Of all Derek Jarman’s film experiments in the 1980s that questioned storytelling and film-watching conventions, the most exuberant is Will You Dance With Me? This unfinished project, made in 1984 but never exhibited until now, documents a night at Benjy’s, a gay club in East London. Jarman’s goal was reportorial—to investigate, witness and reveal an aspect of gay nightlife—but he captured a fleeting yet timeless and fundamental essence of the culture.
Using an Olympus VHS camcorder, Jarman’s hand-held style produced a rough-looking home movie of gay folks socializing, drinking, smoking, and dancing. There’s a personal direct link between what Jarman was looking at through his viewfinder and what we see. So when the camera swings, circles or closes-in, the image sometimes blurs into abstract forms or else frames a face or a dance routine. A real, existential moment is made permanent. It’s both art and history.
One formal device Jarman uses, called a “swish-pan,” is a perfect technique that combines a fast-paced camera shift with an epithet for effeminate body movement. Jarman co-opts the mechanical process and redeems the slur. His boldness parallels the significance of Disco so that Will You Dance With Me? transfers facts of cultural progress into a defense of cultural habit. Despite Jarman’s many explorations of film style and narrative processes (Sebastian, The Garden, Caravaggio, War Requiem, The Queen is Dead, The Last of England) this turns out to be his most gay-liberating movie of all.
Jarman was commissioned by filmmaker Ron Peck (Nighthawks) to produce research footage for a project titled Empire State but wound up creating his own artifact of gay culture. Like the pub sings in Terence Davies movies, this panorama of social customs is based on the importance of popular music. It recalls a non-porn version of A Night at the Adonis and especially Fred Halstead’s A Night at Halsted’s (1980) which had featured a classic soundtrack of New Wave and punk classics. The disco tunes played at Benjys provide a comparable hit parade: Break Machine’s “Break Dance Party,” Shannon’s “Let the Music Play,” Jocelyn Brown’s “Somebody Else’s Guy,” Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock,” Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes,” Evelyn Thomas’ “High Energy,” and The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump.” This is also a catalog of 80s pop and sexual taste.
Jarman shows how Disco permitted social rituals as well as mating rituals among Benjy’s mix-gender clientele. It is wonderful to watch the joy of social dancing—even when a person can’t dance “aesthetically”—freeing the body and rejoicing. You don’t always see that on TV’s “Soul Train” but it happens here. Thomas and the Pointer Sisters provide the propulsive highpoints but there is special significance to FGTH’s “Relax” rousing the crowd. That hit, calling for personal liberation from social stigma and sexual tension, was a British phenomenon in 1984, speaking to white Britons the way R. Kelly’s “Step in the Name of Love” would speak to black Americans almost 20 years later—as a unifying anthem. “Relax” articulates Jarman’s own intent to advance gay cultural and social consciousness.
The dancefloor context of Will You Dance With Me? also liberates Jarman’s usually esoteric work. He is “Relax”ed from art-itis. His p.o.v. camera lights upon a ginger-haired lad wearing a red and white varsity jacket. Jarman is infatuated by his smile and neck (“Are you filming me?” he asks). Cute without being particularly handsome, he’s a perfectly banal boyish love object so the camera circles and caresses him—dances with him. This is a peak of Jarman’s filmmaking career like Tilda Swinton’s wedding dress paroxysm in The Last of England. It’s as if this boy was indeed the last of England.
Will You Dance With Me? survives to commemorate a moment of gay solidarity just before the ravages of AIDS. It’s a portrait of Disco’s unco-opted community, the only kind of “community” that counts.
Will You Dance With Me? plays at New York’s Metrograph theater through August 11.