The Derek Jarman retrospective now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, titled "Queer Pagan Punk: The Films of Derek Jarman" (Oct. 30- Nov. 11), presents souvenirs of the AIDS era (all films made between 1976 and 1993) but are remarkable as proof of creative vitality. Each film depicts Jarman's conversation with himself and his heritage.
This series is the first complete gathering of Jarman's 12 features and shorts in this century. The revival is important for those Millennials who may not know what it means for a gay filmmaker to be both a radical and a classicist.
Jarman's work--thoroughly mixing inspired amateur experiments (Sebastiane, The Angelic Conversation) with professional prestige projects (War Requiem, Caravaggio)--is of its time. But now, years later, it gains an autobiographical significance. Despite the convention to put Jarman in the anti-Thatcher pigeonhole with sundry punks, these arty images represent what Jarman thought and felt, feared and desired, at a crucial moment in human history--but most of all for himself. For gay artists, the 1980s was a period when social ideas were challenged alongside the ferment of artists who needed to understand and claim their feelings.
That's how Jarman could juggle being a radical and a classicist. Two features illustrate this best. His 1986 biopic Caravaggio viewed the life of the Renaissance painter in terms that parallel Jarman's own 20th-century sense of being a gay artist dealing with sexuality, commerce, religion and a vain intuition about one's legacy. His pared-down post-modern imagery recreated famous tableaux as an art feat--both a reconstruction and deconstruction that conveys the spirited combination of skill, lust, and ambition.
British films are rarely thought of as sensual but by emulating Caravaggio's voluptuous compositions, Jarman also captures the thrill of '80s English gay liberation. (Impudence Jarman no doubt learned from his mentor, the ingenious biopic rogue director Ken Russell.) Caravaggio (Nigel Terry) and his brood of street urchins, rent boys and prostitutes (including a young Tilda Swinton) rival Pasolini's lascivious lowlifes. No English film boasts a male love object more ripely virile than Sean Bean's Ranuccio, Caravaggio's primary model/lover. Bean's powerful sexiness makes Jarman's eroticism almost threatening. This is not just candid art history but a palpable political force. In Caravaggio, Jarman draws on Western art's homoeroticism then makes it an onscreen fact.
Unlike American troublemakers Kenneth Anger, Jack Smith, James Broughton, John Waters, the Kuchar Brothers, and others, Jarman based his gay identity in traditions he respected. The Angelic Conversation (1985) lays Judi Dench's recitation of choice Shakespeare sonnets (particularly 126 and 57) over slow-motion footage of handsome young men carrying symbolic physical burdens, writhing in pools of water or wrestling in bare-chested, open-palmed grappling. The images are erotic, but they're also studied--examinations of flesh, energy and struggle as provocations against status quo (heterosexual or sexually neutral) film images.
"Conversation" is intimated between two non-speaking protagonists (Dench provides Shakespeare's articulation) but Jarman is also depicting a dialogue between cultural tradition and contemporary activism. The question of Shakespeare's sexuality lends significance to Jarman's artistic ambition. Queering Shakespeare's sexuality (or broadening appreciation of his poetry) is important to Jarman's understanding of his own artistry and sexuality.
Jarman's films are richer than today's facile identity proclamations. They are evidence of one man's imagination fully engaged with his political and cultural heritage. Whether the deliberately experimental (The Last of England) or the high-toned (the wonderful, accessible War Requiem), Jarman's films were not bound by countercultural definitions. They portrayed sex and politics (eroticism and social circumstances) with equal fascination.
The Angelic Conversation (like his entire body of work) asserts Jarman's Englishness and his humanity. Lingering kisses, prolonged stares, languorously entwined bodies clearly influenced Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston and have not lost their power to shock because they retain Jarman's bold and loving inspiration. Jarman's slo-mo motif sustains these fleeting images as if attempting to make their eroticism permanent--a new and lasting legacy.