seen when the camera pulls back from a tree in blossom.

The radar device, the young man with his log, the young man swimming, the smoke in front of him, the camera round the figure walking in the road. People and objects spin, swirl and turn with constant motion in the films. Often Jarman will cut from one movement to another and all the way back through a series of movements. As this suggests his editing in often cyclical. Images from the beginning of the movie will recur throughout, particular scenes will cycle through a number of shots and back to the beginning. This is especially noticeable in The Garden where the Mary Magdalene figure is chased, turning and turning in a great arc of concrete, the female disciples ring their glasses with slowly rotating fingers, waves curl over and drop, figures with flares turn around Jarman in bed in the sea, movements of water and movements of flame are edited in close proximity, both moving in arcs.

Turning is not the only form of return. Repetition is also return. So the young man sits at the leaded window throughout the film. The camera closes in and the camera moves away. The camera halts. The young man sits at the leaded window. Almost impossible to listen to without losing focus on the film, and in any case quiet on the soundtrack, Judi Dench's readings of some of Shakespeare's sonnets come and go. The young man continues to carry his log in the smoke.

Water drips. Water is poured. Water is drunk. Characters bathe in water. Characters swim. Like a lot of these tropes you could argue that the same applies to any mainstream film. But that's missing the point. In mainstream film water, for instance, if it served a symbolic purpose would have that symbolism underlines and driven home repeatedly. Otherwise it would just be there, something incidental to the film. Jarman is more subtle. Is the water cleansing? If so, cleansing of what? Is that cleansing a good thing? Or is the water supportive? Or a symbol of birth, the family, evolution? Is the water piss? Or is it just that it gives you nice light effects, runs off skin beautifully, and slows movements? Here the character endlessly turns.

Flowers and gardens return again and again to Jarman's films. Their colour and forms sometimes rendered black and white, sometimes grainy. Usually they are living, blowing in breezes. An assertion of nature, often necessary to counterpoint desolate urban scenes. Or perhaps it's from Jarman's love of gardening, rediscovered late. Or a subtle fuck you to homophobes. Even into the 90's I remember characters in comics like Walter the Softy from Dennis the Menace, and Cuthbert Cringeworthy in The Bash Street Kids, both in The Beano, being portrayed as effeminate and flower-sniffing, whereas the ostensible heroes were bullies. If you weren't a poofter you might be a pansy or a fruit (perhaps a quince). Again, maybe I'm overreading. But like Bob Dylan Jarman invites this. Both are often imprecise and vague, allowing you to construct your own interpretation. And both can have a combination of specific polemic and vagueness within the same piece of work.

Angelic Conversation is perhaps my favourite Jarman film alongside Blue, although there remain a couple I have yet to see - Edward II and War Requiem. It distills most of what I love about his film making, although it necessarily lacks the frenetic editing seen especially in The Last Of England, but also in some of his other films. It is also narratively clearer than either that film or The Garden. If I have one reservation it's that Angelic Conversation could be more explicitly queer, like Sebastiane or The Garden, but I suspect that may be to miss the point of what Jarman was doing with it.

But back to the images. It distills all the recurrent images of Jarman's work listed above into a slow moving, cyclical film that goes nowhere, apparently, and takes you with it. It leaves you with these haunting images - the young man and his log in the smoke, the young man swimming, the young man sat at the window, people walking together, flowers, repetition and turning. There is perhaps a nostalgia to it that makes it perhaps a less passionate evocation of love than it might be, but there's passion to spare in the other films. And then again, I'm not sure that the degree of repetition and slowness, the unclarity of some of the images - the fact that they shimmer, dissolve into smoke, doesn't add a depth and intensity to the film that makes it more resonant and more lasting than if it were a portrait of now. Perhaps that vague sense of nostalgia allows us to tap into our own memories and regrets.

All these images are film images. They rely on duration, they rely on speed, they use light. Not the painted representation of light, but the more realistic reproduction of light achieved by projection or a tv screen. Light is reproduced by light. Paintings cannot have a specific duration controlled by the artist, their speed cannot be controlled, they do not use real light. Although Jarman was a painter he did not make painterly films, he made film maker's films. It's only a shame that so few other directors make film maker's films. The visual illiteracy and lack of imagination of the majority of film making never ceases to astound me. Perhaps his visual literacy is where Jarman the painter comes into the film making process.

What the particular symbols listed above actually mean in specific situations is a question I will never be able to answer, but one of the many reasons I'll continue to return to the films.



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