Painter, Stage & Film Designer, LGBTQ Rights Activist, Poet, Memoirist, Visionary Gardener, Filmmaker
Derek Jarman (1942–1994) created eleven extraordinary feature films — including Sebastiane, Jubilee, The Tempest, Caravaggio, The Last of England, and Edward II — and over three dozen shorts, including music videos such as the classic Pet Shop Boys’ “It’s a Sin”. This multi-talented artist is also acclaimed for his painting (several major exhibitions), stage and film design (for director Ken Russell), gay and human rights activism, literature (memoirs, social criticism, poetry), and, on a serene note, his exquisite gardens.
This evolving Website focuses on Jarman’s films through home video releases, and includes an introduction to his life and works directly below. The list of his complete filmography includes links to my reviews. New to Jarman? Try beginning with Caravaggio or Edward II, two of his greatest, and most accessible, pictures. In 2021, I will complete my reviews of all the Jarman feature films, with The Garden.
On March 24, 2012, James Whalley wrote to announce the publication of his two new books: Flying Lobsteres and Magic Tagines (“A comic adventure in Morocco… A young man decides to buy a house in order to learn Arabic and winds up with a horrific hotel!”), and The Hellespont (“A tragic love story of two schoolboys who decide to copy Lord Byron and swim the Dardanelles straits”). Mr. Whalley’s exceptional career includes having produced Jarman’s first two features, Sebastiane and Jubilee, and having collaborated on the others.
The University of Minnesota Press has published a new edition of Jarman’s classic, and unique, memoir, Modern Nature (1992). This third volume in his autobiographical saga, following At Your Own Risk and Dancing Ledge, focuses on Jarman in 1989 and 1990.
Kino Internation has released Jarman’s War Requiem, a visionary cinematic version of composer Benjamin Britten’s choral masterpiece, along with the new documentary Derek by Isaac Julien — the release also includes an exceptional bonus: the extended, 69-minute version of Jarman’s 1991 interview in which he discusses his life and body and work.
Zeitgeist Films has released the outstanding collection Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4, featuring the DVD debuts of The Angelic Conversation, Caravaggio, Wittgenstein, Blue and Glitterbug — all boasting fully-restored image and sound — with a wealth of illuminating special features, including documentaries, interviews, production art, and more.
BOOK REVIEW: The Queer Cinema of Derek Jarman: Critical and Cultural Readings by Niall Richardson, Lecturer in Film at the University of Sussex, from publisher I.B. Taurus.
I’ve also created sites dedicated to two other prodigious filmmakers/artists, both of whom were major influences on Jarman: Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. I hope you enjoy this Jarman site. Below you will find:
Introduction to Jarman
Artist and Designer
Derek Jarman is a prodigiously talented and visionary artist whose works, ranging from painting to film to literature, seem to grow in power with each passing year.
The mercurial Jarman resists pigeonholing at every turn; he is so much more than just a brilliant visual stylist — whether as painter or designer for ballet, opera, and film, or as an author whose works continue to advance not only in popularity but in critical esteem, or as a defiant gay rights and AIDS activist, or as one of the most adventurous gardeners (!) of the twentieth century, or as a proudly self-described “queer filmmaker” who created pictures as diverse as a lifelong series of autobiographical shorts on Super 8, several genre-defining music videos, and most importantly eleven feature films. Those intensely personal, yet universally resonant, features are wildly beautiful, socially probing, and deeply moving.
From the beginning, Jarman was concerned with exploring hidden gay history, from ancient times to the present, even as he envisioned a place for LGBTQ+ people in contemporary life, where sexual difference would be not persecuted but honored, even celebrated. He reveals, through the beauty and audacity of his art, the many deep but too often obscured connections between the experiences of LGBTQ+ people and those of the majority — historical, cultural, sexual, and artistic. But Jarman being Jarman, we all have to work, as viewers — or more accurately, participants — to find, interpret, and feel those profoundly humane connections.
Jarman’s avant-garde style of filmmaking is visually rich, and for all of its aesthetic and philosophical challenges, entertaining. In discussing his 1987 film, The Last of England, Jarman offers a key to all of his pictures: “[it] works with image and sound, a language which is nearer to poetry than prose. It tells its story quite happily in silent images, in contrast to a word-bound cinema.” Of course, Jarman is also a master of evocative sound and music, from Brian Eno’s atmospheric scores on Sebastiane and Jubilee to Simon Fisher Turner’s on most of his later films.
He made his pictures on the low-budget but liberating independent scene: His first seven films all together cost only $3 million, which is pocket change for any one Hollywood blockbuster. This financial freedom allowed him to evolve a distinctively personal cinema, and all of his pictures seem to have jumped out of his head directly onto the screen. Although he often used friends, and sometimes lovers, as cast and crew, and delighted in the relaxed atmosphere he maintained on set, Jarman always focused on creating powerfully original and dramatic images, even as he eschewed commercial narrative structures. It is a testament to his vision that his films are more visually exciting, not to mention enduring, than movies with budgets tens, or even hundreds, of times greater. It is also to Jarman’s credit that, even with the complexity of his art and ideas, you can often imagine him winking mischievously to us.
Where did it all begin?
Born on January 31, 1942 in Northwood, England, Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman grew up in a middle-class, Royal Air Force family. His early life was spent on a series of military bases in England, Italy, and India, where his father, a native New Zealander (whom Jarman recalls was obsessed with being ‘more British than the British’), was a bomb-squadron leader in World War II. He later helped establish the Pakistan Air Force after their independence in 1947.
Derek completed a degree in history, English and art at King’s College, London, even as he found ample time to explore the city’s fervid social life. Then, between 1963 and 1967, he studied painting at the renowned Slade School of Art, where he found a thriving gay circle, including such artists as David Hockney and Patrick Procktor. In 1967 he was in the Tate Gallery’s Young Contemporaries Exhibition, where his abstract landscapes won the Peter Stuyvesant Award. That same year he began working professionally as a stage designer, with Jazz Calendar for the Royal Ballet. A year later he had a successful one-man show at the Lisson Gallery, but he also designed an ill-fated production of Don Giovanni for the English National Opera.
Around 1970, he began making experimental, often brashly autobiographical, Super 8 films (a practice which he continued throughout his life; the 1994 film Glitterbug is a highly condensed one-hour compilation). Jarman found inspiration in an eclectic range of works, including such seminal gay experimental films as Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour (1950) and the visionary short pictures of Kenneth Anger. Also at the beginning of the ’70s, he designed three projects for maverick director Ken Russell, including his masterpiece, The Devils (1971), Savage Messiah (1972), and Gargantua (which, sadly, was never filmed: just imagine Russell and Jarman tackling Rabelais!).
Jarman’s eclectic, and revealing, taste in film can be seen in the list he gave Sight and Sound (December 1992) of his ten favorite pictures. In alphabetical order, they are: L’Atalante (Vigo / 1934), The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (Fassbinder / 1972), The Canterbury Tales (Pasolini / 1971), The Earrings of Madame de… (Ophüls / 1953), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell & Pressburger / 1943), “Meshes of the Afternoon” (Deren / 1943), Modern Times (Chaplin / 1936), Orpheus (Cocteau / 1949), Pandora’s Box (Pabst / 1929), and The Wizard of Oz (Fleming & uncredited Cukor / 1939).
Jarman’s fascination with cinema, now coupled with hands-on experience, led him to begin making his own pictures.
Filmmaker and Author
Jarman burst onto the international film scene with his first feature, Sebastiane — shot in 1975 and released the following year. This is Jarman’s openly homoerotic version of the death of Saint Sebastian, who was martyred around 300 A.D., and became not only one of the most frequently-painted subjects in Renaissance art but, with his muscular physique (tied to a pillar and drilled with arrows) and soulful eyes, a central, albeit sadomasochistic, gay icon for several centuries. Following its premiere at the Locarno Film Festival, where it caused a riot, Sebastiane became a surprise critical and audience favorite, at the time due perhaps as much to the statuesque, and often nude, male cast as to the film’s visionary power. Although it owes a considerable debt to the great filmmaker/author Pier Paolo Pasolini (The Gospel According to [St.] Matthew, Medea), and was co-directed by Paul Humfress (a professional director at the BBC), it clearly reveals Jarman’s originality and power.
Jarman made two more films in the ’70s: Jubilee — an anarchic yet beautiful political fantasy in which Queen Elizabeth I travels 400 years into the future to find England a Punk wasteland of violence and bad hairdos, and The Tempest, a visually and dramatically riveting adaptation of Shakespeare’s last masterpiece, with a style eclectically drawn from Baroque painting, Gothic melodrama, and campy musicals.
Jarman’s eclecticism can also be seen in the wide range of filmmakers who influenced his work, including such gay cultural icons as Pasolini, artist/author/director Jean Cocteau (The Blood of a Poet, Orpheus), the homoerotic experimentalist Kennth Anger (“Fireworks,” “Scorpio Rising”), and writer/director/actor Rainer Werne Fassbinder (The Merchant of Four Seasons, Ali: Fear Eats the Soul). A crucial common influence on both Jarman and Fassbinder was the guru of the French New Wave, Jean-Luc Godard (Pierrot le Fou, Week End), whose hand is especially evident in Jubilee and several later films. Jarman was also devoted to the visually lush pictures of writing-directing team Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes). Although each of these extraordinary filmmakers is unique (and I enthusiastically recommend all of these films), it is nothing short of awe-inspiring how Jarman could take elements from each — not to mention several centuries of European painting — and forge a style which is completely and unmistakably his own.
After making The Tempest, there is a gap of six years in Jarman’s career as a feature filmmaker. But he was far from idle. Between 1979 and 1985 he made 10 short films and shot many hours of autobiographical footage in Super 8 (the term “home movies” does not do justice to these visionary glimpses of a life). During that time he also began his parallel career as a highly-lauded author. In all, Jarman wrote five major works, each based on his own journals: Dancing Ledge (1984; originally published as Queerlife), Kicking the Pricks (1987; originally published as The Last of England, to coincide with the release of his film of that title), Modern Nature (1991), At Your Own Risk (1992), Chroma (1994), as well as a few titles published posthumously. He offers reflections on his very different experiences living in both London and at Dungeness, Kent (where he had a seaside cottage, and created his most famous garden — constantly at odds with the salt air and the exposed, rock-strewn beach), as well as thoughts on his friends, lovers, films (both his own and other directors’), reading, history, English society, AIDS, the corrosive nature of homophobia, and much more.
Jarman’s literary bent can also be seen in his film projects. He often went to canonical texts by gay or bisexual authors, including Shakespeare (virtually all of his Sonnets are addressed to the handsome young man he is smitten with: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” in Sonnet 18) — in both The Tempest (1979) and The Angelic Conversation (1985). The latter picture, which was Jarman’s personal favorite of all his works, marked his return to feature-length filmmaking. In it, he offers a unique dramatization of a dozen of the Sonnets, as read offscreen by Judi Dench and enacted onscreen by a cast of handsome, passionate young men.
Other gay cultural figures, who are also of undeniable importance to “mainstream” society, filmed by Jarman include that randy genius of the Italian Baroque, Caravaggio (1986), World War I poet Wilfred Owen — whose poetry was set to music in an overwhelming choral piece by the great, and gay, composer Benjamin Britten — in War Requiem (1988), Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (1991; this is my favorite Jarman film), and the influential early twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who studied the relationship between language and thought (a theme very close to Jarman), in Wittgenstein (1992). Jarman also found time to continue his extensive Super 8 diary, to publish annotated versions of screenplays to his films (including Caravaggio, Edward II, Wittgenstein, and Blue) and, among many other activities, to direct the Pet Shop Boy’s legendary 1989 tour, which he also filmed.
In the midst of this time when all of his parallel careers were at their zenith, Jarman was diagnosed as being HIV positive, on December 22, 1986. A month later, he revealed his condition, becoming one of the few public figures to talk openly about living with AIDS. Later in 1987, at the Tyneside Film festival, he met and fell in love with Kevin Collins, who had then recently graduated from university and was writing software for the government. Derek wooed Kevin by letter, and within a few months they were living together in London, where both were ardent campaigners with the GLBT rights group, OutRage! Kevin also appeared in The Garden, Edward II, and Wittgenstein. He took care of Jarman until his death on February 19, 1994.
One way to deal with Jarman’s tragic death is not to speculate about what he might have created, but to delve more deeply into the fantastic, richly-layered works we have.
The actor best identified with filmmaker/artist, and one of his closest friends, is the brilliantly talented Tilda Swinton (Orlando, The Deep End), who with Jarman made The Last of England, War Requiem, the segment in Aria (1988), The Garden, Edward II, Wittgenstein, and his last work, Blue. In her August 2002 talk at the Edinburgh Film Festival’s In the Spirit of Derek Jarman event, she perfectly sums up his quicksilver essence:
This is what I miss, there being no more Derek Jarman films: the mess, the vulgarity, the cant, the poetry, the edge, the pictures, Simon Fisher Turner’s music, the real faces, the intellectualism, the science, the bad temperedness, the good temperedness, the cheek, the standards, the anarchy, the gauchness, the romanticism, the classicism, the optimism, the activism, the challenge, the longeurs, the glee, the playfulness, the bumptiousness, the resistance, the wit, the fight, the colours, the grace, the passion, the goodness, the beauty….
Jarman’s Films on Video
Below are links to my ongoing series of Jarman reviews; I’ve reviewed all of his films released on Region 1 DVD. I look at the film and its place in his body of work, as well as the disc’s special features. I’ve highlighted as Essential Jarman, a select number of his most important works; but all of these pictures are exceptional, as are the rare short films included with Jubilee and The Tempest.
Sebastiane (1976) — Jarman’s 1st feature
- Essential Jarman. Powerful, visionary film about the historical St. Sebastian.
Jubilee (1977) — Jarman’s 2nd feature
- Visceral political fantasy has Queen Elizabeth I travel 400 years into the future to find England an anarchic wasteland.
The Tempest (1979) — Jarman’s 3rd feature
- Revelatory adaptation of Shakespeare’s late masterpiece, which draws brilliantly on such eclectic sources as Baroque painting, Gothic melodrama, and campy musicals.
The Angelic Conversation (1985) — Jarman’s 4th feature
- Essential Jarman. Extraordinary film about a young man searching for love, in a dreamlike landscape, while an offscreen narrator (Judi Dench) recites several Shakespeare sonnets.
Caravaggio (1986) — Jarman’s 5th feature
- Essential Jarman. Visually and dramatically intense reimagning of the life of the great sixteenth century artist.
The Last of England (1987) — Jarman’s 6th feature
- Essential Jarman. Both apocalyptic and lyrical, Jarman’s vision of 1980s Britain is one of his most audacious films.
War Requiem (1989) — Jarman’s 7th feature
- Jarman’s shattering vision of war, using the music of Benjamin Britten’s monumental oratorio that combines a mass for the dead with the writings of slain World War I gay poet Wilfred Owen.
The Garden (1990) — Jarman’s 8th feature
- FORTHCOMING – to be reviewed for the first time, in 2021. Experimental film intercutting several stories; starring Tilda Swinton.
Edward II (1991) — Jarman’s 9th feature
- Essential Jarman. Powerful, imaginative adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play [free online] about the doomed 14th century English king and his male lover.
Wittgenstein (1992) — Jarman’s 10th feature
- Shockingly playful biopic about one of the twentieth century’s most erudite, and fabulously gay, philosophers.
Blue (1993) — Jarman’s 11th feature
- Essential Jarman. Jarman’s extraordinary final feature, about his physical and spiritual struggle with life, love, art, and death. This DVD set also includes Glitterbug, a collage of Jarman’s private films.
- Jarman (Wikipedia)
- Jarman (IMDb)
- Jarman (BFI Screenonline)
- Brief Guide to Film and Filmmaking
- LGBTQ+ Cinema
Begun 1997 / Revised April 12, 2021