“You can sit and feel sorry for yourself or go out and do something. I’ve tried to do the latter.” —Derek Jarman
Derek Jarman was a director of gay films in a time where to be volatile, political, artistic and singularly queer was a career death sentence. Fortunately, Jarman did not give a flip about political correctness or convention. He might no longer be with us, but his art survives to tell the essential, historical tale behind the birth of the modern gay filmmaking movement. Like a mad, gentle-genius love child of Kenneth Anger, Carl Theodor Dryer and Luchino Visconti, Jarman broke almost every rule in his blazing career.
In 1976, he offered up the (still) incendiary and profane Sebastiane, one of four films released with the current Derek Jarman Collection set (the others are The Tempest, War Requiem and the Tilda Swinton-starring documentary Derek—missing are the key Jubilee, Caravaggio and Edward II). The film, which wildly homoeroticizes the story of a pious Catholic saint, shows Jarman to be possessed of a vibrant painterly style that his formalist predecessors, particularly the European auteurs, showed with their texturally-decadent compositions.
Like Visconti’s The Damned, Sebastiane maintains a clarity of image that is almost relentless. There is a boldness in Jarman’s use of color and light that recalls the Italian director, as well as his penchant for the louche details that viewers aren’t usually privy to (such as the quick, sexualized glances constantly shared by the men). Color, in particular is of the highest importance for Jarman’s luscious, low-budget vision – it punctuates and underscores the prickly emotions that are so close to the surface. Both films share a morbid a preoccupation forbidden love, betrayal, nakedness, and a particularly nasty fixation with fire and heat, perhaps refracting the director’s own senses of flamboyance, or perhaps placed there to highlight their own self-loathing and sexual acting out.
But whereas Visconti was more of a visual sensualist who employed luxurious, rounded textures, Jarman’s view of things is decidedly more hard and sharp. It is pure, pointed high art. In a film like The Damned, Visconti shows an extended bacchanal of homosexual Nazi lust, but in Sebastiane, Jarman ups the ante with an extended, slow-motion sequence of two muscle-bound hunks getting it on in a reflecting pool—very, very up close and personal. Even by today’s standards, this is a shocking scene, so one can only imagine what audiences thought of it when it was released in 1976.
Set in the summer of 303, Jarman’s Sebastiane also references glam rock and the hallucinatory Fellini-helmed opus Satyricon as he ponders his characters celebrating with a lustful abandon, donning and wielding phalluses and dancing. It is also entirely in Latin, making Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ look like an outright imitator, stylistically. The gay hedonism was on full display, unapologetically, there are even naked young men gallivanting about on horseback, among other strong queer images. Long, lustful encounters between men virtually fueled this landmark in queer, indie, art-house cinema. Rooted in Catholicism and the church’s mythology, Jarman tweaked Sebastiane into something quite revolutionary alongside co-director Paul Humphress: a worshipful movie about gayness and religion.
Visconti and Anger, as well as Jarman, were interested in shattering cultural taboos and making social change with their art, yet they existed and worked in times where to do so was virtually impossible with repercussions. Jarman, though, was able to expound in a much more explicit fashion on topics such as incest, pedophilia, homosexuality, and other deviant behaviors du jour, more than his predecessors ever were. Acting on artistic impulse, Jarman made these subjects look alternately grotesque and horrifying, as well as captivating and beautiful.
His films are controversial, in a head-on way – perverse and sexy, and artful to a fault. Low budgets might not have afforded Jarman the opulent mise-en-scene of Visconti’s explorations of aristocracy, but this never becomes an obstacle. Jarman was nothing if not economical and experimental in equal measure, using language in place of decoration and gloss.
All of these directors questioned mortality and morality, but Jarman did it in a base, primal way that feels more like an outright assault. Because he was out and gay, and came of age during the insidious debut of AIDS to the world (the disease would take him in the end), all of the sexual and religious imagery in his films became even more emblematic. He was one of the first people of note to openly talk about his illness – another busted taboo to his credit. He became a new, raw voice in a position of power in a time where power was in short supply to queer people, in general.
In the heartfelt (if a bit too navel-gazing) documentary included with the set, Swinton gives proper tribute to her and Jarman’s poetic partnership, but there is never a sense that she feels the need to apologize for or homogenize Jarman’s relentlessly outré homosexually-themed films for us. The feeling is that she is proud to have been muse to such an innovator, to have been able to create alongside such a unique talent.
Though the film, at times, is a bit saccharine, it does serve as a nice reminder of what an ally Swinton is to the independent, queer and avant garde cinema movements and it piques one’s curiosity to wonder about the legacy of Jarman’s career in relation to those gay directors who are currently working in the medium. The fact that Swinton now has an Oscar will hopefully afford her the chance to continue to enact change in her own chosen, subversive manor, keeping in the spirit of her beloved partner alive.
The lingering question now is what other GLBT directors and artists and contemporary straight artists (like Matthew Barney) do to repay Jarman’s immeasurable influence on the form and style that affords them credence today? Heterosexual directors who choose to bring queer material to the screen could also certainly stand to thank him every now and then, too, as his utterly essential contributions to the challenging of cultural mores in the film world and beyond has, in turn, enabled their own personal creative freedoms directly.
Queer directors, directing queer material – now there is a novel invention! Jarman has a distinct, romantic point of view that eroticizes gay love and lust in a way that the admirable straight directors of gay material such as Ang Lee (whose Brokeback Mountain crushed a few taboos itself) or Jonathan Demme (Philadelphia) cannot ever fully understand. David Cronenberg immaculately dissects and undermines modern masculinity and reveals how it is innately tied to homophobia and vanity, but even he can’t fully articulate the sheer vitriol and drive associated with being an oppressed and hated gay man, though he often achieves moments of transcendence with this subject.
There is a definite esprit de corps shared by current homosexual icons of the film directing world such as Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes, who prize artistic truth and strong points of view above all else. These men, unlike someone like George Cukor, never had to dismantle the system from the inside; they never had to deal with a “system” at all and remain firmly outside of the traditional filmmaking purview.
By being boldly queer in a precariously hetero time, John Waters, Andy Warhol, Anger, Visconti, and especially Jarman began a cinematic revolution that allowed later generations of gay men to work dually as film directors and artists. Though they scored a few points for parity’s sake, it is a battle that is still being waged and evolving today – it still took 20 years for Van Sant’s Milk to simply get made. Queer films and filmmakers struggle to find their voices and achieve queer visibility in a white, straight business that would just as soon see queens stay in their place doing hair, make-up, dancing, and costumes. Or, like Cukor, simply shooting only “women’s pictures”.
Jarman, of all of these queer film directors, remains the most maverick and one of the most distinct, in terms of artistry. There is a sense of real risk and urgency that runs through his canon. Film directing is a dangerous business that requires fearlessness and dedication from those who serve the beast. Jarman made his last film, Blue, while he was blind and dying of complications from AIDS. He filled the screen with moments of hot man-on-man soft-core erotica for mass audiences, for the first time in cinema history. He did it with artfulness and a clear point of view that remained fully intact for the duration of his career.
That is bravery. That is a deeply personal dedication to, and a powerful lesson on, remaining true to one’s artistic vision. Few directors, gay or straight, I would guess, possess this kind of drive. It is inspiring.
Every time a bobble-headed fire and brimstone moralist like Sarah Palin regurgitates the term “maverick”, vapidly, in the future (and hopefully it won’t be too often now…), think not of a fallen idol like John McCain, but of a queer punk visionary like Jarman, instead. Do it because it would probably make someone like her very angry. That’s just a small bonus.
Do it also because he actually was a maverick, in every sense of the word. Having a feature film made over 30 years ago where the leading man fantasizes aloud about having gay sex with Jesus Christ has absolutely got to count for something.