CAPSULE: BLUE (1993)

DIRECTED BY: Derek Jarman

FEATURING: Voices of Derek Jarman, John Quentin, Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry

PLOT: Filmmaker Jarman documents his physical decline from AIDS, with his failing vision represented by a continuous, unchanging blue screen.

Still from Blue (1993)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A movie where the screen is a single solid color for the full running time is, without dispute, unusual. But beyond that unconventional visual strategy, Blue is a straightforward, often bracingly direct audio memoir, contemplating death with sober and unvarnished clarity.

COMMENTS: When cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the man behind the striking visuals in the films of directors like Wong Kar-Wai and Yimou Zhang, was invited by the Telegraph to pick a single film to discuss for a series on influences, his choice was immediate and without hesitation. Blue, he said, was “one of the most intimate films I’ve ever seen.

It’s surely an odd choice for an acclaimed cinematographer, given that the biggest part of the film’s reputation is dedicated to its unorthodox visual: a screen filled—edge-to-edge, start-to-finish—with a single color, International Klein Blue, never changing, never varying. It’s fair to ask if a movie where nothing moves, where nothing appears, is even a movie at all.

In the truest sense, Blue is a radio essay, a production-heavy tone poem that wouldn’t be totally out of place on “This American Life.” (Indeed, after the film’s release, Britain’s Radio Three broadcast the audio on its own). One of the much-trumpeted merits of radio is that the listener can create pictures in the imagination that go beyond the limits of visual media. With Blue’s lush audio production (for which particular credit must be given to sound designer Marvin Black and composer Simon Fisher-Turner) and Jarman’s rich, sonorous British baritone as anchor, surely pictures aren’t even necessary.

But even in physical decline, Jarman remains a filmmaker, an artist with a discerning eye. And if the only thing he can see is the color blue, then that’s what his film will look like. The auteur theory posits that the director is a figure of singular vision, and this film carries that notion to its extreme: when you look at blue for the duration of the film, you are witnessing the director’s literal vision transferred to the screen.

Jarman himself is a sterling performer. When he extols the artistic virtues of the color blue, he reads as both erudite and heartfelt, while his lament for his fading vision is composed as it measures the weight of the loss. He lends warmth to the narration, even as his thoughts on death are calm and resigned. This can be hilarious in counterpoint, as when an introspective passage is immediately followed by a lewd gay parade chant. It can also be wrenching, such as his cool recitation of the myriad ways in which friends have met their own ends at the hands of the AIDS virus.

But while Jarman’s pain and frustration are clearly in evidence, what really dominates the telling of the tale is his growing recognition of the absurdity of it all. His descriptions of endless medical indignities—lesions and pills, long waits and painful IV drips, lengthy stays in waiting rooms—are delivered without anger, without passion. Stories of war and catastrophe have lost their power to sting. Even a quick impulse to go shoe shopping quickly fades. “The shoes I’m wearing at the moment will be sufficient to walk me out of life,” he observes. Jarman’s journey is one of growing disconnection from the world. Just as his vision has been reduced to a single color, his engagement with life is being pared down to the bare essentials. Put another way, the narrator we meet in Blue is in full DGAF mode, and finds beauty even in that.

A frequent parry to the claim of weirdness is that the thing deemed “weird” is actually “artistic.” There’s no reason that an artwork can’t be both, of course; one of the expectations of artists is that they see the world differently and their output reflects their unique point of view. But the distinction seems critical in assessing Blue. A mainstream moviegoer might look at the blue screen and see something too strange to comprehend, but Jarman is an artist, assembling every tool at his disposal (or, in the case of his eyesight, a tool lost) to make a statement. The art world seems convinced; the Tate Modern, MoMA, and the Getty are among the museums that have placed Blue on exhibit. Static screen be damned; Jarman has made a movie, and it is a powerful cinematic valedictory.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Still fiercely experimental and controversial, with no visual images other than an unchanging blue screen, Blue is perhaps not the most accessible film from Derek Jarman and it will certainly appeal more to fans of the director who will better appreciate the insight it provides into the director’s mindset during the final years of his life. On the other hand, dealing with notions of mortality and creativity when faced with illness and death, the film also has a much wider interest and poetic resonance in its words, sounds, music and in the impact on the retina of watching a pure blue screen for 75 minutes.” – Noel Megahey, The Digital Fix

(This movie was nominated for review by Nick. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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