- Derek Jarman’s Angelic Conversations
Jim Ellis has written an extraordinarily valuable genealogy of Derek Jarman’s complex oeuvre that will no doubt stand as the critical standard by which other appraisals of the mercurial filmmaker, writer, painter, and gardener will be assessed. Written in a remarkably fluid and accessible style, Ellis guides his readers through the entire catalogue of films and through all of Jarman’s important writings with equal lucidity and verve. For anyone familiar with the work in question, this is no small task. Jarman’s work is thoroughly in dialogue with key trends in contemporary art practice, with the entire history of mainstream and experimental cinema, with British social history in general and the history of Renaissance thought and cultural production in particular, with the history of gardening, with a complex array of queer figures from past and present, and with the social [End Page 242] history of gay/queer life from the 1950s to the present. There are very few scholars with the range to take on this work. Repeatedly throughout this book, Jim Ellis demonstrates that he has a deep awareness of how these seemingly disparate strands of thought and practice were woven into what he recognizes as a singular intervention in contemporary life. This is perhaps the most important rhetorical objective of the book. In my reading of Ellis’s monograph, I sense a fully realized desire to capture the aspects of Jarman’s way of working that spoke to the historical crisis he witnessed unfold across the bodies and relationships that defined his life. It is this attempt to articulate a mode of being with others that makes Ellis’s book so compelling. And it is precisely this way of addressing the world that makes Jarman’s work so important for our ongoing social and aesthetic experiments.
Ellis’s book is Foucauldian in structure and intent. Its method is genealogical because his primary aim is to show how certain issues in Jarman’s practice emerged and how they transformed to address historical transitions in his social and cultural milieu. The advantages of this strategy are immediately apparent because it allows Ellis to build a developmental, historical argument about Jarman’s work. This is crucial because Ellis contends not only that Jarman’s work exhibits an interest in the processes of history, specifically the histories of art, sexuality, and the nation, but also that the films and writings themselves actively engage in counter-history. Thus the work is both radically historiographical and marked by the signs of history. At one level, this is not a surprising thesis: all of the films take on historical topics and present alternatives to received ways of representing the past. But Ellis is extremely eloquent about how the films and the writings formally enact their critique of received wisdom. The book’s value fully rests in a series of tightly linked readings of Jarman’s aesthetic strategies.
Framed by a brief introduction, which argues forcefully for the importance of thinking about heterotopic spaces in Jarman’s work, and a short coda on Jarman’s legacy, the book is comprised of seven chapters. The first locates Jarman within the artistic trajectory of Situationism and in the social history of the Gay Liberation Front in Britain. For readers unfamiliar with Jarman’s artistic and social milieu, this short chapter establishes concerns that weave their way through the book. The importance of space to Jarman’s aesthetic and political activities is crucial. Ellis makes a compelling case for how the Situationist concepts of dérive, psychogeography, and détournement resonated with many of the glf’s strategies to re-territorialize public and private space. Many of these strategies were [End Page 243] exemplified in the ways of living practised in Jarman’s now famous Bankside studio and documented in Jarman’s early super-8 films. The book’s second chapter offers a full reading of these important early experiments with film production, and they provide an extremely useful way of thinking about Jarman’s first feature Sebastiane. Most readings...