Published on June 26th, 2014 | by Martin Aston0
In 1991, I interviewed the British film-maker Derek Jarman for the New Zealand arts magazine Planet, three years before he died, a hero of the not just queer cinema but queer politics, visibility, pride, you name it. I can’t find a text version, but I also wrote up the interview for the Dutch magazine OOR, so that’s what I have reproduced here
“Before I finish, I intend to celebrate our corner of paradise, the part of the garden the lord forgot to mention” (from Modern Nature, Derek Jarman’s ‘diaries’)
Modern Nature, Derek Jarman’s diaries from 1989 to 1990, share a familiar background with other post-war children who grew up gay – an adolescence built on guilt and fear (he was beaten at school after being caught in bed with another boy at the age of nine), until he rediscovered himself at the age of 22. Jarman’s art-school degree and the subsequent foray into painting and film-set design (notably for Ken Russell’s The Devils and Savage Messiah) made his name, but it wasn’t until Jarman shifted from making super-8 films toward directing feature films with 1976′s Sebastiane that he made his reputation. Ten features later, Jarman is the best known British independent director of his generation, after Peter Greenaway, and the only recognisable, defiantly gay director working in the industry. As Modern Nature documents with relentless, chilling detail, since his public announcement that he was HIV positive, Jarman’s life and work has become even more polarised. “How can I celebrate my sexuality,” his diary reads, as another friend died that day of the AIDS virus, “filled with so much sadness and frustration, for what has been lost? How have my films been damaged?”
No-one expected Jarman to survive 1990′s The Garden, an autobiographical purge that unfolded like an epitaph (in 1987′s The Last Of England and 1988′s War Requiem, Jarman had already provided two elegies). He was eventually diagnosed as suffering from TB after a month of drastic weight loss and night sweats that typify the presence of AIDS; the film was completed in his absence. On leaving hospital, despite a small relapse, Jarman threw himself into making Edward II, based on the 16th century play by Christopher Marlowe about the only recognised homosexual king, his marriage and his lover Gaviston.
“It’s difficult enough to be queer, but to be a queer in the cinema is almost impossible,” Jarman writes in his introduction to Queer Edward II, the book of the film. “Heterosexuals have fucked up the screen so completely that there is hardly any room left for us to kiss there. Marlowe ‘outs’ the past, so why can’t we ‘out’ the present? That’s really the only message this play has.”
The message provides the cornerstone of Jarman’s art. Sebastiane told the story of Saint Sebastiane, patron saint of ? and the androgyne icon whose arrow-pierced body was, “the excuse for male nudity in all renaissance paintings,” Jarman claims. In 1977′s Jubilee, Queen Elizabethan I is transported to the heart of 1977 in an analytical shake-up of sexual identity. 1984′s The Angelic Conversation set Shakespeare’s sonnets (believed to have been inspired by love for another man) to homoerotic imagery. 1985′s Caravaggio was a biography of the radical, gay Italian renaissance painter. The Last Of England and The Garden were non-narrative flurries of images, dominated by homo-erotica, respectively reflecting Thatcher’s England in decline and the Church/State’s prejudicial behaviour toward gays in the age of AIDS. Now Edward II, which Jarman turns into another parable of prejudice – homosexuals versus the rest.
Lyrical, emotive, visually poetic, fiercely political – Jarman’s films have been consistently acclaimed. By fusing various strands – theatrical power, the spontaneity of super-8 film, the aesthetics of European cinema and the language of video – Jarman can be counted as a visionary. Where his critics aim is that, as the Guardian newspaper wrote, is Jarman’s tendency to portray homosexuality as “one long martyrdom”. It started with Sebastiane, then Jubilee, where the two brothers, portrayed as the film’s only loving relationship, are murdered by the police. The Garden adopted the story of Christ as a modern allegory; in Edward II, Gaviston is exiled and later murdered by the aristocracy, and the king imprisoned.
Jarman is used to the argument.
“I recently took Edward II to Amsterdam’s Gay & Lesbian film festival, where, given the city’s reputation, you’d have thought it would be packed, but the cinema was only half full. The standards of questions came from way back in the 70s – they were all about political correctness, and the absence of affirmative images. Amsterdam may be an small island where matters have advanced a little, but my impression is that they’ve forgotten the issue. Dutch gays still don’t have full equality, but they appear to have enough, so they’ve stopped. If steps had been made to regularise the situation in Holland, there would be more space for people to raise certain issues, but that wasn’t the case. I experienced a collective amnesia. I showed the same film they’re critical of in Amsterdam in Moscow’s Palace of Youth to 2500 people, the first time a gay film has officially been shown there, and was taken to a room afterwards where 200 people fired questions at me. There were real, serious battles going on. The films created the space for discussion.
“There are both private spurs and public necessities for my films. For example, we were unaware at the time but Sebastiane won such a great response because it gave people a focus. Years later, when the film was televised, a guy told me he’d watched the film with the sound down in case his parents heard, and despite subtitles, he didn’t understand it. He saw it again in the cinema, and still didn’t understand it, but said it altered his life. So – a film that you don’t understand but alters your life! Don’t talk about negative images – I’m not involved in clarifying matters, but in providing focal points. The most interesting films are like Salo, where Pasolini showed you his psycho-sexual problems, and put them in front of you to be horrified by, and opened up areas for discussion, or a film like Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour. That portrayed another prison. We are still in prison.
“So I’ve invented the party of the miserablists. Any gay artist worth his salt will be a member. I’ll be 50 next week and the reality is, all this time, I’ve been a very second class citizen. In order to cope with life, we’ve forgotten that. But people should understand that if you’re involved in the process of dying, it’s not pleasant, so I don’t want positive images. I’m not showing pretty rows of flowers – wreathes of poppies are the sort of images I can deal with. With poppies, comes a history.”
According to Jarman, autobiography is the key to worthwhile film, and his oppression gives him the impetus that “other directors of my generation didn’t have. Their reason was just good film-making, and film is such an uninteresting, limited medium because of its’ restraints in subject and its’ costs. No-one in their right mind should want to make films, unless they fancy the battle to get through it, like a video game.”
As a gay director in repressive Britain, Jarman has consistently fought for finance while heterosexual directors make films with gay topics (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears). “It’s a fact that ‘gay’ films are safer in the hands of straight directors. I’ve had far more constraints put on me because of my openness than someone like Stephen Frear,” Jarman says. But then not every director wants to push the boundaries. “I’ev had to be reticent about pushing actors, because they might feel uncomfortable. I put instructions in Edward II for the king and Gaviston to fuck, but there was no way they’d do it without a battle, because the two best boys for the parts of Edward and Gaviston were straight. At one point, I told them that I found them rather pathetic – they had to find something to turn people against them, to upset them, which I’d always seen in terms of fucking on the throne. What Andrew, as Gaviston, did, leaping all over the throne, chattering like a monkey, was a good enough solution.”
Edward II maintains Jarman’s favourite device of dropping 20th century references into historical settings (although he begun almost in reverse, by filming Sebastiane in Latin – for the sake of authenticity, he argues). Jubilee, 1979′s adaption of Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Caravaggio (where Italian neorealist suits of the fifties were worn under papal robes) all had contemporary costumes; Edward II oppressors are dressed in modern army and papal uniform, cigarettes and typewriters are two of several anachronistic props, while Annie Lennox appears to sing Cole Porter’s “Everytime You Say Goodbye” as the king and Gaviston waltz.
As before, Jarman has personal reasons for mining the past. “With hindsight, starting with Sebastiane, I can see I have tried to reclaim history. When I was 18, I didn’t know anything about the middle-ages. The absence of a past was a terror, and we allowed the terror to be unleashed on us. The adopted view is so Shakespearean. Then you realise you had cellmates – Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Beethoven, the list goes on. It’s been very important that people knew that homosexuality has been absolutely essential to Western thought.
“I have a real historical perspective, which isn’t like Mrs Thatcher’s perspective of Victorian values. I go back a few more centuries, to figures like Saint Alfric of Rivealoux, or Saint Anselm. In my forthcoming book At Your Own Risk, I quote a fantastic piece by Alfric about growing up gay, although they were all forced into celibacy by the demands of the church. I’m fascinated that a large chunk of homoerotic verse and writings from the Middle Ages was by English clerics. If only more people knew about these figures, you could have an argument against these people on their own territory. That’s the beginning of the sadness of the church, that it could so easily have celebrated mass in orgy, instead of abstinence.
“At the same time, I wish my films had been much nearer to my life, set in a contemporary world, but there are great problems with that. The element of fantasy in my films comes from nonexistent budgets – the budget becomes the aesthetic! I’ve had to dream up scenarios that were, in a sense, prison, or oneroom scenarios. In order to create the ambience of films like The Last Of England and The Garden, I put myself in as author because it gave a focus. With Edward II, I couldn’t escape into the real world. I didn’t see specific confines in subject or structure, but worked within the perameters I was given. Edward II is no longer an Elizabethan play, but a thoroughly 1990s film, although I thought it might fall apart in modern dress.”
Jarman has not limited himself to film. He has directed videos for The Smiths (the monochrome chaos of ‘The Queen Is Dead’ trilogy) and designed the stage set and directed the video of The Pet Shop Boys’ lavish debut stage show. He has continued painting (1987′s series of tar-coated collages was the last exhibition) but Jarman is most active in the political arena, campaigning against homophobia, especially in the right-wing media (AIDs sufferers “had, for the most part, sown the seeds of their own grisly demise through their chosen sordid lifestyles,” wrots the Daily Star. Another journalist, though gay himself, wrote a review of Modern Nature as an obituary of Jarman). The day we met, Jarman spent f1300 on a fax machine for Outrage, the militant gay rights group, “since they have to have one for the forthcoming general election.
His writing remains undaunted. Typically unconstrained, he hopes to stage a new play Fucking Queer that is dominated by sex – “if you can’t do it, write about it,” he laughs. At Your Own Risk, published in May, is more controversy. “The book reclaims the right for people with HIV to have sex. The reaction to me cruising after I announced I was HIV in Modern Nature was so inflammatory, I have to force people to discuss it. Is safe sex safer? Is safer sex for people to have sex? What do people with HIV do? There’s too much swept under the carpet in order that everyone remains happy.”
Ironically, Jarman claims he’s not just in the party but the world of the miserablists, but “I have never been happier than in the last two years, entering into all these public debates. That episode of illness was two years ago, and I survived. My aggressive stance, with all my public work. is to do with keeping alive. If you go into a corner, ans shut yourself up, like Freddie Mercury did…God, I wish I’d known Freddie, because it would have been great to say to him ‘come on, let’s go on an Outrage demomstration’ because if he had, I think he’d still be. A lot of people were forced into narrow rooms. I’ve been fighting my way out all the time.”