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What would Jarman have made of Trump?

  • Tilda Swinton in Caravaggio

Tilda Swinton in Caravaggio

17th July 2018

As a British Council-supported season of Derek Jarman's films plays in Buenos Aires, Alex Davidson explains why his work still has firepower.

Derek Jarman was a truly versatile artist. He was a writer, a painter, a poet, an actor and a set designer (most famously he created the extraordinary visuals for Ken Russell’s 1971 masterpiece The Devils). But his films are his most enduring legacy. There’s nothing else like them in world cinema, and they are as arresting and relevant today as when they were first shown.

Jarman is often described as an avant-garde filmmaker. And he is, although unlike many of his contemporaries, his work is highly accessible. His adaptations of William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe transform Elizabethan texts into wild, exhilarating cinematic art. The dialogue in his unique gay historical drama Sebastiane (1976), set in ancient Rome, may be in Latin, but its inventive translations of modern, often vulgar, English make it fun and engaging rather than dry and austere. Jarman veered away from pretension, as one might expect from the director of hit music videos for artists such as Marianne Faithfull, The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys.

Derek Jarman at the Venice Film Festival in 1991

Despite his reputation for experimental filmmaking, Jarman exploited the talents of world famous, mainstream stars in his films. Dame Judi Dench beautifully recites Shakespeare’s sonnets over haunting queer imagery in The Angelic Conversation (1985). Sir Laurence Olivier’s swansong, War Requiem (1989), is an interpretation of Benjamin Britten's musical piece in which the actor stars as the Old Soldier. Jarman’s greatest collaborator is Tilda Swinton, who appeared in seven of his feature films, from the bawdy lover in Caravaggio (1986) to the caring off-screen voice in Blue (1993), many years before she became an Oscar-winning Hollywood star.

While many of his films were made on very low budgets, they are stunning to look at, and linger in the minds of audiences far longer than films made with infinitely more financial support. Today, there are more opportunities to make films cheaply – Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) was famously filmed on an iPhone. The enthusiastic embrace of inexpensive technology is a natural progression of Jarman’s methodology – he often filmed on Super 8, lending an appealing punkiness to his work.

The Angelic Conversation

Jarman is seen as an auteur, and while his films certainly boast a distinctive style, their tone is often radically different. Compare the bawdy, nudity-packed gay world of Sebastiane with the gentle, swooning PG-rated homoerotic imagery of The Angelic Conversation. Contrast the visual splendour of Caravaggio, gorgeously recreating the artist’s chiaroscuro and an array of tableaux vivant that convincingly pass for paintings, to the 79-minute shot of a blue background in his last film, Blue (1993), made when AIDS complications had rendered him partially blind.

Jarman’s blistering attacks on the repressive Thatcher government still shock. The Last of England, a startling vision of his homeland as a totalitarian dystopia, features harrowing imagery – a dog lapping at blood following a terrorist attack, a homeless man gobbling a cauliflower before vomiting – although its most searing image, a screaming bride (Swinton) ripping off her wedding dress following the death of her husband, is also perversely beautiful. His films explicitly criticise the Tory government’s policies, from the crass jingoism of the Falklands war seen in The Last of England to the explicit comparison of Section 28, a controversial, homophobic 1988 legislation that criminalised the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality, with the violent persecution of queer men in Edward II (1991).

Sir Laurence Olivier and Tilda Swinton in War Requiem

Although anger pulsates through all his political work, most of his films have unexpected moments of delight. Who else would dare pause the drama of The Tempest to treat the audience to a rapturous rendition of Stormy Weather, courtesy of legendary singer Elisabeth Welch? Or interpret the grisly end of Marlowe’s Edward II as a nightmare, followed by that most rare and glorious thing in contemporary cinema – a happy end for its gay lovers.

It is both ironic and logical that Jarman’s film career flourished under Thatcherism. Countercultural by nature, his attacks on conservative values kicked against the stuffy, award-winning period dramas that abounded in British cinema at the time, and gave a voice to the oppressed, a mission that is needed in today’s cinema more than ever, as governments across the world turn more repressive and rally against minorities.

What would Jarman have made of Trump, of Brexit, of the surge to the extreme right across Eastern Europe? His 1978 punk film Jubilee goosed the notion of reverence to the monarchy. How would he have reacted to the celebrations of the Queen’s golden jubilee 25 years later, or the worldwide adoration heaped on the weddings of her grandchildren? His skewering of hypocrisy and pompous authority, his love of the oppressed and his one-of-a-kind artistic vision are sorely missed.

The Derek Jarman retrospective plays at Sala Leopoldo Lugones, San Martin Theatre in Buenos Aires from 20-31 July.