Reflections on the Life & Work of Derek Jarman

Bob Nowlan

INDEPENDENT BRITISH FILMMAKER Derek Jarman died of AIDS on February 19, 1994 in London. Jarman is best known as one of the leading directors in “the new queer cinema.” Among Jarman’s most famous films are “Sebastiane,” “Jubilee,” “The Tempest,” “Angelic Conversation,” “Imagining October,” “The Last of England,” “War Requiem,” “The Garden,” “Edward II,” “Wittgenstein,” and “Blue.”

Jarman was also an accomplished painter and theater designer; a prolific journalist and essayist; an ubiquitous print, radio, and television interviewee; the author of three book-length collections of autobiographical writings, At Your Own Risk: a Saint’s Testament, Dancing Ledge, and Modern Nature; and a dedicated queer and AIDS activist.

Who was Derek Jarman and why is his life, his death, and especially his work, significant? Let us turn first to what Jarman and some of his most celebratory supporters have had to say, and then from there to a few, more critical, comments in conclusion.

In “The Two Gardens of Derek Jarman” (Film Comment, November-December 1993, 28-35) Harlan Kennedy contends that those who enter the filmic world of Derek Jarman “are seldom the same again” once they leave, while “those who stand back to frown and censure condemn themselves to miss out on one of the oddest, bravest bodies of work in modern cinema” (29). Jarman is famous not only for his explicitly homoaffirmative and heterocritical representations of — and focuses upon — gay themes but also for his innovative use of experimental film styles and techniques in addressing gay topics.

His first film, called “Derek Jarman Film Diary” or “Studio Bankside,” anticipates later, more elaborate experiments. This film was shot in 1970 on Super-8. (Jarman continues, even in his later films, to make use of a trademark primitive transferral of 16mm film to video.) This ten-minute cut-up is filmed entirely from within Jarman’s Thames-side studio in London (on the sight of the old Globe Theatre, famous as the site where Shakespeare’s plays debuted — and the film pays homage to the inspiration of Shakespeare).

What we see in “Derek Jarman Film Diary” looks, as Kennedy puts it, “like the brainstorm of a demented home-movie freak” with “chairs, flower vases, paintings, a mannequin, a pair of spectacles, [and] faces of friends” not only scattered haphazardly about but also screened to appear “like a series of jagged-angled flashbulb snaps” such that “images flare and die, punctuated by semisubliminal shots of a glowing red wire” (29).

According to Kennedy, Jarman’s imagery reflects his vision: “that first short movie was the work of a bricolage artist in love not with perfection but with the forensic fragments and lost chords of a bygone Utopia, an unrecapturable past” (29). As Kennedy indicates, Jarman’s is a kind of “post-renaissance” “high romanticism”: his art is a “bonfire of human vanity” which “rejoices in the possibility that if you reduce Progress, Prosperity, and established cultural Priorities to ashes, you’ll find a new Phoenix in there that will rise and soar” (29).

To Kennedy, it is the “charm of that high romanticism — and of Jarman himself, a gawky, garrulous human champagne bottle, forever fizzling with ideas and humor” that likely explains why Jarman “has spent two decades getting away with near-murder (scandal, outrage, gale-force controversy) as an artist-commentator in Britain” (29).

Among some of the most notorious events in his “mischief-making” (as Kennedy puts it) career were Jarman’s design for Ken Russell’s “The Devils” (he also designed Russell’s “Savage Messiah”) which depicted a white-bricked London to look like a giant public toilet; “Sebastiane,” so full of nude saints and soldiers in homoerotic situations that it not only provoked extensive moral outrage in the British government and media but also was limited to distribution in X-rated cinema houses here in the United States; biting satires of the royal family, in “Jubilee,” and of Thatcher’s Britain, in “The Last of England”; a punk rewriting of Shakespeare in “The Tempest;” recasting scribes and pharisees as flashbulbing paparazzi, Adam and Eve as Adam and Adam, Christ as a pair of male-lovers, and numerous other twists upon the conventional Christian accounts of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden and the crucifixion of Christ in “The Garden”; a defiantly “in your face” queer updating of Marlowe in “Edward II”; a combination of brechtian theatrical techniques and a satirical appropriation of mass cultural motifs in “Wittgenstein”; frank accounts of his cruising history in his autobiographies; deliberately provocative and confrontational paintings, including not only paintings such as “AIDS is Fun” — designed to unsettle liberal sympathies and conventional pro-PWA orthodoxies, but also the paintings for his 1989 exhibit “Queer” which include canvases with smears of excremental impasto over cutout newspaper headlines such as “SEX BOYS FOR SALE AT QUEEN’S GROCERS”; Jarman’s participation (and his arrests) as an active member of OutRage (the British parallel to Queer Nation) and his frequent appearances on British TV vociferously denouncing discrimination and prejudice against homosexuality as well as the general thrust of Conservative Party social policy.

Jarman’s last film (which has just recently been released in selected U.S. cities and cinemas), “Blue,” continues this provocative trajectory. “Blue” is 76 minutes of blue screen projected without alteration, inflection, or interruption that is combined with an aural collage of voices, music, and sound effects addressing topics ranging from the mundane immediacy of everyday life (including the pain and struggle of Jarman himself as he deals with AIDS at the point where he has lost his eyesight and is too weak to do much of anything for very long, even talk or move) to the exotic and fantastical (including
Jarman’s imaginations of transcendence of suffering with and dying from AIDS).

“Blue” is not only typically rooted in Jarman’s autobiographical experience, but also deliberately designed to convey a direct impression to its viewers of what it feels like to be dying of AIDS. Perhaps both because of its artistic achievement and its autobiographical poignancy, “Blue” has been Jarman’s most widely critically acclaimed film to date. (For those interested in taking a look at Jarman’s work for the first time, “Caravaggio,” “Edward II,” and “The Garden” are the films most frequently found in video stores.)

As Kennedy indicates, Jarman’s oeuvre actually breaks down into two basic types of film. First are his “experimental films” (such as “Blue,” “The Garden,” “The Angelic Conversation,” and “The Last of England”) that “shatter form with lyric formlessness,” drawing on Jarman’s own work as a painter in their emphasis upon conveying substantial points through what Kennedy describes as a style which is at once “visual/aural/intuitive/[and] preliterate” (31). In these films we see conveyed in a viscerally and emotionally expressionistic way Jarman’s characteristic post-apocalyptic hopefulness that it will be possible to rediscover, recreate, and renew what he simultaneously depicts as having been lost, exhausted, and destroyed — and an especially central concern of Jarman’s in this regard is his exploration of possibilities for the rediscovery, recreation, and renewal of what might be described as “love after the death of love.”

This “abstract painterly” approach to exposition and development of his substantive content — Jarman’s philosophical and political positions, arguments, and critiques — is also, and perhaps even more strikingly, predominant in shorter and lesser known films of Jarman’s such as “The Art of Mirrors,” “Picnic at Rae’s,” “Fire Island,” “Pontorno Punks at Santa Croce,” “Imagining October,” and “In the Shadow of the Sun.” Many in this last group of films draw explicit analogies between canvas and screen and directly focus upon the act of painting, painting styles, and painting techniques.

The second basic type of Jarman film includes his story-films and biopics (such as “Sebastiane,” “The Tempest,” “Jubilee,” “Caravaggio,” “Edward II,” and “Wittgenstein”) that, as Kennedy indicates, “use satire, surrealism, anachronism, and comic lese-majeste to crack the tablets of received wisdom about what makes political, intellectual, or artistic `greatness'” (31). All of these films combine critical re-examination of famous figures and events from the historic past with critical reflection upon figures and events in contemporary Britain, and all are most scathing in their critiques of contemporary British heterosexist-supremacist culture and of contemporary British Conservative Party politics.

Jarman is not therefore primarily concerned in these “historical” films with merely reclaiming a “queer history” (although he is willing to accept that this is one use to which his films will be put). Instead his aim is to appropriate from and to rewrite histories which already address subjects of direct interest to queer life today so as to contribute to — and as far as possible through his films to enact — a queer subversion of the dominant politics and culture of contemporary Britain.

For all of what might seem to be exotic and esoteric in and about Jarman’s films, his social-political critiques are really ultimately, in essence, very straightforward and simple in both their means and their ends. Jarman’s work is deliberately designed to contribute towards the achievement of the broadly libertarian goal of opening space for gays and lesbians to live and love as they wish and choose without discrimination, prejudice, or abuse — and he is particularly concerned to contribute towards the end of what he sees as unjust government intrusion into and interference with these “private” “rights.” The principal means through which Jarman attempts to contribute to this end is by now characteristically “queer”: boldly and defiantly flaunting homosexuality and homoeroticism without compromising or conceding to — but instead deliberately pressing against and provoking — straight revulsion, repugnance, embarrassment, titillation, shock, and horror.

As Jarman indicates in a final interview (with contributing editor Richard Morrison for the February 1994 issue of Art and Understanding):

“Yes, I’ve been involved with OutRage and we’re a nice gang of people . . . I like all of these activists. The situation here is very divided between people who feel we should all behave and speak to the government and all that malarkey and other people who are activists. And I’m on the side of the activists . . . I don’t believe in this whole idea of sitting down and having tea with Mr. Major and all. I think it’s all ridiculous.” (22)

At the same time, however, Jarman’s iconoclasm leads him towards impatience with many other aspects of radical queer and AIDS activist politics. For one, Jarman rejects use of the phrase “People Living With AIDS” as euphemistic “rubbish” which is simply “not true,” “absolutely flies in the face of what we know,” and is, in fact, “quite crazy” (22-23).

Jarman is likewise impatient with conspiracy theories about AIDS because, as he puts it, “there are no conspiracies whatsoever”; to talk about conspiracies is, according to Jarman, “ridiculous” and, moreover, a “very American” result of “the lack of proper health care and things like that in the States” (23). Furthermore, he is not interested in assigning blame — even in blaming government — for the devastation that has resulted from the AIDS epidemic as this is “all flim-flam”:

“It’s just that things move slowly in all forms of government and everything else. It moves like a tortoise, including the HIV thing. I don’t think anyone’s actually going out of their way to make it slower.” (23)

Therefore, while Jarman respects the activist impact of someone who is ready and willing to be as aggressively angry as Larry Kramer, he at the same time thinks Kramer is wrong to “waste his energy” on much that is not constructive, and especially to charge HIV+ gay men with being “self-inflicted.” Kramer is, Jarman contends, too full of what Jarman finds to be an unfortunately all-too-common tendency within queer and AIDS activism towards negativism and guilt: “[he is all]. . . full of guilt . . . anti-this and anti-that. And I feel the opposite.” (25)

This last comment of Jarman’s, however brief and seemingly casual, is actually quite typical of Jarman’s political and philosophical outlook. As such, it is revealing of Jarman’s chief concerns. In the last interview with Morrison, he makes it once again clear, as he has elsewhere, that he supports a  vision (and, as a radical activist, he of course also thinks it is necessary that he fight and struggle actively for the realization of this vision) of a society where individuals will have the opportunity to do whatever they want in the pursuit of their own happiness (sexual and otherwise). This includes, Jarman contends, that which endangers their own health and well-being (such as, Jarman mentions, having unsafe sex if they so choose). According to Jarman, “why shouldn’t they [do whatever they want] if that’s what they want to do?,” because, after all, “it’s their lives,” and that’s “their business” (24).

On the back jacket of the Overlook Press edition of At Your Own Risk distributed in the United States are a number of quotes from Jarman which further suggest something of the Jarman’s ludic anarchic (playfully libertarian) philosophy of queer life and of the queerity of life:

“This book, you can be certain, will not be in the school library. Youth will be told it isn’t ‘normal.’ The elders, the pillars of society, will sooner die than be happy.

“Understand that sexuality is as wide as the sea.

“Understand that if you and I decide to have sex, whether safe, safer, or unsafe, it is our decision and other people have no rights in our lovemaking.

“Until I’d enjoyed being fucked I had not reached balanced manhood. When you overcome your fear you understand that gender has its own prison. When I meet heterosexual men I know they have experienced only half of love.

“All men are homosexual, some turn straight. It must be very odd to be a straight man because your sexuality is hopelessly defensive, like an ideal of racial purity.

“Heterosoc [sic], imprisoned by monogamy in the ruins of romantic love, is quite dumbfounded when faced with our pluralism. On death: I console myself that maybe there is something odd about going in three years, in my prime, at the heights of my faculties, rather than declining to a sad old age. There’s an old folks’ home down the road called Memories — that’s not for me.

“I hope boys will carry on falling in love with boys and girls with girls and they’ll find no way to change that.”

Jarman’s Queer Edward II is a book published by the British Film Institute in 1991 which is about the making of “Edward II,” or, as Jarman puts it,

“How to make a film of a gay love affair and have it commissioned. Find a dusty old play and violate it. It is difficult enough to be queer, but to be a queer in the cinema is almost impossible. Heterosexuals have fucked up the screen so completely that there’s hardly room for us to kiss there. Marlowe outs the past — why don’t we out the present? That’s really the only message the play has. Fuck poetry. The best lines in Marlowe sound like pop songs and the worst, well we’ve tried to spare you them . . . This book is dedicated to the repeal of all anti-gay laws, particularly Section 28.” (iii)

Queer Edward II is full of the same kinds of messages as found on the back-jacket of At Your Own Risk. It is a compilation of numerous short passages that combine fragmentary selections from the screenplay, descriptions of the behind-the-scenes work of putting the film together, and photographs of scenes from the film. All of these passages are boldly headlined with queerly defiant and queerly affirmative slogans (both old standards and new originals), and all of these titles exhibit what has become a now characteristically queer delight in the reversal or inversion of conventional straight/queer positions and relations.

Among these different titles, all of which suggest not only the principal directions of the homo-positive/heterocritical thematics in “Edward II,” but also in the rest of Jarman’s films as well, are the following: “the love that can’t keep its big mouth shut”; “are you a closet bigot?”; “your closet is your coffin”; “it’s in to be out”; “heterosexuality is a common complaint . . . homosexuality is a common cure”; “hetero? mixed marriages never work”; “maybe you’re just going through a straight phase?”; “save queer children from straight parents”; “homo means same means equal”; “heterosexuality is cruel and kinky”;
“gender is apartheid”; “our orientation is not your decision”; “queens will not be pawns”; “it takes 2 breeders to make 1 queer”; “God was a confirmed bachelor”; “blend the genders”; “hets fear temptation not abduction”; “heterobnoxious”; “heteroppressive”; “heteroffensive”; “heterosexuality: an exercise in cultural narcissism”; “straights lie queers die”; “its cool to be queer”; “anus . . . the last place the government should be poking its nose”; “straight and very narrow”; “may you rot in your hetero heaven”; “deviate or die”; “anti-queer bigots have small willies”; “out, proud, and livid”; “heterosexuality isn’t normal, it’s just common”; “straights . . . funny people but never very happy”; “are you a filthy small-minded queer bigot?”; “if you must be heterosexual, please try to be discreet”; “get cured — homophobia is a social disease”; “you’re ignorant, arrogant, and boring — we’re just a little queer”; “so, what do you think caused your heterosexuality”; “heteros go homo”; “God is a Black Jewish lesbian”; “Jesus was a drag queen”; “never mind, we can’t all be queer”; “land of hope and glory . . . offer not open to fags and dykes”; “join the queer nation”; “outing . . . its the least we can do”; “don’t cry, maybe you’re just going through a straight phase”; “stop the straight war against queer love”; “real men take it up the arse”; “rabbits breed like straights”; and “heterophobia liberates . . . homosexism empowers.”

Jarman is most important for the aesthetically vivid, imaginative, and powerful ways in which his work is able to reflect, register, describe, and convey the felt experience of a series of social contradictions particular to queer life in the postmodern culture of fin-de-siecle late capitalism. At the same time, however, his work is far more limited and problematic in the ways it explains and enacts formal resolutions of these contradictions. (This is true even if the force of Jarman’s insight and the complexity of his understanding far exceed the kinds of mainstream Hollywood attention given to queer and AIDS issues we see in films like Philadelphia). It is particularly appropriate to inquire into the politics of Jarman’s art because, as he himself has put it,

“The films are of no consequence and no interest. They’re only there for other reasons: to encourage the debate about law reform and to give solidarity to people who may feel isolated” (Kennedy 35).

Although Jarman advocates “radically” confronting and defying “straight” society and culture, he does not in fact develop and elaborate a vision of what a successful “queering” of this society and culture might involve or to what it might lead. Jarman is caught in a position which insists upon the necessity of struggling “radically” for social change, while simultaneously doubting that “radical” change in and of society is — any longer — possible. To take up Kennedy’s allusion to post-structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida’s famous contrast of the “bricoleur” with the “engineer,” Jarman, as a “bricoleur,” is a political artist who strives only to contribute towards the achievement of a modified reassemblage of shards and fragments from that which has already existed rather than to contribute to the designing and implementation of that which does not yet exist.

In fact, the changes Jarman explicitly advocates are ultimately no different than those advocated by the “conservatives” (the gay moderates) he disparages. On the one hand he advocates the repeal of discriminatory and prejudicial anti-queer laws and the passage of pro-queer laws which will support greater tolerance and acceptance of queer life. On the other hand he advocates an extensive campaign of public (counter-)education in tolerance and acceptance of queer equality which will, supposedly, push further than mere legislation
alone — and, as a “radical” activist, for Jarman this will of course entail (counter-)education by the (counter-)institutional means of forcing straights into an exhausting confrontation with the increasing, and increasingly irrepressible, “out” visibility of queers “everywhere” living and loving as they will and choose.

It is certainly true that Jarman recognizes that protest and struggle organized and conducted en masse outside of established institutional channels and against entrenched social-political interests is necessary in order to create sufficient pressure for even minimal reforms to succeed. It is also certainly true that Jarman recognizes the concomitant need for this protest and struggle to be boldly defiant, belligerently angry, and incisively creative so as to cause disruption and disturbance of “business as usual” and thereby to draw as much attention to the reformist cause from those in power and across “the general public” as possible.

Nonetheless, Jarman does not envision the need for radical change of the fundamental structures and institutions of existing late capitalist society in order to liberate queers. Nor does he envision “queerity” as antithetical to — and potentially superseding of — the dominant standards and conventions of “straight” existence. Because he does not follow this last kind of “radical” course, the political thrust of Jarman’s work is divided between, on the one hand, striving for tolerance and acceptance, and, on the other hand, resisting and refusing what gaining such tolerance and acceptance would most likely involve if this were not accompanied by any other significant and substantial change in present social and cultural arrangements.

In other words, Jarman’s films strive towards the achievement of a tolerance and acceptance that would involve inclusion and assimilation of queers into straight society and culture, and yet these films also willfully resist and refuse, out of a largely aesthetico-ethical distaste, the logical consequence that would follow from the realization of such a possibility: the absorption and dissolution of queer difference.

This resistance and refusal leads Jarman to support what at least seems like a form of queer separatism at the same time as he presses for straight tolerance and acceptance of queer equality within straight society and culture. Jarman’s work thus reflects the tension between fighting for queer equality with straights while struggling to maintain queer distinctiveness in the course of gaining such equality.

Jarman’s work resolves this contradiction in a highly romantic and indeed even mystical (as well as very familiar) direction by defining the potential perdurability of queerity as a kind of aesthetico-ethical style or sensibility — as a kind of “odd” way of individually interacting with and engaging with life, with nature, with others, and with one’s self.

Jarman’s images are stimulating and provocative, and, as a rich source of utopian (and dystopian) abstractions from and projections beyond contemporary heterosexism and homophobia, his narratives provide useful material to support and sustain radical criticism, struggle, and change.

Yet the combination — and this is, in typical postmodernist fashion, not a synthetic but rather a syncretic combination — of camp/pop/punk/exotic/fringe/tragic/epic/tragicomic/farcical/melodramatic/fatalistic/nostalgic /and fantastical modes in Jarman’s vision of rebellion leads Jarman to follow what is also a typically postmodernist form of liberal-reformist politics. (To be even more precise, this is an especially typical form of politics among those who assume positions as the principal public, literary-artistic and philosophical-ideological representatives of marginal(ized) populations from the vantage point of their own marginal(ized) position within aesthetic-intellectual sectors of the middle classes in contemporary Britain and America.)

Jarman’s films put forth a classically postmodernist vision of the difficulty of striving for political reform — and beyond this the virtual impossibility of striving for political transformation — when not only the more narrow realm of politics proper but also all of social and natural reality itself appears to be ultimately arbitrary and indeterminate. In such a situation, the validity and efficacy of choices and decisions about what political course to follow always remain ultimately uncertain and these choices and decisions therefore in turn always remain ultimately undecidable. Therefore the seemingly best thing for one to do is to strive to live one’s own individual life according to an individual — ethical — code of honor, and to do so according to an individual — aesthetic — style that testifies both to one’s integrity of intent and to the simultaneous impossibility of guaranteeing authenticity and sincerity even when this is one’s intent.

From such a postmodernist perspective, the only realizable — the only practical — kind of politics to wage in conditions of ceaseless uncertainty and indeterminacy (beyond the politics of the immediately personal and interpersonal) is a politics which is very narrowly local in focus. From such a perspective, local constraints and local exigencies should always be prioritized in conceiving, setting, and pursuing political goals.

Unfortunately, following this course of action means that it will be difficult to move political struggle beyond focus upon the need for very limited and immediate kinds of ad hoc reforms. It also increases the danger that the common interests of different social groups and of the different political organizations and movements representing these groups will be disconnected from each other. This in turn increases the further dangers that these different groups, organizations, and movements will be easily divided against each other and obsessively absorbed in parochial concerns.

The “post-al” logic which underlies Jarman’s politics combines two contradictory elements.

First, it involves a cognitive acceptance of the supposed fact that we live in an age after all possibilities for radical (in the sense of “revolutionary”) social change to achieve enlightenment, progress, and emancipation have now past once and for all (and in which it is seen, furthermore, to be naive, futile, and anachronistic to pretend otherwise).

Second, however, it also involves an emotional inability and unwillingness to accept what it has cognitively rejected, as the desire for enlightenment, progress, and emancipation remains because the problems of alienation, oppression, devastation, and dehumanization continue not only to persist but also to worsen. (This is an especially strong tension of course for those who are simultaneously both adherents of this kind of postmodernist philosophical-ideological position as well as members of a marginalized social group — such as queers.)

At the same time, however, the conviction that it is no longer possible to struggle with any hope or confidence of success in achieving other than “tortoise-like changes” at a “tortoise-like pace” leads the radical activist-artist to escape — and even to flee — into dreams of futures that will not be, and of pasts that never were, as ways of coping with a present that cannot yet must be endured, because this present always inexorably returns once the dreams have ended, and because it always remains, when it does return, fundamentally unchanged.

ATC 56, May-June 1995


  1. I have just read your article on Derek.
    Could you please tell me who is responsible for Derek’s archive of painted works.
    I have three works by Derek, one bought from Derek, two given as presents in 1962/3 when I was at Kings College London and a friend of Derek.
    These have been in my possession ever since and I feel they should be archived or catalogued by someone or at least known of in his corpus of work.
    I can supply photographs and further details if you wish.
    Best wishes
    Peter Murphy

  2. Thanks Peter for writing. David Finkel of _Against the Current_ looked me up to send me your query. Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer to your question, but if I learn anything about this I will pass it on to you.

    Bob Nowlan

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