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Blu-ray: Derek Jarman Collection, Vol Two 1987-1994 | reviews, news & interviews

Blu-ray: Derek Jarman Collection, Vol Two 1987-1994

Blu-ray: Derek Jarman Collection, Vol Two 1987-1994

A very English saint canonised by the BFI

Tilda Swinton in 'The Last of England'Courtesy of BFI

Derek Jarman has always been described as irreverent, but, paradoxically, he is treated today with unreserved and probably excessive reverence. In the church of the avant-garde, and it’s perhaps not completely out of order to suggest that such an institution exists, he has been well and truly sanctified.

Volume Two of the BFI’s monumental and impressive edition of Jarman’s video and film work will add to his status as genius and martyr. This lovingly assembled collection completes a remarkable account of the director’s work with the moving image, an extraordinary oeuvre as he was also writing, painting and campaigning – not to speak of many nights of pleasure and fun – throughout his adult life. AIDS didn’t slow him down: if anything, it gave an urgency to this most prolific of artists, and an energy that enabled him to produce a torrent of wide-ranging work.

Complete Derek Jarman IIThe films include The Last of England (1987), War Requiem (1989), The Garden (1990), Edward II (1991), Wittgenstein (1993), Blue (1993) and the posthumous assembly of Jarman’s Super-8 footage Glitterbug (1994). War Requiem, done in a hurry (two months) isn’t his best work: it’s as if he were trying too hard, his often rather literal inventions not fully realised and drawing in too many disparate strands. These elements fail to resonate poetically, as they do in The Last of England, a work much longer in gestation, with a finely crafted stream of consciousness that mixes politics, alchemical imagery, Derek’s beautiful text, and a great deal of violence and nudity. With Britten's oratorio, what might have been a masterwork falls short of the maturity and reflection the subject deserves.

When I interviewed Tilda Swinton for an ARENA portrait of Jarman in 1990, she said that “it’s when he’s fizzing with anger that Derek is at his most Jarmanesque”. Beyond the camp and the in-jokes, there is in all these films a great fury and political engagement – not least in perhaps the best film of all from his later years, Edward II. As with Caravaggio or the witty and inventive Wittgenstein, Jarman’s narrative-driven films benefit from tiny budgets: the absence of elaborate sets, and the creation of a world which allows the imagination to fill in the gaps that would have been covered by a more naturalistic setting, create a powerful intensity and forces the inner drama to the surface. In Edward II, the camera work by Ian Wilson, the sets by Christopher Hobbs and Sandy Powell’s costumes work perfectly. All in the service of the fierce and unrelenting anger that drove Derek to exploit the narrative of the king’s passion for Piers Gaveston and the struggle with his wife and barons as an historically revisionist clarion call for the fight against homophobia in the Britain of Clause 28.

There will come a time when talking or writing about Derek Jarman goes beyond the generally hagiographic parade of collaborators, friends and experts who are included in a magnificently rich collection of bonuses: Tilda Swinton, set designer Christopher Hobbs, producer James Mackay, composer Simon Fisher Turner, costume designer Sandy Powell, director John Maybury are just some of the people who have been interviewed especially for this box set. They speak eloquently and fondly of Derek: of his working methods, the infectious and child-like enthusiasm with which he could energise those who worked alongside him. Artist-filmmaker John Scarlett-Davis speaks amusingly of chaperoning Jarman on his visits to gay clubs and Hampstead Heath, alluding to a vast sexual appetite and voyeuristic fascination with S&M that mirrored his relentless creative energy. “Sex”, Scarlett-Davis concludes, ”was the machine that drove him.”

There was something beguiling about Derek’s often naïve lack of boundaries and his rebellion against all kinds of form

Apart from the copious selection of interviews, there are many other interesting items, including Dead Cat (1989), a surrealist visual poem of homo-eroticism and violence with cameos from Jarman and Genesis P-Orridge; David Lewis’s film The Wanderer (1991), based on an Anglo-Saxon poem; an enchanting interview with Jarman at his most charming, for a Thames TV programme Book at My Bedside, where he talks about Bachelard and Heraclitus, evoking the eclecticism of his reading. There's also a great deal of audio, including a 70-minute interview with Colin McCabe; a selection of unused sounds and music from Simon Fisher Turner; and Bliss (1991), the 40-minute piece that would grow into Blue (1993). There is also a beautifully produced and very full 100-page booklet, with photos, essays and a fascinating transcript of Tilda Swinton's tremendous first Derek Jarman Memorial Lecture at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2002. Of all the collaborators, it is she who understands best the richness and paradox in Jarman's oeuvre: her closeness to Derek over the years enables her to be both generous and critical, loving and detached.

Blue is still a daring work, courageous on a personal level, but also artistically. A deeply moving film in which you create the images yourself, as John Maybury says in one of his interviews, as you listen and the blue screen allows your inner eye to open. There was something beguiling about Derek’s often naïve lack of boundaries and his rebellion against all kinds of form. The mix of nostalgia for an imagined and untainted heritage Britain with a punkish dedication to demolishing the symbols and institutions of the established order is symptomatic of the contradictions and paradoxes that run through the work.

The rebellion becomes after a while a little tiresome, bound as it is to an almost masochistic obsession with the often lurid and cartoon-like images of authority, power and violence, that colour Jarman’s take on eroticism and sexuality. This box-set demonstrates the paradoxes at the heart of this dance between love and hate, dominatrixes and slaves, rebellion and tyranny, freedom and addiction, but for all the talk assembled in a massive array of bonuses, there is barely anything that discusses with any depth the darker or more problematic aspects of Jarman’s work.

It’s when he’s fizzing with anger that Derek is at his most Jarmanesque


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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