Obituary: Derek Jarman

Colin Maccabe
Monday 21 February 1994 00:02 GMT

Derek Jarman, painter and film- maker: born Northwood, Middlesex 31 January 1942; died London 19 February 1994.

DEREK JARMAN's death robs British cinema of its most vital force. For 20 years Jarman has been a constantly innovative figure, breaking with the conservatism of every aspect of cinematic practice to produce works which have been technically original, aesthetically radical and which constitute an astonishing personal and public record of England in the last quarter of the 20th century.

The two most important facts about Jarman's life and works were his sexuality and his nationality. His greatest pleasures in life were provided by his homosexuality and by England: the outrage that fuelled his art was occasioned by those who would deny and repress homosexuality and who would travesty the traditions of his country. These two themes came together in what is probably his most personal work, The Last of England (1987), a deeply autobiographical investigation of the destruction of the country which he had loved so much, composed immediately after he had discovered that he was HIV positive.

In that film there is a home- movie sequence which shows Derek as a young child on one of the RAF bases where his father was stationed. He was born in 1942, and his childhood was a succession of such bases. The one which most marked his imagination and identification was RAF Merryfield, in Somerset, where a beautiful manor-house in Curry Mallet seems to stand as an image of an idyllic England, a garden unsullied by repression. School was Canford, with all the bleak and soulless traditions of English education, and Derek took up painting as what he described as self-defence and under the guidance of a sympathetic art teacher, Robin Noscoe.

His father agreed that he could continue to train as a painter but only after he had completed a conventional degree in history, English and art at King's College London, so it was not until 1963 that Jarman entered the Slade. Almost at once he entered the immensely liberating world of Sixties London. Hockney, Procktor and Clarke set the tone and the tone was openly homosexual. There can be few people who enjoyed more of that decade than Jarman. Be it at Hockney's house in Powys Square, the Arts Lab in Drury Lane, the Living Theatre at the Roundhouse, the set of Antonioni's Blow Up, Jarman was an indispensable participant at the feast of the Sixties. Throughout this period he enjoyed moderate success as a painter; exhibited in the Young Contemporaries at the Tate in 1967, a one-man show at the Lisson Gallery in 1968.

But early on at the Slade he had spent as much time designing as painting, and in retrospect it is clear that the collaborative nature of designing was always much more congenial to him than the solitary pursuits of the painter. Ironically, however, the uniformly hostile response to his designs for the ENO Don Giovanni at the Coliseum in 1968 led to the resolution to abandon that career entirely.

Given the modern preoccupation with decades it seems entirely appropriate that it was 1970 which witnessed the two chance encounters which were to provide Jarman with the forms which united his talents and interests.

If The Wizard of Oz had provided a never-to-be-forgotten childhood experience, Jarman's relation to the cinema throughout the Sixties had simply been that of someone fascinated by any form of cultural experiment. The great masters of the Italian cinema, and particularly Pasolini, were admired but Jarman had never made any attempt to make films, even though he had been in the first audience for the Warhol movies when they were screened at the Arts Lab.

In January 1970, however, he shared a train ride from Paris with Janet Deuter, a teacher at Hornsey and a friend of Ken Russell. Two days later Russell asked him to design The Devils (1971) and their collaboration was to span both that film and The Savage Messiah (1972); it introduced Jarman to the rigours of professional film-making. In the same year Marc Balet, one of Warhol's entourage, arrived in London with a Super 8 camera and Jarman, partly in response to the demands of the conventional cinema, began to make a series of home movies which gradually became more and more sophisticated, culminating with In the Shadow of the Sun, mainly shot in 1973 but only publicly exhibited in 1980. It was with Super 8 that Jarman finally found a way of producing the images he wanted - images which linked past and present, which captured the contemporary while reaching back into history and myth.

It was also at this time that Jarman started reading Jung seriously and found a theoretical framework for his attempt to find the past in the present and the present in the past. Perhaps as importantly, it was this style of film-making which allowed for the collaboration so crucial to Jarman without the enforced hierarchies and rules of the professional cinema.

It is Jarman's fascination with history that differentiates him so sharply from much avant-garde art of the 20th century and yet there can be no film-maker who has more resolutely, or in more various ways, refused the approach of realistic costume drama. The immense artificiality of the set of The Devils and the attempt to juxtapose different historical settings for different moods set some of the terms of Jarman's later work. His first feature film, however, Sebastiane (1975), made clear that history (the torture and martyrdom of St Sebastian) would above all be the setting for an investigation of male sexuality and homosexual desire. If much of the working methods of Sebastiane derived from Jarman's experiments with Super 8 - the cast and crew acting in collective and non-hierarchical fashion - the aleatory and private images of the Super 8 work were abandoned for a definite if episodic story. Whatever the psychological or historical interest of Jarman's treatment of the martyrdom, Sebastiane's incredible success was probably as much due to its simple taking for granted of homosexual desire. It represents, in that sense, an historical moment of gay liberation and a collective coming-out which is one of the happier heritages of the miserable Seventies.

On the back of this success, Jarman made two more films: Jubilee (1977), perhaps the most accurate and grim account of the Seventies as the magician John Dee escorts Elizabeth I through the realities of punk London, and a version of The Tempest (1979) which brilliantly mixed past and present to show Shakespeare as a poet of desire and repression.

It was just before shooting The Tempest that Jarman embarked on his project to film the life of Caravaggio. In many ways this seemed the ideal project for Jarman - the setting, Italy in the last throes of the Renaissance; the lighting, chiaroscuro; the story, an artist moving between the palaces of the patrons and the back rooms of the models. The project, however, was to be seven years in the making. The precise vicissitudes of the funding await a definitive biography, but the failures of these years had two effects. His inability to work and the continuous press campaign to stop Channel 4 showing his earlier movies made Jarman a ferocious defender of homosexuality and its celebrations. It is probably no exaggeration to say that in the early Eighties he became the most articulate and persistent defender of gay rights as the hard-won liberties of the Sixties and Seventies came under attack. Part of that campaign was his superb autobiography Dancing Ledge, inexcusably ignored by the literary editors of 1984.

As important, the impasse over Caravaggio (1986) forced Jarman to return to Super 8. It was true of Jarman, as it is probably true of few other film-makers, that he had to make moving images. If the mainstream cinema would not oblige then he would make his own. The experimental nature of his home movie-making had always made Jarman aware of various ways of manipulating the image through time. The increasingly sophisticated technology of Super 8 and the new technology of video allowed endless experimentation. There were also now, a host of young filmmakers, Cerith Wyn Evans, Richard Heslop, John Mayberry amongst others, with whom to work. The early Eighties were anything but unproductive, if the constant disappointments over Caravaggio could be forgotten. Indeed they led to a discovery of a completely new form of film-making when Peter Sainsbury of the BFI's Production Board decided to collaborate with Jarman in taking some of this Super 8 material, blowing it up to 35mm and providing it with a richly complex sound-track.

The first result was The Angelic Conversation (1985), but the technical methods and the working practices and collaborations were to underpin the finest work of the Eighties, including the magnificent short film Imagining October (also 1985), in which the personal fantasies of the home movies and the public world of cinema and history were fused for the first time in a prolonged meditation on art and politics.

Finally, however, Caravaggio was funded and Gabriel Beristain's lighting and Christopher Hobbs's design turned an East End warehouse into Caravaggio's Rome. After the shooting and before its triumphant premiere at Berlin in 1986, Jarman had finally taken the HIV test. It was, as he expected, positive.

There was now no time to lose. Half a lifetime had to be packed into periods which could never be calculated far into the future. Conventional cinema was left to one side as the experiments of the early Eighties bore fruit in a remarkable series - The Last of England (1987), War Requiem (1988) and The Garden (1990), as well as the incredible footage shot for the Pet Shop Boys concert of 1989. These films accompany two remarkable developments in Jarman's life. His father's death left him with enough money to buy a tiny fisherman's cottage at Dungeness. Here in the shadow of the power station he constructed an extraordinary garden which he recorded both in the 1991 film of that name and in the extraordinary diary Modern Nature, which he published in 1992. The diary not only documents the growth of the garden but also of his love for Keith Collins (the HB of Modern Nature). It was this love which was to confer a real serenity on Jarman's last years and to bring into his final and greatest films the tenderness which had been so conspicuously absent from his early works.

It is Collins, as the executioner in Edward II (1991), who delivers the final kiss to the dying king and transforms Marlowe's bitter and cynical play on power and desire into a film which also affirms the possibility of both difference and reconciliation. And it is Collins again as the composite student/

lover in Wittgenstein (1993) who introduces real pathos and emotion into this remarkable attempt to picture thought.

In these two films we have, in relatively accessible form, Jarman's most mature and profound thoughts on England and sexuality, on art and love. We also have the extraordinary final work, Blue (1993) - a feature-length film which marries a sound-track which records the relentless progress of Aids to an unvarying blue image. Right to the very last, Jarman never stopped the most radical experiments with both his art and his life.

The final importance of Derek Jarman's work will be decided in a future for the image which it is impossible now to predict. Whether the full potential of audio-visual technology will be used to expand or limit our imaginations is now in the balance. What is certain is that wherever there is a willingness to experiment and collaborate Jarman's work will be a primary point of reference. To encounter the man himself in the streets of Soho and to discuss with manic intensity a dozen projects in fewer minutes was to be re-energised and revitalised for weeks. It is difficult to think that such energy has been stilled; some consolation that so much of it found form in paint, in words, in film.

(Photograph omitted)

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