As long as the music’s loud enough, we won’t hear the world falling apart.
— Borgia Ginz (Jack Birkett), Jubilee
Punk rock seems outdated these days. To be sure, “underground” punk still exists, lobbing pointed criticism of mainstream cultures, but the days of a highly visible, confrontational, and even threatening punk movement have long since passed. Consider the evolution of the genre into teeny-punk as apotheosized in pop-rockers like Avril Lavigne and Good Charlotte. Neither “Sk8er Boi” nor “The Little Things” captures the aesthetic anarchy or social critique of, say, the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen.”
Criterion’s DVD release of Derek Jarman’s punk film classic Jubilee is a nice antidote to this mythic evolution, and a reminder of just how politically and artistically engaged punk can be. Known mostly for his postmodern historical pastiche films, like Caravaggio (1986) or Edward II (1991), in Jubilee, Jarman (once marginally in the British scene) remains steadfastly fixated on the film’s present. Filmed over the course of the year 1977, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee (25 years on the throne), Jubilee is also set in a dystopian England of 1977. Thus, the occasion for Criterion’s 25th Anniversary Edition of the film; it’s a jubilee of a jubilee of a jubilee, as it were.
The movie’s framing device has the first Queen Elizabeth (Jenny Runacre, who also plays the “Queen of Punk,” Bod) summoning her court astrologer, John Dee (Richard O’Brien), to show her a vision of 400 years into the future of her realm. What she sees appalls her. London is largely a police state controlled by the media, but also overrun by roving gangs of punk boys and girls who foment anarchy at every opportunity. We follow one such gang, led by Bod, as they try to make sense of this new world order, seeking a way out of this oppressive environment.
Upon its release, Jubilee was met with criticism from participants in the punk movement, specifically, that it exploited punk for Jarman’s own artistic profit, and that as an “outsider,” he had no authority to represent punk. But punk’s ownership and representation — and its credibility — have long been up for debate. Despite its investment in the working class, the movement has never shed its avant-garde, art-school associations and stylings. “Jubilee: A Time Less Golden,” a documentary included in this DVD, gives a lot of consideration to this tension. As John Maybury (assistant production designer for Jubilee and former London punk) observes, British punk was made up almost entirely of “upper middle class [kids] and aristos pretending to be commoners.”
There were also tensions on the set between the “real” punk kids Jarman hired to fill supporting parts and the “real” actors playing the major roles. Jordan, who plays Amyl Nitrate, was a 24/7 punk who worked at Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s famous King’s Road shop, “SEX”; and Toyah Willcox, who plays Mad, was a classically trained actor fresh out of the National Theater. A number of the bands originally slated to appear in the film, like Siouxsie and the Banshees and The Clash, pulled out at the last minute, claiming the film commercialized the movement. But Kenny, drummer for the Banshees, does appear, as do The Slits and Adam Ant, in his pre-New Romantic days.
Perhaps most famously, designer Vivienne Westwood despised the movie, calling it “the most boring and therefore disgusting film” she had ever seen. She even went so far as to produce a t-shirt, silk-screened with her screed against the film, assailing Jarman as “a gay boy jerk[ing] off through the titillation of his masochistic tremblings.” The Criterion Edition kindly reproduces the text of this t-shirt in one of its many extra features.
In one respect, Westwood was right. Jubilee is arty, decidedly pretentious and sometimes conservative. Production designer Christopher Hobbs, in the DVD documentary, suggests that Jarman felt aligned with Queen Elizabeth, looking towards then contemporary England as the exact opposite of her own “Golden Age,” as emblematized in the punk subculture.
But I think Hobbs gets it mistaken. Jubilee doesn’t bemoan the rise of a punk counterculture as indicative of England’s failures. In the film, what goes wrong is not punk, but England. Here the subculture is posited as a reaction to a social and political environment of diminishing returns. Jubilee depicts a post-apocalyptic England, rife with class warfare and directly reflective of the deep recession and state-imposed three-day workweeks of the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Working class London literally burns while the rich idle away at country estates. Global ruler and media mogul Borgia Ginz (Jack Birkett) has turned Buckingham Palace into a huge recording studio, and Westminster Abbey into a gay go-go boy nightclub. Borgia recognizes his own power and influence when he asserts, “If the music’s loud enough, we won’t hear the world falling apart.”
But the gang of punk girls and boys who are the film’s protagonists do hear, and they only way they see out of the situation is to hurry along this falling apart. It’s punk party line — nihilism and anarchy as political objective. Punk historian Amyl Nitrate claims, “When I’m not writing history, I make it.” She spends her time re-framing England’s past as the ongoing exploitation of the commoners by the rich and titled. Mad, Crabs (Nell Campell), and Bod roam the streets, luring numerous young patriarchal agents to their flat; they kill them and dump their bodies in the dried up Thames.
But Jubilee is cagier than this simplistic “resist the system” message suggests. The system tries to recoup even those who seem most “transgressive,” as demonstrated in the relationship between Borgia and the punk kids, who, for all their anti-social behavior, dream of musical stardom. Crabs acts as something of a talent agent for Borgia, introducing him to Kid (Adam Ant), whom the mogul quickly propels to the top of the charts with the song “Plastic Surgery.” (Wayne County makes an appearance in his infamous punk drag, as Lounge Lizard, whose hit, “Paranoia Paradise,” Kid knocks off the top position.)
Aware of his role in preempting resistance and revolution, Borgia observes, “They all sign up in the end one way or another.” And sign up they do. Kid becomes a superstar. By the end of the film, Mad, Crabs, Bod, and Amyl have escaped burning London for Borgia’s country estate, where they hobnob with a retired Hitler. “No future” indeed.
Perhaps the suggestion that they could never escape the system is what pissed off punks about the film back in 1978: Jubilee suggests that punk is complicit, even a willing participant, in its own commodification. This was nothing new, even then. This is the “scandal” of Julien Temple’s The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (1980), as narrated by Malcolm McLaren; the Sex Pistols were always determined to make “filthy lucre.”
For all the controversy — and perhaps because of it — Jubilee has remained something of a cult favorite for the last 25 years. Other punk films (like Temple’s) have long been disappeared. And now we can see that Jarman’s vision of punk’s commodification and England’s future was nothing short of prescient. As the director wrote in the second volume of his memoirs, Dancing Ledge (1993),
Afterwards, the film turned prophetic. Dr. Dee’s vision came true — the streets burned in Brixton and Toxteth, Adam [Ant] was on Top of the Pops and signed up with Margaret Thatcher to sing at the Falklands Ball. They all sign up in one way or another.
Such vision has added urgency in the States today, approaching the conditions of England in 1977, as well as the film’s imagined “1977.” The parallels are striking. The economic downturn, rising unemployment, and reduction of taxes for the rich are increasing gaps in the distribution of wealth. The FCC’s recent relaxation of media ownership regulations seems positively Borgia Ginz-esque. The U.S. government’s answer to its own dwindling prestige worldwide has been the invasion of Iraq, the war on terrorism, and the reassertion of its imperial might. All this is subtended at home by the public’s political quietude and knee-jerk patriotism. The music is certainly loud enough in America, so we don’t hear the world falling apart. But this time, it’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.”