October 3, 1993 (New York Film Festival) — 76 minutes, color blue, 35mm, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Experimental
Jarman’s 11th feature, extraordinary final feature, about his physical and spiritual struggle with life, love, art, and death. This disc also includes Glitterbug, a collage of Jarman’s private films.
FILMS: Shorts | 1. Sebastiane | 2. Jubilee | 3. Tempest | 4. Angelic Conversation | 5. Caravaggio | 6. Last of England | 7. War Requiem | 8. The Garden | 9. Edward II | 10. Wittgenstein | 11. Blue.
Blue was made just a year before Jarman’s death in 1994 from AIDS. Treatments for the virus made him see everything through a blue haze, prolonging his life but destroying his eyesight — but never his fiery poetic vision.
Against a screen of pure cobalt, Jarman free associates around the artistic, philosophical and metaphysical meanings of blue — sky, water, flowers, a boy named Blue, sadness, the infinite — connecting them to his life and body of work. He reveals his physical and spiritual struggle not only through his free-verse narration but with an interwoven sound collage consisting of several voices (including, sometimes, his own); a ticking clock, chimes, a gong: all marking time; and a spare but evocative score from his longtime musical collaborator/friend Simon Fisher-Turner, Momus (Nick Currie), and Brian Eno. There are dozens of unforgettable images in the film, from scenes spanning Jarman’s life to the fantastical exploits of a character named Blue, but all of them are uniquely created by each viewer — you. This is not some pretentious art film; it is a deeply moving testament to one man’s passions and life… and to the strength of the human will to create and share its vision against blindness, pain, and fast-approaching death. This is perhaps the most unique of all Jarman’s highly individual films; and for some people, it’s his most moving too.
For a film so clearly a last work, it’s surprising to learn that its conception came in 1974, predating Jarman’s first feature, Sebastiane, by two years — making Blue a work that encompasses his entire cinematic career, and many of his key themes. Long fascinated by connections between mysticism and art, Jarman was profoundly struck by the works of French artist Yves Klein (1928–1962), that he saw at the Tate’s exhibit in March 1974. Inspired, he wrote in his journal an idea for a “blue film for Yves Klein.”
Klein painted monochrome abstracts, with large canvases covered by a single hue, saying that they were like an “open window to freedom.” He wasn’t simply rebelling against representational art, as painters had been doing for decades (like Kazimir Malevich in his 1917 “Suprematist Composition: White on White”); he was trying to depict spiritual reality. Klein was somewhat similar to the so-called “color field painters” from around 1950 — including Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, and Barnett Newman — whose abstract works suggest a relationship to some infinite point, as in Newman’s 1948 “Onement 1.” But Klein believed that by using a single color — particularly his patented “International Klein Blue” (IKB) — he was expressing infinity itself. Klein believed that IKB, despite its genesis in a chemistry lab under his supervision, went beyond the material world, to the point where it became “a Blue in itself, disengaged from all functional justification.” (Perhaps he was echoing Plato’s Theory of Forms, where a perfect version of every basic thing, including the color blue, exists in a metaphysical realm.) For Blue, Jarman specified that IKB be used as the screen’s color, not only for its visceral beauty (compare it to other shades of blue), but because of its esoteric possibilities: “Blue an open door to soul / An infinite possibility / Becoming tangible.”
Jarman didn’t return to his idea for an Yves Klein blue project for over a decade, until after his apocalyptic The Last of England in 1987. Having recently been diagnosed HIV positive, he wanted to create a healing alternative vision to that film. As Tony Peake describes in his definitive Derek Jarman: A Biography (1999), the Klein project — whose titles included Bliss and International Blue — evolved from “an imageless screen in IKB” (as in the finished Blue) with a jazzy soundtrack, to distill the French artist’s life and ideas. Since Jarman realized this approach would make funding impossible, he reimagined it as a dramatic “masque set in a blue room. A series of poems and dialogues concerning the evolution of Kline’s art towards the immaterial would be spoken, sung or chanted liturgically by… Klein himself, St. Rita [patron saint of lost causes]… and IKB, a blue, mercurial messenger of the gods.” But it was not yet the time. In 1988, Jarman made War Requiem, based on Benjamin Britten’s choral masterpiece dedicated to peace, followed by The Garden, that satisfied him as a balance to The Last of England. Although his health was failing rapidly, and he was losing his eyesight, he made two of his greatest films, Edward II and Wittgenstein, before turning to what he knew would be his final picture, Blue, originally entitled Blueprint.
Unlike with many of Jarman’s other films, the financing — a minuscule £90,000 — came together quickly for Blue, thanks to his producer friends James Mackay and Takashi Asai, and associate producer David Lewis, who helped bring together BBC’s Channel Four and Radio 3 (knowing that the film would eventually be shown on television, allowing for a special TV/ stereo-radio simulcast). (There may have been some joking about Jarman making up for Caravaggio, his most popular film, that almost completely eliminates the color blue.) Simultaneously with preproduction on his last picture, Jarman was finishing his poetic and playful meditation on all of the colors, the book Chroma. The screenplay for Blue is drawn, word for word (99.99% of the time), from the last 17 of the 21 pages of Chroma’s chapter “Into the Blue.” Like most of Jarman’s extraordinary writings (some critics consider his literary output even greater than his films), the text is a combination of philosophical/ political essay, excerpts from his journals, and poetry.
At the end of 1992, even with his health failing badly, he was able to direct half-day sessions with Nigel Terry (title role in Caravaggio) and John Quentin (John Maynard Keynes in Wittgenstein), who along with Tilda Swinton and Jarman himself were the voice actors on Blue. For the soundtrack, Simon Fisher Turner was putting together the complex layers of sounds and music, including several of his original compositions. He finished by late December, at which point the temporary image — a shot of an actual Yves Klein blue painting — was replaced by a blue field made in the film lab. Blue was finished, over a month before Jarman’s 51st birthday on January 31, 1993. Beginning in early 1993, the film began opening at a few special engagements in Europe and the UK, with the frail Jarman in attendance — but it took an enormous physical toll, sometimes forcing him to bow out. In September, Blue had its long-delayed London theatrical premiere, soon followed by the TV/ radio simulcast (listeners without televisions could write in for a free blue card to stare at!). A week later, Jarman was honored to receive the first Rainer Werner Fassbinder Prize, named in honor of one of Jarman’s favorite filmmakers; the accompanying £13,000 was a great financial help. Blue also won Best New British Feature at the 1993 Edinburgh International Film Festival, and an Honorable Mention at the 1994 Stockholm Film Festival. Jarman’s pain ended finally on February 19, 1994, but his extraordinary legacy — crowned with Blue — will endure.
Above we looked at the history, and significance, of that extraordinary blue field; now, let’s explore the film’s unique aural dimension that interweaves words, sounds, and music — starting with the book Chroma, that encompasses the text of Blue.
First and foremost, this is Jarman’s voice at its most bluntly personal, and deeply poignant — but for all of the heartbreak it can engender, it never lapses into cheap sentimentality: that was anathema to Jarman, not just for himself but because of the catastrophic global reach of the AIDS epidemic. The events in Chroma/ Blue are current to the time Jarman’s wrote it, in 1992: his endless visits to the hospital, the dozens of drugs he has to take daily but can barely keep down, the memories of friends and lovers now dead but constantly haunting his memory: “David. Howard. Graham. Terry. Paul….” Virtually the only change from Chroma to Blue involves those five names: they appear only once in the book, but Jarman repeats them a few times throughout the film as a kind of refrain.
What are we missing, in the film, by Jarman having excised the brief opening section in Chroma’s chapter on blue?
Jarman starts the chapter “Into the Blue” with an allusion to Hitler’s favorite filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl, who — before making Triumph of the Will — co-directed (with Béla Balázs) and starred in The Blue Light (1932), one of the many ‘mountain movies’ that were then hugely popular in Germany. The chapter, whose style is more typical of the entire book than the Blue portion, opens:
“Blue light. A spectral light. Leni [Riefenstahl]’s full moon falling through a crystal grotto in the High Dolomites. The villagers draw their curtains against this blue. Blue brings night with it. Once in a blue moon… [ellipsis in original]
“Tacitus tells us of a spectral tattooed army, the Pictish Britons nude in the colour of the Ethiopians, Caeruleus [a bluish area of the brain stem]. Dark blue, not the sharp blue from the paint tube.”
What an eclectic, and dizzying, rush: from one of Riefenstahl’s several ‘mystical mountain’ flicks — this sub-genre invariably has the hero/ine scale the summit only to find death and a pop-culture “transfiguration:” a grandiose inflation of Blue — to Tacitus and ancient Britain, to the brain stem, to a tube of paint. This is a typical, if concentrated, example of Chroma as a whole. It also raises a nagging question — that I’m going to raise but not answer here — of what we’re supposed to know, in order to read Chroma: Can it be assumed that one will know “Leni” is the German director, and that the scene is from an actual film? There are no footnotes. And what about “Caeruleus” — you might think it was modifying “the colour of the Ethiopians,” when in fact it’s a term from physiology — a single word, opening up an entire new vista: anatomy, immediately after film or history. Chroma is a small book that yet contains a vast range of ideas on color by dozens of scientists (including Pliny, Isaac Newton), theorists (Goethe, Albers), philosophers (Aristotle, Wittgenstein), authors (Ovid, Eliot), artists (Leonardo, Malevich) and of course, Jarman himself. The opening four “un-filmed” pages continue as Jarman darts about from puns on blue, to its historical role in various world cultures (Egypt, Japan, France — including an homage to Yves Klein, Germany, Anglo-Saxon Britain, Russia, Italy). For all of its yoking of erudition and intense personal vision and poetry, Chroma is always vivid, and often prismatically clear, with insights on each of the colors. My personal advice on the book is: don’t worry about the hidden references — just plunge in.
In very general terms, “Into the Blue”‘s brief opening section is different from the other eighty percent of the chapter in that it’s less directly autobiographical. There may also have been a pragmatic consideration in the cut. Since the film’s soundtrack would also be released as a compact disc, Jarman knew that it would have to conform to the CD’s maximum time of 80 minutes: Blue runs four minutes under that.
(It’s also worth noting that those omitted four pages are closest in style to an extraordinary 1976 book that may have inspired Chroma: American novelist William Gass’s On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry. If you enjoy Blue or Chroma, or Melville or Joyce, try Gass’s book: he’s a master of prose-poetry. Compare the Jarman’s torrential “montage” of associations with these first lines of On Being Blue — and savor the rhythmic vitality: “Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit — dumps, mopes, Mondays — all that’s dismal — low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like the blue moon shrewd things happen only once in…” And later in On Being Blue, Jarman — and Yves Klein — would certainly agree with Gass’s observation that “Because blue contracts, retreats, it is the color of transcendence, leading us away in pursuit of the infinite.”)
Whatever the influence of Gass on Chroma, Jarman’s multi-voiced text is clearly part of the tradition of modern poetry: the merging into various characters and the transcendental mysticism are reminiscent of Walt Whitman (Leaves of Grass, 1855–1892), the erudition and tension conjure up T.S. Eliot (“The Waste Land”, 1922), and the embrace of a gay identity that is both celebratory and politically charged recalls Allen Ginsberg (“Howl”, 1955). (In the review for The Last of England, I go into more detail about Jarman’s connections to modern poetry.) Jarman may also have been inspired by poet/ novelist Paul Monette’s poetic landmark of AIDS literature, Love Alone: Eighteen Elegies for Rog (1988). All of these poets are part of the gay literary tradition (Eliot was closeted); that outsider status may have allowed them unique insights into the nature of things.
There is another intriguing same-sex connection, that would have delighted Jarman as a queer artist and champion of equal rights. In British gay slang, called Polari or Parlary (from the Italian parlare, ‘to talk’), ‘blue’ is a code for ‘homosexual.’
Now, let’s turn to Jarman’s immediate words, specifically those performed in his film. The text begins at the point where he invokes the character, who’s both abstract yet real enough to have exploits, called Blue (capital “B,” to distinguish him from references to the color): “You say to the boy [Blue] open your eyes…” This character is second in importance only to Jarman himself, although of course he’s also the artist’s alter ego. (The third major character is referred to as “HB,” for “Hinney Beast” — that’s Jarman’s affectionate nickname for his life partner, Keith Collins, who used “Kevin Collins” as his screen name for roles like Johnny in Wittgenstein.)
By using the character of Blue, Jarman makes it easier for us to enter into this purely aural realm. The boy Blue is not just some airy philosophical construct; he’s real — and the double entendres suggest that Jarman’s intentions towards him are not just Platonic: “O Blue arise… / O Blue come in.”
Blue shuttles back and forth, sometimes with dizzying speed, between three main types of passages. By limiting the text to three, however (seemingly) divergent, Jarman allows for both diversity and structural coherence. The three major types of voices are:
1.) The personal — Jarman’s reflections on himself and the people important to him, as well as strangely hypnotic passages relating to his HIV treatments (such as the one detailing the drug DHPG) that become almost biblical in their cadences: instead of “begats” its a 200-word catalog of “side effects.”
2.) The political — Many of these incendiary passages will guarantee that Internet “filtering software,” also called censorship, will obliterate this page, but Jarman’s political activism, although at its most “polite,” is summed by the line: “The earth is dying and we do not notice it.” But perhaps the most politically provocative line is, in fact, a quiet one (that we’ll focus on below): “facts, detached from cause, trap… [us] in a system of unreality…”
3.) The aesthetic / spiritual — There are many gorgeous and evocative instances of this third stylistic type, including this virtual scene involving the character Blue (footnoters will think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1816 poem “Kubla Khan, or a Vision in a Dream. A Fragment,” Jorge Luis Borges’s 1940s stories collected as Labyrinths, and Italo Calvino’s 1972 novel Invisible Cities — although the passage is uniquely Jarman’s own):
“Blue walks into the labyrinth. Absolute silence is demanded to all its visitors, so their presence does not disturb the poets who are directing the excavations. Digging can only proceed on the calmest of days as rain and wind destroy the finds.
“The archaeology of sound has only just been perfected and the systematic cataloguing of words has until recently been undertaken in a haphazard way. Blue watched as a word or phrase materialised in scintillating sparks, a poetry of fire which casts everything into darkness with the brightness of its reflections.”
Now that we’ve isolated the text’s three main interwoven strands — that constantly reinforce and challenge each other — let’s see how Blue also uses sounds, music, and a blue screen that may not be as unchanging as we first thought, to complete its liberating effect.
On one level, Blue has elements in common with the radio play, including the use of sound effects and music, in conjunction with spoken text, to create a total, if sight-less, effect for listeners. As early as the 1920s, radio drama achieved widespread popularity; it even inspired some avant-garde writers, like Germany’s Bertolt Brecht and Alfred Döblin, to attempt ambitious works. Perhaps the most (in)famous example of a radio play is (pre-Citizen Kane) Orson Welles’s 1938 update of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, that was so effective it caused a massive panic when listeners believed the Martian invasion was real. By the 1940s, radio was a leading international form of popular entertainment, although it rapidly lost ground to television beginning in the ’50s. Blue is distinct from a radio play, because of its visual dimension: as we’ll see, it’s clearly a case of more than meets the eye or ear.
Composer and audio magician Simon Fisher Turner has created a richly evocative soundscape for this film, drawing on both real-world sounds (those medical center noises were taped during Jarman’s increasingly frequent visits to London’s St Bartholomew’s Hospital) and his original compositions, with the participation of over a dozen other contemporary musicians: John Balance, Gini Ball, Marvin Black, Peter Christopherson, Markus Dravius, Brian Eno, Tony Hinnigan, Danny Hyde, Jan Latham Koenig, Marden Hill & The King of Luxumbourg, Miranda Sex Garden, Momus, Vini Reilly, Kate St. John, Simon Fisher Turner, Richard Watson, Hugh Webb. (Below is a detailed listing of the soundtrack.) The score ranges from punk rock to country western to world music to ethereal women’s choruses, sometimes sounding like medieval chant, other times like modernist György Ligeti — as well as classical piano pieces by gay composers Erik Satie (“Gnossienes”) and Karol Szymanowski (“Scheherazade” from The Masques).
The key sounds — ticking clocks, chimes, and a quiet gong — all mark the passing of time (as they did in The Last of England and, to a lesser extent, The Angelic Conversation, whose Shakespeare sonnets are often on the theme of beauty’s transience). Despite the wealth of musicians who participated, to what is essentially Fisher Turner’s score, the type of cue we keep returning to is a haunting solo line, played at various points by oboe, violin, viola, mandolin — that also clearly marks time. What could be more fitting for a valedictory film, by an artist who knew he had only weeks to live.
Although I don’t want to diminish the beauty of the musical score, it exists primarily to enhance the spoken text. The use of sounds is even more directly related to underscoring the words. We hear thunder when the text has “Lightning flickers through the hospital window;” there are devilish whispers when we hear that “Hell on Earth is a waiting room;” the text mentions “The dog barks, the caravan passes. / Marco Polo stumbles across the Blue Mountain” and we literally hear — as in a radio play — a dog woofing, then along with the caravan, Middle Eastern music enters; there’s a quiet scratching sound when the text has “My skins sits on me like the shirt of Nessus. My face irritates, as do my back and legs at night…;” and many more similar one-to-one correspondences.
Other sound effects are closer to music, in their formal manipulation, such as the unsettling echoes that reverberate behind plaintive passages like “My sight seems to have closed in…;” or the chilling bass notes of an electric organ at “We all contemplated suicide….” There are also some witty musical jokes, like the disco drone behind “Impatient youths of the sun / Burning with many colours…;” and the hilarious burlesques in the two rough and tumble “I am a…” choruses (no further quotations, so you can freshly experience the delightfully unprintable lyrics).
Jarman places perhaps the key passage of the film at the structural midpoint, so that it reflects Janus-like on both what has and will come:
“Over the mountains is the shrine to Rita, where all at the end of the line call. Rita is the Saint of the Lost Cause. The saint of all who are at their wits’ end, who are hedged in and trapped by the facts of the world. These facts, detached from cause, trapped the Blue Eyed Boy in a system of unreality. Would all these blurred facts that deceive dissolve in his last breath? For accustomed to believing in image, an absolute idea of value, his world had forgotten the command of essence: Thou Shall Not Create Unto Thyself Any Graven Image, although you know the task is to fill the empty page. From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image.
“Time is what keeps the light from reaching us.
“The image is a prison of the soul, your heredity, your education, your vices and aspirations, your qualities, your psychological world.
“I have walked behind the sky.”
All of the intertwined elements of Blue come together here: the political, aesthetic, spiritual and, binding them together, the directly personal “I.” Jarman’s I understands that facts, cut off from context (“cause”), lead to the deep systemic disconnections (“unreality”) in our society. Sociologists would use terms like “anomie” or “alienation,” but Jarman’s vision — part allegory, and part in-your-face activism — cuts to the core. He knows that images, and more precisely the powerful manipulators of images, are what keep us “hedged in and trapped,” frustrated and on edge. (He would likely even include such abstract psychedelia as the climactic “Beyond the Infinite” section of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, that is attempting something similar.) From this turning point to the end, Jarman focuses on the imprisoning nature of image, and of what we might do to replace our addiction to devious simulacra — and then, if we do break free, how we might “fill the empty page.” But before we reach that point, we must escape the trap of “Graven Images” — and that’s what Blue, on every level, is about. (The Biblical deity’s prohibition against “graven images,” that some religions alter to suit their preferences, is in both of the two slightly different versions of the Ten Commandments, at Exodus 20:2–17 and Deuteronomy 5:6–21.)
Let’s take a closer look at that solid field of International Klein Blue, that we stare at for an hour and a quarter while listening to the texts and sounds. What is it really doing, and how? Let me pause for a moment to say that I hope you’ll bear with me, as I put forward some of the most ‘out there’ ideas of any of my film essays: Blue will do that to you. Onwards!
Jarman, on a foundational level, is using the physical to allow us to contemplate the metaphysical — even as he makes the concept of ‘experimental cinema’ serve double duty, as both art and science. But then, Jarman always fancied himself as something of a latter-day alchemist. Consider that Jarman’s (supposedly spiritualized) blue light — years after his death — literally touches us, as it reflects off the blue screen and physically enters our eyes. (The eye transforms the light into electrical impulses, that the brain then processes as images: the different wavelengths of light let us to see different colors. About blue wavelengths: because they are relatively short, at 475 nanometers, atmospheric molecules scatter them more efficiently than wavelengths of other colors, which is why the sky appears to be blue.)
The pure, austere blue screen literally frees us from the bombardment of images — that have the Pavlovian potential to make us act or feel a particular way, as their manipulator wants — in everyday life. As Jarman puts it, in his most prophet-like voice, “In the pandemonium of image / I present you with the universal blue…” But despite its beautiful — liberating — monochrome, the screen is neither empty nor neutral. Most obviously, its seeming blankness provides us with something like a fresh canvas. The film encourages us to use our unique individual imaginations to recreate Jarman’s vision in our own way (I almost said ‘our own image’). Blue helps us fight against the mass-produced narcotizing representations that society, however automatically, uses to keep us passive: personal imagination over mass images. Obviously, this is not a covert call for the prohibition of movies and (gasp!) the Internet, and a return to radio, but the idea is provocative.
But isn’t Blue just another form of manipulation, however well-intentioned? Yes, if we remain passive viewers/ listeners (maybe patting ourselves on the back for “enduring” such a “rigorous” “art film”). But no, if we at least attempt to do what Jarman hopes we will: move beyond what he’s presenting, by looking deeper into ourselves. In some ways, the film itself can help us keep from falling into just another set of pre-made images. It’s almost like a Narcissus-proof mirror.
Physiologically, we undergo changes while staring at that blue field. We experience what psychologists call the Ganzfeld effect (Ganzfeld is German for ‘total field’), that mimics blindness, as the brain cuts off the unchanging blue signal from the eyes. Jarman himself was literally going blind, but he doesn’t use this effect as some subliminal, and cheap, plea for empathy or sympathy. There’s more to it. Since the mind can’t endure the solid color, it begins playing illusory figures against it, although they’re produced solely by our physically erratic vision. If we become aware of this self-generating illusion, whether or not we know a term like Ganzfeld effect, we are a step closer to a fuller awareness — the point of Blue: The viscerally unsettling optical changes, created by the picture, keep us from being lulled into passivity by the soundtrack, even if we can’t put our finger on why. For a work like this with metaphysical aspirations, it’s worth noting that there’s also a parapsychological connection to Ganzfeld. This controlled sensory input technique is used, some researchers would say successfully, in an attempt to improve results in tests of telepathy and other paranormal phenomena. You might say that Blue is a literally blinding work of vision.
But there are less lofty things that help us avoid the trap of easy manipulation: namely, dust, dirt, and scratches on the film print. Nitpicking isn’t why I mention that there are thousands of these fleeting imperfections. They are at their worst, as with all prints, precisely every 20 minutes, at reel changes. A large white circle — the cue mark signaling time for the next reel, that film projectonists call a “cigarette burn” — flashes on the right side of the frame. There’s even one huge white smudge at 40:47, that might cause some people to jump in their seats — although likely not as drastically as in the sunken boat scene in Jaws, when the head pops out. Jarman knew about the physical degradation that film prints suffer; and it seems possible, and perhaps likely, that he wanted these countless tiny “distractions” to keep us from being sucked into passively viewing a mechanically perfect single hue. Obviously, the DVD could have substituted a flawless new color field, but didn’t — further leading us to suspect that we’re supposed to take these roughnesses into account, if we are so inclined.
On an even more idiosyncratic level, these naturally-occuring nicks have a kind of grungy beauty — like Jarman’s buzzing “Blue Bottle” flies; and they remind us that nothing, but nothing, is perfect in this world. And that recalls the end of Jarman’s previous film, Wittgenstein, when John Maynard Keynes tells his dying friend, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the poignant fable of the man who wanted a world of utterly smooth logic, seen as an endless field of ice — but when he went to walk on it, for all of its monolithic beauty, he fell flat on his face. International Klein Blue may have mystical properties — it is absolutely the most beautiful ‘blue’ I’ve seen: the quintessence of blue-ness — but we don’t live in Aristotle’s metaphysical realm of Ideal Forms. We live in a rough, messy world — with dust, dirt, scratches and much, much worse; all of which is contained within Blue’s limits, from disease to love, hate to hope. But as Jarman knows, it’s important to have a luminous ideal — especially when it can encompass the complex, and sometimes contradictory, meanings of even one concept, of Blue. As Jarman’s character of Keynes says in Wittgenstein, “Roughness and ambiguity aren’t imperfections. They’re what make the world turn.” But Blue, in part, is what makes it transcendent.
As we’ve seen, that pure blue screen works on many levels, from keeping us from falling into passivity to suggesting a mystical connection with the infinite. While it leads us away from manipulative images and stimuli, it opens what a mystic — like Klein or Jarman — might call the inner eye to visionary experience: Not blindness, but literally in-sight, that might allow us a direct connection to ourselves, to deep understanding, to ultimate release, to limitlessness.
In the pandemonium of image
I present you with the universal Blue
Blue an open door to soul
An infinite possibility
Review — Glitterbug
This DVD also includes the complete Glitterbug (1994), a fascinating hour-long collage of Jarman’s home movies, shot between 1970 and 1985. The film was posthumously assembled by his friends, with an original score from Brian Eno that is a perfect accompaniment, at once jaunty and haunting — like the footage itself.
A work of all images and no words, this film is an ideal companion piece to Blue, that is all words and only one image. Glitterbug helps to round out our understanding of Jarman’s life. It gives a tangible sense of what his world felt like, as we see Jarman cavorting with friends and lovers, attending — and sometimes filming — concerts and parties, working behind the scenes on his early films like Sebastiane and Jubilee, and gallivanting around London, New York City, Italy, Spain, and the English countryside.
We see Jarman’s gift for capturing people as themselves. This is not a formal motion picture; rather it’s candid, off-the-cuff home movies. But there’s more to this film, that the credits accurately describe as “directed by Derek Jarman,” than its humble origins might imply.
Jarman’s works — in painting, film, literature, and that most personal of media, his own life — help define his era, but in his footage in Glitterbug, it feels like he’s captured a specific part — the bohemian artists and outcasts — of its raw essence. Even the fragmentary nature of individual shots, that yet are carefully organized into large sequences on specific themes by his friends/editors (this film is no random jumble), adds to the effect. It feels like what it is: pieces of a life lived in real-time moments, with an amazing diversity of people, from Pasolini-like street kids to the elegant Tilda Swinton (who merits an entire sequence).
But the footage has a sense of being more carefully considered than average home movies. It’s as if Jarman were laying out clues about the present time, of his world, for the inevitable future when it will have become the stuff of history — the province of some futuristic archaeologist sifting through the ruins, like the one in The Last of England, played by real-life archaeologist Paul Reynolds. (Reynolds also co-starred, as an embodiment of spiritualized sexuality, in The Angelic Conversation.) And in Blue, there’s the eerie passage about the future archaeologists of sound, who can make “a word or phrase materialise… in scintillating sparks, a poetry of fire which casts everything into darkness with the brightness of its reflections.” Jarman knew that, through his recordings, he was preserving an even-then vanishing subculture, remarkable for its looseness and camaraderie.
Jarman also prided himself on turning the disadvantages of “lowly” Super 8 and later video — that he used for reasons of economic necessity — to aesthetic advantage.
To take just one example from Glitterbug: There’s a ravishing, visionary shot of an English field that Jarman, entirely within the camera, imbues with the mystical intensity of Samuel Palmer (1805–1881), the Romantic landscape painter, and disciple of Jarman’s multimedia hero, the painter/ poet William Blake (1757–1827).
Even compared to Palmer’s great 1830 painting, “A Cornfield by Moonlight With the Evening Star,” Jarman manages to capture the suggestion of the vast strange harmonies that exist in nature, even when man tries to leave his mark. For all of its possible inspiration, Jarman makes his “painting,” done with a Super 8, uniquely his own.
We are fortunate to have Glitterbug as a final testimony from Jarman, and as an inspired tribute, lovingly edited and scored by his friends.
- Written and Directed by Jarman
- Produced by James Mackay and Takashi Asai
- Associate Producer: David Lewis
- Production Coordinator: Angela Connealy
- Sound Designer: Marvin Black
- Sound Recordist: Markus Dravius
- Sound Re-recordist: Paul Hamblin
- Sound Camera Operator: Steve Hancock
- Original Musical Score by Simon Fisher-Turner
- Additional Music and Performances by John Balance, Gini Ball, Marvin Black, Peter Christopherson, Markus Dravius, Brian Eno, Tony Hinnigan, Danny Hyde, Jan Latham Koenig, Marden Hill & The King of Luxumbourg, Miranda Sex Garden, Momus, Vini Reilly, Kate St. John, Richard Watson, Hugh Webb
- Full Music Credits directly below.
Music plays an integral part in Blue, and all of Jarman’s films. Here is a complete listing of the soundtrack, from Discogs.
Derek Jarman – Blue
Label: Mute Records Ltd.
Catalog#: CD STUMM 49
Format: CD, Album
Released: November 8, 1993
Genre: Electronic, Non-Music
Style: Spoken Word, Experimental, Ambient
Credits: Composed By Simon Fisher Turner
Engineer [Music Recording]: Markus Dravius
Mixed By [Re-recording]: Paul Hamblin
“Blue is by Derek Jarman, Simon Fisher Turner, Marvin Black, David Lewis, James Mackay.”
Soundtrack composed by Simon Fisher Turner.
Voices: John Quentin, Nigel Terry, Derek Jarman, Tilda Swinton.
Musicians: John Balance, Gini Ball, Marvin Black, Peter Christopherson, Markus Dravius, Brian Eno, Tony Hinnigan, Danny Hyde, Jan Latham Koenig, Marden Hill & The King of Luxumbourg, Miranda Sex Garden, Momus, Vini Reilly, Kate St. John, Simon Fisher Turner, Richard Watson, Hugh Webb.
NOTE from Discogs: “Track titles are not given in the booklet.”
Blue (Parts 1-5) (7:23)
1a Blue Gong
1b Open Your Eyes
1c Delphinium Days
1d Roaring Water
1e Love Fades
Blue (Parts 6-12) (11:53)
2a Left Right
2b Back And Forth
2c I’m Home
2d Sweats In The Night
2f Gautama Gongs
2g Walk Away
Blue (Parts 13-18) (7:37)
Written By, Performer – Brian Eno
3b Holborn Tube
3c Waiting Room
3d Tangible Blue
3e Hell On Earth
Performer – Jan Latham Koenig
Written By Karol Szymanowski (1882–1937) [Jim’s note: an extraordinary, and gay, composer who excelled in all classical forms, from solo keyboard to symphonies, song cycles to opera]
Blue (Parts 19-24) (12:04)
4a Marco Polo
Performer – Jan Latham Koenig
Written By Szymanowski
Music By The King Of Luxembourg, Marden Hill
4d White Blue
4e St Rita
4f Hell Hounds
Blue (Parts 25-29) (9:26)
5c Blue Movie
5d Disco Hospital
Written By, Performer – Coil , Danny Hyde
5e Timeless Ocean
Blue (Parts 30-35) (12:00)
6a Kiss Me Again
6c Muff Diving Size Queen
Vocals – Miranda Sex Garden
6d Lesbian Man
Vocals – Momus
6f Pill Song
Blue (Parts 36-41) (13:07)
7a Taj Mahal
7b Tower Block
Written By, Performer – Vini Reilly
7d 1st Gnossiennes
Composed By – Erik Satie
Performer – Jan Latham Koenig
7e Sparks Through Stubble
7f Last Of Gongs
- Derek Jarman (voice)
- John Quentin (voice)
- Tilda Swinton (voice)
- Nigel Terry (voice)
There are currently several Jarman video releases, to own (on DVD and Blu-ray), rent, stream, or borrow from your library, as well as Jarman books. NOTE: If you use my Amazon Affiliate Jarman link for a purchase, I may receive a commission that helps support this site, at no additional cost to you. Regardless, I stand by my opinions.
Original Video Release (Used for This Review)
Zeitgeist Films’ DVD has exceptional sound quality, and the image clearly comes from an authentic theatrical print, which is what the film needs (as discussed above). All of the many supplements are of genuine interest, led by the posthumous Glitterbug (described below). Like all five films in the collection Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4, this is a superb release of a great picture that will haunt you for a long time to come. Following is a list of special features for this release.
- Only available as part of the four-disc / five-film box set, Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4 (The Angelic Conversation, Caravaggio, Wittgenstein, and Blue, plus the posthumous Glitterbug) — $74.99 suggested retail.
- English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired
- Glitterbug (1994), 54-minute collage of Jarman’s footage posthumously assembled by the filmmaker’s friends and featuring original music by Brian Eno
Reviewed June 24, 2008 / Revised October 20, 2020