The 100 Essential Directors Part 5: Derek Jarman to Mike Leigh

Mid-way through our series, Day 5 is a glorious mishmash of international auteurist cinema. Today we go from saints and sinners, from Brookyln to Britain, from the beginning of time to the Dystopian future, and around the world and beyond.

Mid-way through our series, Day 5 is a glorious mishmash of international auteurist cinema. Beginning with Derek Jarman's sumptuous visions and ending with three directors who might share a name, but have very little else in common. Today we go from saints and sinners, from Brookyln to Britain, from the beginning of time to the Dystopian future, and around the world and beyond.


Derek Jarman
(1942 - 1994)

Three Key Films: Caravaggio (1986), The Last of England (1987), Blue (1993)

Underrated: Sebastiane (1976) Jarman’s debut and the first film shot entirely in Latin is a marriage of Jarman’s greatest loves and concerns: history and homosexuality. Produced with a tiny budget (£25,000/$45,000) it was the first openly homoerotic British film and announced a fresh new voice for an ailing British film industry in the mid-'70s. Through the tale of roman soldier and martyr Saint Sebastian, Jarman switches between the everyday life of the soldiers and vivid homoerotic encounters that celebrate unashamedly the male nude. Yet crucially he balances this visual feast with a complex portrayal of Sebastian’s journey towards spirituality, not reducing the story to its known conclusion but highlighting the multi-faceted nature and questions that arise from religious experience.

Unforgettable: Final moments of Blue. A luminous blue screen that never moves or changes, takes us back to the conception of moving pictures, the tradition and history that occupied Jarman constantly. With only a soundtrack to ‘move’ the film, the blue becomes a filter for our own images created behind or in front of the screen. Filmed months before Jarman’s death from AIDS, he was beginning to lose his sight and his vision became blurred by a blue tinge. The audio is narrated sections, spoken by various friends and actors, from his diary, revealing his poetical struggle with AIDS. Against sentimentality Blue is a rejection artifice and also a political statement against the AIDS epidemic. “ No ninety minutes could deal with the eight years HIV takes to get its host. Hollywood can only sentimentalize it.” The film ends with these lines, and remains the most moving scene in his work: “For our time is the passing of a shadow and our lives will run like sparks through the stubble. I place a delphinium. Blue, upon your grave.”

Caravaggio (1986)

The Legend: A young man makes love to a black-masked fascist commando on top of a large Union Jack flag. This is one of the most memorable and symbolic scenes of The Last of England and a view into the nerve center of Jarman’s work and life. If given only two subjects that would occupy Jarman there is no doubt that these would be his sexuality and his country. Both aspects powerfully united on the British flag in The Last of England, defined by his discovery that he was HIV positive in 1986 and the political situation in England.

The Last of England, is an assault in many ways, asking the viewer to fight to find their own interpretation within the visual richness. It is an experimental film, a bricolage of old home movies, staged scenes from literature and art history and contemporary events thrust among a terrifying vision of the future.

Jarman is known best as one of Britain’s most controversial filmmakers. As experimental with the art of film as with taboo-breaking subjects, he was however caught between being a radical and a traditionalist.

Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman grew up on various RAF bases around England, his father a strict military officer who agreed to his son studying art only after he had pursued a degree in History, English and Art History. He went on to study painting, but his introduction to film came through his interest in costume design. After a chance meeting on a train from Paris with a friend of Ken Russell’s he was invited to design The Devils (1971) for Russell, giving him an insight into professional filmmaking. The costumes would remain with Jarman, the juxtaposition of different settings and moments in history fascinated him, leading to his avant-garde interpretations of many historical dramas. The first of which, Sebastiane, used history as the site for sexual investigation. A Renaissance man trapped in punk London, Jarman’s ideal project was Caravaggio, a chance to indulge in painterly light, artist struggles and complex relationships. Seven years in the making Jarman himself struggled with funding, becoming frustrated by the formalities he returned shortly after to the casualness of the Super 8 for The Last of England.

Shortly before Caravaggio’s premiere Jarman took the HIV test. The discovery led to him abandoning conventional cinema and speeding ahead with experimental work. War Requiem (1988) the filmic interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s mass, followed within a year of The Last of England. His father died and with the money left to him Jarman bought a small cottage in Dungeness, in the shadow of a power station, where he became to cultivate a garden. Recording the fruits of his labor in The Garden (1990) love also blossomed for Jarman bringing him serenity in his later years. From 1990 to his death in 1994 he produced three films, Edward II (1991), Wittgenstein (1993) and Blue (1993). Blue, perhaps the most radical of all Jarman’s films, is an elegiac abstract of life and film and a testament to the visionary filmmaker who never stopped even when his sight began to fail. Jennifer Hamblett




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