The Films of Derek Jarman (review)
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 1, 2003
- pp. 83-84
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Book Reviews | Regular Feature William Pencak. The Films of Derek Jarman. McFarland, 2002. 213 pages; $32.00 softcover. Pink Pantheon For those of us who are gay, and who love films, Derek Jarman is a bit of a worry; it is impossible simply to clasp his hand and hail him as a brother. The reason lies in his contradictions . Here was a gay man whose anger against oppression sometimes seemed stronger than the love he wished to liberate, a hater of Thatcherite authoritarianism who could be authoritarian himself , an opponent of elites who enjoyed parading his possession of elite culture. Faced with this maelstrom of conflicts, viewers can find themselves torn between fellow feeling and exasperation , often during the same sequence. Nevertheless, these collisions are part of Jarman's power. They are presented with a distinctiveness that puts him up there in the pink pantheon alongside Cocteau and Pasolini. Divided he may have been, but he was (cue the beatific choir) an artist. He was also a polymath, well versed in subjects as wideranging as the art of the Renaissance, the alchemy of John Dee, or Wittgenstein's theories of color. Whether this makes him an intellectual in the conventional sense is another matter; certainly William Pencak has plenty of evidence to the contrary. For example , he quotes Jarman on his film The Angelic Conversation: "I came to the ideas after I made the film." In fact, thinking, in its academic or analytical form, got short shrift: "film critics have no visual training, they are writers who make pronouncements through a fog of English lit." All this indicates that trying to turn Jarman into a scholar with a camera is one of those clever ideas that your mother always warned you would end in tears. Yet this is exactly what Pencak does. His book contains chapters on each of Jarman's major works from the 1970s onwards , from the unfilmed screenplay ofAkenaton to his final work, Blue, and all are presented as part of "an alternative, and largely plausible, vision of civilization, a philosophy of history if you will, from the homosexual point of view." This is fine as a general statement, but the eyes start to water when you get to the details : there isadismaying beliefthatJarman was nothing more than a creative footnote writer. Everything in these pages has to have a discernible source, or be a fully worked through comment on one. Inevitably, then, erudite hammering and banging drown out the beatific choir. In the chapter on Edward II, for example, there is endless worrying over what Holinshed did with history, what Marlowe did with Holinshed and what Jarman did with Marlowe. This approach is useful for pinpointing sources and highlighting basic issues, but it is myopic in terms ofJarman's instinctive approach. "How to make a film ofa gay love affair and get it commissioned?" he asked himself, and back came the answer: "Find a dusty old play and violate it." At a pinch, "violation" could be interpreted as a "philosophy of history if you will," but it is closer to Orson Welles' take on Othello: good, bad, or indifferent, the master said, you can make your own opera. Pencak is deafto this idea of creative transformation. He is far too worried about what a film means ever to get to what the core of it is. In consequence, his book fails to capture Jarman's heartbeat , those magical qualities that glue the eye to the screen even as the brain is crying out for support. Like Doctor Dee, in fact, the director was an alchemist; he tried to transform straight metal into gay gold, to imbue the tyranny of time with the quality of dream. Most significantly, he was a pilgrim, searching for the erotic truth that exists beyond and within time. Sadly, he never quite found it; as David Thomson has implied, his art was restricted by its dependence on the very prison it was trying to dismantle . Also, his paradoxical spirit was intensifiedby its peculiarly English strain. Jarman loved the idyllic vision of England with its small gardens and loving communities, but he couldn't stop himself from railing against its dark side, the...