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Directed by Isaac Julien — 76 minutes, UK — color and black & white, aspect ratio 16:9 — Documentary
IN BRIEF, flmmaker Isaac Julien and writer/narrator Tilda Swinton’s illuminating and moving portrait of Derek Jarman, that features clips from many of his films. A major extra feature is the extended, 69-minute version of Jarman’s 1991 interview in which he discusses his life and body of work.
Derek (2008) is an insightful, imaginative, and loving appreciation of Jarman, from filmmaker Isaac Julien (Looking for Langston, Young Soul Rebels) and actress Tilda Swinton, who appeared in many of Jarman’s films, and here acts as an executive producer, screenwriter, and narrator. Derek’s US premiere, during a one-week engagement at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in June 2008, was yet another sign of Jarman’s growing importance on both sides of the Atlantic.
This documentary is a very good introduction to both Jarman the man — born during World War II (1942), reveler in the swingin’ ’60s, and mature artist from the ’70s until his death from AIDS in 1994 — and Jarman the multi-talented painter, theater and film designer, author, activist, and filmmaker, not to mention gardener.
If you come to Derek knowing little about his life or work, an hour and a quarter later you’ll have a solid overview. If you are a devoted Jaman fan, or fanatic, it’s a treat to see new snippets from his personal film and video diaries (the term “home movies” doesn’t do them justice), and behind-the-scenes footage, some never shown before, of such still-controversial films as Sebastiane (1976), the landmark homoerotic historical drama about the arrow-prone Roman hunk turned Christian saint; Jubilee (1977), his punk rock apocalypse; and his most popular picture, Caravaggio (1986), about the violently brilliant Renaissance painter.
Derek includes representative clips from ten of Jarman’s eleven features; oddly, there is no mention whatsoever of his powerful War Requiem (1988), based on composer Benjamin Britten’s choral/orchestral masterpiece, and featuring Tilda Swinton and Sir Laurence Olivier (in his final performance). Thankfully, Kino released it the same day as this documentary.
Derek also makes an interesting counterpart to the posthumous, and wonderful, Glitterbug, a collage of Jarman’s personal films, edited together by several his friends. One of Glitterbug’s strengths is also, for some viewers, its weakness. There is no narration, so unless you’re a Jarman initiate, you can only get a general idea of where you are or of what’s happening in a larger context. By contrast, Derek includes an ideal amount of concise biographical and historical background. It reveals not only the artist but the volatile times in which he lived, from the solidification of an openly GLBT culture to the right-wing backlash of Margaret Thatcher’s regime, all of which is reflected in Jarman’s work.
Julien and Swinton structure their portrait around four well-chosen, complementary elements. First is Swinton’s moving elegy to her close friendship with Jarman — she’s often been called his Muse — beginning:
I remember the sea
I remember the garden
I remember the cottage
But most of all, I remember you, dear Derek…
She’s standing in Jarman’s gorgeous and resilient Prospect Cottage garden — a cross between zen and traditional English, thriving even in the harsh coastal wastes at Dungeness, in south-eastern England. She continues her narration throughout the film, sharing reminiscences and critical insights, as she wanders throughout places important to Jarman, many in London. Ironically, Swinton, one of the finest and most vibrant actors of our time, comes across as ghost-like, while Jarman, through archival footage, is the most vital, not to mention incendiary, person in the film. (Swinton’s narration is based on her keynote address, known as both “In the Spirit of Derek Jarman” and “No Known Address…or…Don’t Look Down…,” given at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on August 17, 2002; the complete video of her speech is included on Image Entertainment’s DVD of Edward II, arguably Jarman’s best film.)
A second, more subtle, dimension to the film are a few shots that show the director, Isaac Julien, exploring the literally towering Jarman archive, housed in a pristine, one might almost say celestial, repository. The Jarman that we come to know in this film, and even more so in the extended Jarman interview included on the DVD, would be rolling his eyes and laughing: the last thing he’d want is to be venerated as some sacred figure, his scrawled manuscripts holy relics. His pictures remain brashly alive, as provocative now as when they were first unleashed, er, released.
The third, and most extensive, strand of Derek is comprised of all kinds of clips, including some from his personal films — from 1972 there’s the first footage he ever shot, on a borrowed Super 8 camera, of his renegade warehouse/studio in London’s Bankside, to his over the top avant-garde shorts (admittedly influenced by the homoerotic mysticism of Kenneth Anger), to his music videos (including two of his most popular and influential, The Smiths’ “The Queen is Dead” and the Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s A Sin”), to 10/11-ths of his features. They are well selected to suggest the full contour of Jarman’s body of work.
If you know Jarman primarily through his autobiographical poetry and prose works like Dancing Ledge and Chroma — some literary critics consider him one of the finest postwar British writers — it’s illuminating to see his prodigious visual imagination in the flesh, through the film excerpts. We also glimpse the range of his work as a painter and experimental visual artist, whose media eventually included the rock garden at Prospect Cottage. One of the most revealing, and endearing, comments that Jarman makes is when he says that he encourages people to take cuttings from his plants — although he couldn’t have foreseen that by 2008, when the weather is cooperative, his home would receive over a thousand visitors on a weekend day.
Derek’s fourth element binds all of the others together: selections from Jarman’s freewheeling 1991 interview with Colin MacCabe, the literary and cinema scholar (James Joyce, Jean-Luc Godard) and producer, whose two dozen pictures, to date, began with Caravaggio and include Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels (1991). We see portions of the filmed interview, but more often hear Jarman in voice over.
Kino is to be thanked for including the extended, 69-minute version of this candid 1991 interview. More than a mere bonus feature, it’s a fascinating and unique glimpse into Jarman, whether he’s talking about his relationship with his father, a severe Royal Air Force bomber squadron leader, or his sexual initiation in his early 20s (a Canadian student slipped into his bed one night and, well, the rest is cinematic and gay history — but it’s ingratiating to learn that he followed the guy to Calgary, where he earned a living by “surveying abattoirs,” before heading south to San Francisco), or dishing on what was going on behind at the scenes with some of his films, focusing on Sebastiane, his first feature. As he remarked, if he’d had any idea of what an impossibly vast undertaking this “little” movie was going to be, he might might never have plunged into filmmaking. But for all of his openness, Jarman isn’t quite as forthcoming about his life as is his friend Tony Peake, in his definitive Derek Jarman: A Biography (published 1999); but his fiery yet gentle spirit comes through fabulously.
Ideally, the interview would have been included absolutely complete; as a guess, it may have been around three hours. This edited version contains dozens of micro cuts, as gaps are ruthlessly omitted. Yes, the footage is as tight as it could possibly be; but still, it would have been wonderful to share an unbroken space of time with Jarman, hesitations, lunch, and all.
But even in the version we have, this interview lets you bond with Jarman, and feel his immense vitality, whether describing, or sometimes analyzing, his life and work, or munching heartily on a sandwich. What a luminous human being, and clearly the visionary who created his masterpieces — but here we see him as down to earth too: friendly, warm, witty, self-critical, generous to his many collaborators both in front of and behind the camera and, quite simply, one of the most alive people I’ve ever encountered.
By the end, this one-on-one time with Jarman accomplishes something that even the excellent documentary doesn’t: it makes us feel like we’ve become close enough to pull up a chair and call him Derek.
- Directed by Isaac Julien
- Written and Narrated by Tilda Swinton
- Produced by Colin MacCabe & Eliza Mellor
- Executive Producers Isaac Julien, Tilda Swinton & James Mackay
- Director of Photography Nina Kellgren
- Edited by Adam Finch
- Composer Simon Fisher-Turner
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Kino International‘s DVD has very good image and sound quality.
- Introduction by Producer Colin MacCabe
- Extended Derek Jarman interview (1991, UK, 69 minutes)
- Enhanced for 16×9 TVs
Reviewed September 2, 2008 / Revised October 23, 2020