Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman as a true 'Renaissance Man' in the colloquial sense of the word, as well as having a strong and permanent interest in the art, thought, and literature of the Renaissance. Although the tone of Jarman's films is frequently melancholic, the threat which death poses for desire is sometimes modulated by an apparent desire for death. He was never comfortable with the label 'gay', regarding it as both too stable and too self-satisfied, too concerned to present a 'positive' image. He preferred the more fluid and mobile term 'queer'. Jarman's first feature-length film was remarkable in many ways and in at least three respects was virtually unique at the time for a commercially distributed picture. In 1977, the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, punk had spread beyond a handful of clubs and bands in London and New York and was starting to look like a complete new youth culture in the making. From 1978 to 1985, whatever else he was engaged in, Jarman's life was dominated by his desire to make a film about the life of the Italian painter Caravaggio. Wittgenstein had been a completely unexpected commission which Jarman, despite his failing health, had rapidly and brilliantly converted into 'A Derek Jarman Film' through his usual intense personal identification with his subject. Blue was one of a cluster of films addressing the issue of AIDS which were released in the early 1990s.
Before he died in 1994 Derek Jarman had achieved distinction in an astonishing number of different activities - as a film director, painter, writer, set designer, gardener, and political activist. He was a true 'Renaissance Man' in the colloquial sense of the word, as well as having a strong and permanent interest in the art, thought, and literature of the Renaissance. His career was unique in many respects and there are no obvious immediate successors to him, but his influence continues to be apparent in a large number of recent films. Like most Englishmen prior to the end of the twentieth century, he elided English with British national identity in a seemingly unproblematic way. Although the tone of Jarman's films is frequently melancholic, the threat which death poses for desire is sometimes modulated by an apparent desire for death.
Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman was born on 31 January 1942. After his father's death, Jarman was able to recognise in him his own anxieties about being simultaneously both 'inside' and 'outside' mainstream English society. Jarman was fully aware that his family background conformed to a psychoanalytic cliché about the genesis of male homosexuality but he typically converted this 'problem' into a positive advantage. At Hordle, Jarman's primary escape from the brutalities and banalities of boarding-school life had been through long walks along the Dorset coast and the keeping of a small garden. If one were to concentrate on the film's intertitles, its verbal text, then it would come across as a furious outburst against Thatcherism and consumer capitalism. Towards the end of his life, Jarman said in an interview that 'all creativity has its roots in one's childhood'.
Jarman's first feature-length film was remarkable in many ways and in at least three respects was virtually unique at the time for a commercially distributed picture. Patrik Steede, a close friend of Jarman, was a complex and slightly sinister personality whose sadomasochistic imagination had been nourished by an incident in his childhood when his mother had 'chained him to a meat hook and whipped him with a riding crop.' The decision to make the film in Latin was often defended by Jarman as a form of realism which helped him to bypass the problem of stilted and unconvincing dialogue which often plagued the traditional historical film. Jarman's remarks about his own films are always interesting but they can sometimes be seriously misleading. Jarman later lamented that undue attention to the overtly sexual aspects of his film prevented audiences from responding to the inner psychological drama being enacted.
The relative success of Sebastiane encouraged Jarman, Whaley, and Malin to attempt the impossible and make another independently financed feature film. By 1977, the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, punk had spread beyond a handful of clubs and bands in London and New York and was starting to look like a complete new youth culture in the making. The starting point for Jubilee was Jarman's fascination with Jordan, a girl who worked at the King's Road clothes shop. Jarman's ambivalence about where all this violent youthful energy was heading resulted in an extremely interesting film, deliberately ugly in places, and very uncomfortable to watch, a film which, he tells us in the published script, 'always upset people' and who embodied the emerging punk style it was busy promoting. The authentic artistic individuality which he asserted so strongly against the sell-out represented by punk could be found within punk itself.
Although Jarman discussed further projects with James Whaley and Howard Malin, his relationship with them was cooling and they declined any involvement in the first steps he was taking towards making a film about the Baroque painter Caravaggio. Jarman's strong interest in Shakespeare was in some respects entirely normal and predictable for someone of his social background and education. Jarman took from the writings of Frances Yates the idea that when Shakespeare wrote The Tempest in 1611. More than anything else, Jarman's Tempest is a truly 'magical' film which manages to make most stage productions look overly literal and leaden-footed and which eludes most of the traps set by academic criticism. When, shortly after Jarman's HIV positive diagnosis in 1986, he deliberately broke 'Prospero's wand, Dee's hieroglyphic monad', the magic staff which had been used in the film, he was to die just after his 52nd birthday.
Despite the generally positive critical reception of The Tempest, Jarman was unable for several years to gain the necessary funding for his planned film about the painter Caravaggio. Although Jarman often spoke of The Angelic Conversation as if it were an attempt to film Shakespeare's sonnets, it is clear from his own accounts of the film's genesis that the fourteen poems were something of an afterthought, a belated attempt to bring some structure and drama to a series of technically contrived lyrical effects. Jarman once said that his film of The Tempest'should be full of irreverence yet allow the great play to remain intact' and this is arguably what he achieved. The sexual violence which features in many of Jarman's films has here been subjected to a rigorous repression, although since we are talking about a deliberate and conscious intention on Jarman's part, probably 'suppression'.
From 1978 to 1985, whatever else he was engaged in, Jarman's life was dominated by his desire to make a film about the life of the Italian painter Caravaggio. There were many frustrations along the way and Jarman's most painful moment came in 1983 when Channel Four, withdrew from a planned co-production deal. Unusually for a film about a painter, there are as many scenes set in the quietness of the studio as in the bustling 'bohemian' world beyond it, scenes in which the lonely, intense concentration of the artist is disturbed only by the sound of his assistant grinding pigments or the anachronistic whistle of a distant train. It is clear that over the many years that Jarman worked on the film he moved away somewhat from an emphasis on the pain and 'dis-ease' evident in the Goliath painting to a more redemptive view of the artist.
1986 proved to be a pivotal year in Derek Jarman's life. If Caravaggio, with its carefully scripted storyline, professionally acted character parts, precisely lit studio set-ups, and use of 35mm, was Jarman's nearest approach to the procedures of mainstream cinema, then The Last of England represents a return to his less formal super-8 films, this time augmented by editing techniques derived from his work on music videos. The film which emerged from the editing process is a rich and powerful one but one which makes considerable demands on its audience, given that it runs for eighty-seven minutes with no obvious storyline, no named characters, no dialogue, and only intermittently synchronised sound. Yet major academic critics like Michael O'Pray, John Hill, and Annette Kuhn have been eloquent in their praise of The Last of England.