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July 9th, 2008 Byron Beck | Movie Reviews & Stories
 

Of Angels and Apocalypse: The Cinema of Derek Jarman

AIDS, acid and Tilda Swinton.

     
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JARMANIACS: Isaac Julien and Tilda Swinton

The first time I dropped acid was in 1988. That night I watched Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, a radical retelling of the famed painter’s life, full of homoerotic images and pithy quotes like “The stars are the diamonds of the poor.” In ’94 I fell asleep at the feet of my increasingly blind friend, art gallery owner William Jamison, as he “watched” a bootleg copy of Jarman’s Blue, a film with only one image: a blue screen. And in ’04 I met actress Tilda Swinton at a downtown bar while she was working on a film in Portland. All I could do was talk to her about working with “him.”

These are my memory fragments of Derek Jarman.

I revisited the works of this queer Brit filmmaker—who died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994 at the age of 52—last night with my partner. Like many under the age of 40, he’d heard of Jarman but never seen any of his work. That could change now that the Northwest Film Center has decided to screen 10 Jarman classics over 20 nights.

Derek kicks off the NWFC’s retrospective. It’s a poignant way to get to know this Thatcher-era director’s distinctively disjointed works. For the ’08 documentary, Derek’s director, Isaac Julien, refused to just run clips of Jarman’s career (although he does include naughty bits from his first feature, 1976’s Sebastian, the X-rated story of the pierced Christian martyr told via gay porn-ish vignettes and Latin). That might seem unfair to those of us who are well acquainted enough with Jarman works to know what an injustice that could be to his unique style of fragmented filmmaking. But for this biopiclike project, Julien’s masterstroke was the use of Jarman’s one true discovery: Tilda Swinton. The Academy Award winner whom Jarman so brilliantly first cast in Caravaggio serves as the film’s narrator, co-executive producer and emotional center. Together Julien and Swinton stitch together a film that not only tells Jarman’s tales but echoes his own work.

It begins on a blustery day in Jarman’s infamous Kent garden full of cock-shaped rocks. It is here where a blankly staring, skeletal Swinton gently reminisces about her old friend. Jarman himself pops up as a guide through the film as it winds us through his abusive childhood and early adulthood to his life as an out gay activist, artist and author. But it’s through his 30-some works as a film director that he gains the status of gay icon (to wit, he made music videos for Pet Shop Boys and the Smiths). After his untimely death in 1994, Swinton notes, Jarman begins to slip from our collective consciousness. Which, according to Swinton, is the way Jarman wanted it. Likewise, I can’t say I enjoyed—or have even stayed awake for—every one of Jarman’s film I’ve seen, but once-viewed slivers of them are stuck to my brain, which I suspect might be just what Jarman wanted.


SEE IT: Whitsell Auditorium, Portland Art Museum. Derek screens at 7 pm Friday-Sunday, July 11-13. Sebastian screens at 8:45 pm Friday, July 11; Jubilee at 8:45 pm Saturday, July 12; and The Tempest at 8:45 pm Sunday, July 13.
 
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