Derek Jarman was one of the most unique artists, never mind filmmakers, that Britain produced in the 20th century. He was willing to challenge the form of cinema itself constantly, with varying degrees of success, and was openly gay from the beginning of his career. He very sadly passed away from AIDS-related complications after a nearly decade-long and very public battle with the disease. This set comprises his films that were made more or less before he became HIV-positive, after which his work took an angrier turn.
The first film in the set is In the Shadow of the Sun, which is really a psychedelic college of various footage. It draws heavily on the work of Kenneth Anger, and his and Anger’s interest in the occult. It’s beautiful and repetitive, like much of Jarman’s Super-8 and later video work, which puts the viewer into a trance-like state. The film was in various stages of completion since the early ’70s, and it wasn’t till 1981 that he finished it completely. That’s when his friends in the industrial band Throbbing Gristle provided a soundtrack, which just enhances the experience and takes the viewer to another place. He would also collaborate with Throbbing Gristle on T.G.: Psychic Rally in Heaven, which is live footage chopped up into a montage with some studio recordings on top. The gig was filmed at the famous London gay nightclub Heaven, where I saw TG’s second to last ever performance nearly three decades later.
Jarman’s debut feature proper was Sebastiane, which is an anachronistic biopic of the saint. It’s a very obvious film for Jarman to have made: St Sebastian was for all intents and purposes the very first gay icon, and the somewhat unofficial patron saint of homosexuality. It’s an interesting film for many reasons: for example, it’s rare for either a gay or straight filmmaker to photograph the male body in the way Jarman did. It’s one of the few films I can think of where a filmmaker shoots an opening scene in the style of another filmmaker (in this case, Frederico Fellini), and it’s as if it’s there just to get it out of his system. Jarman’s first claim to fame was designing the sets for Ken Russell’s The Devils, a director who was often considered the British answer to Fellini. The rest of the film, however, is pure Pasolini. Like Fellini, Pasolini was a director Jarman admired enormously, and also like Jarman he was a director who was fearlessly open he was about his homosexuality.
The next two films reflect the punk scene, which Jarman was most certainly a part of. They are perhaps his two most well-known films, Jubilee and The Tempest. Of course, the UK had one of the most vibrant punk scenes of the late ’70s, but it rarely produced a film that was even remotely watchable. Jubilee is his only science fiction film, a tale where Queen Elisabeth I is transported to a dystopian London by an alchemist. This future is run by punk girl gangs, including a young Toyah Wilcox. The biggest problem is that it doesn’t quite get a grasp on the music, even though the punk version of Adam and the Ants and early Siouxsie and the Banshees appear in the film. His other punk film was his reinvention of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which remains one of the more radical and inventive takes on Shakespeare on screen. It was just as much formed by the various eras since the play’s inception, and includes anachronistic influences from ’60s horror movies like Rosemary’s Baby and Hammer horror films.
The most underappreciated film in the set is The Angelic Conversation, which is his second long-form Super-8 film. It’s basically a love story between two men, with Judi Dench reciting some of Shakespeare’s love sonnets in a voice-over with images that evoke his interest in the occult as well. It’s often dismissed as either some kind of softcore gay porno (which it obviously isn’t) or some mystical mumbo jumbo, which it kind of is. However, it’s one of his most fully realised cinematic visions, and indulges in his obsessions. Jarman has called the film “a dream world, a world of magic and ritual, yet there are images there of the burning cars and radar systems, which remind you there is a price to be paid in order to gain this dream in the face of a world of violence.” It also features a score by Coil and some the imagery certain predates some of the music videos he would make for The Smiths. The boxset doesn’t feature any of Jarman’s many music videos, which was one of his main sources of income throughout his career. It’s mostly down to complicated rights issues, but there is a possibility of a couple appearing in the next volume.
The final feature is Caravaggio, which was a project Jarman had pursued off and on for the previous eight years, constantly struggling with funding. It tells the story of the artist Caravaggio and his many loves, both male and female, in a fragmented fever dream he is having on his death bed. It’s most certainly the most straightforward film of the set, but is still filled with the anachronisms you expect, which reminded me of Alex Cox’s Walker. It’s lushly shot by Gabriel Beristain who would go on to shoot big Hollywood films later in his career, and he faithfully replicates Caravaggio’s paintings. Some have compared the film to Peter Greenaway;s work but you couldn’t get more vastly different directors and they also hate a mutual hatred for one another. It also marked his first collaboration with Tilda Swinton, who appears here in her screen debut but would end up becoming his muse for the rest of his life. Sean Bean also made his screen debut with the film, and marks the first of his several deaths on screen.
The BFI has Jarman’s archives, so the boxset is loaded with many shorts, including a great one which is footage of William S. Burroughs visiting the UK in the early ’80s. Each film includes various archival and new interviews with Jarman’s many collaborators. Beristain supplies a commentary track for Caravaggio. The best feature is a documentary about Jarman’s unmade projects, including a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film which was to star David Bowie till Jarman freaked him out (you have to buy the set to find out how) and the usual galleries and trailers, etc. It’s all rounded off with a mammoth 80-page book with new and old writing on the films and more.