Tag Archives: Derek Jarman

ARIA (1987)

It’s no  revelation to say that supporters and patrons of the arts mantle an attitude of progressiveness and promote themselves as such. For the most part, in the contemporary West at least, that’s a fallacy. A spirit of ultra-conservatism has hijacked virtually every art form. One finds it even in the least expected places. Impressionism can be found in bland texture-less prints  at Corproate Christendom’s Hobby Lobby, who even have their own dead hypocritical hack pseudo-impressionist: Thomas Kinkade. Abstract expressionism has gone the way of J.C. Penny office decor. Surrealism has been relegated to melting-clock stickers on the folders of angsty teenaged boys. Horror and sci-fi film aficionados subscribe to formula expectations, often reacting with hostility to anything that contains an ounce of originality, style, or challenge (i.e. A.I., Prometheus, The Babadook, The Witch). With damned few exceptions, rock and roll is dead, as is jazz, which has been sabotaged by the self-appointed tradition preservationists (i.e. Wynton Marsalis) and devolved into the oxymoronic smooth jazz (Kenny G). Nowhere is orthodox contagion more in evidence than in that Queen Mother of all art forms: Opera. American opera fans are about the only demographic that can actually render comic book fanboys a comparatively innovative lot. Who would have thunk it?

Yet, the tradition of opera, ballet, art music hardly paved the way for such conservativism. As both conductor and opera director, Richard Wagner found no one’s music or ideas sacred, not even his own, and complained that younger conductors were playing his music too reverentially. Gustav Mahler took an equally innovative approach to stage direction. His own body of work took the art form (the symphony) into an astoundingly elastic direction, even influencing the Second Vienesse School (which makes the sanctification of both his and their music rather baffling).

When that uncouth Leopold Stokowski and  teamed up for Fantasia (1940) and dared to suggest that art music could be both dangerous and kitsch fodder for transcription and animation, the purists were outraged. The outcome was an unparalleled flop for Disney; it took decades to recoup his investment and earn critical reevaluation (Stoki, par for the course, weathered everything). Financiers took note, and nothing on this scale was really attempted again until Continue reading ARIA (1987)

LIST CANDIDATE: THE LAST OF ENGLAND (1988)

Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Nigel Terry occasionally narrates. There are no characters or speaking parts, and no actor can be said to be “featured” in this film; a pre-fame  appears prominently in it, however.

PLOT: An abstract, impressionistic view of Britain in the late 1980s, contrasted with nostalgic memories of simpler times.

Still from The Last of England (1988)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: A mysteriously personal and poetic meditation on themes of decay, The Last of England is too restlessly strange to ignore. If anything, its biggest challenge to earning a spot on a list of weird movies may be that it actually strays too far from reality. By abandoning narrative entirely and mucking up the image until it becomes impossible to tell what we’re looking at, Jarman’s film becomes almost completely abstract, the movie equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting.

COMMENTS: Among other odd offerings, The Last of England features men having sex on the Union Jack, terrorists in black ski masks rounding up prisoners, and a wedding where the bridesmaids have full beards. Each of these images has been manipulated three times: the color correction has been toned down to monochrome or amped up to day-glo, the footage has been sped up or slowed down, and the camera’s conventional stability has been abandoned for a deliberately jittery style that is indifferent to conventional framing. As if the welter of abstract scenarios wasn’t disorienting enough, Jarman edits back and forth between two scenes—say, a naked hobo eating cauliflower in a junkyard and a man in a neck brace pouring corn over his head—according to peculiar rhythms, as if he’s alternating rhymed lines of verse. Naturally, the soundscape is an equally convoluted collage, consisting of snippets of poetry combined with Jarman’s own prose ruminations about the decline of England and “found” sounds (football fans, jet fighters, soldiers accepting medals from the Queen). Although the visuals never let up, at times flickering back and forth too fast for the eye or mind to properly process, an eclectic selection of musical recordings occasionally provides some aural respite. The movie even turns into a music video sometimes, as when naked pagans dance in front of a bonfire while highly synthetic club dance music pulses in the background; there are also classical music selections, acoustic guitar interludes, and songs from Barry Adamson, Marianne Faithfull, and the terrifying wailing of Diamanda Galas. Although it makes no disciplined case (juxtaposing clips of English drill instructors with Hitler’s speeches is not a political argument), the movie does have a generically strident leftist political tone. The film’s provocative progressive politics—come on, it’s got two guys doing the nasty on the British flag—contrasts with its elegiac tone. With its bitter disillusionment and nostalgia for a mythically idyllic pre-World War II England—Jarman includes happy home movie footage of his childhood and describes the bombing of London as if it ignited a series of firestorms that were still raging in 1988—England is reminiscent of a more intellectual (if even less coherent) version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and one suspects that the loss of innocence Derek Jarman bemoans belongs more to Derek Jarman than it does to England. Obviously, this obscure and often frustrating farrago is not for everyone, but those willing to patiently pick through the visual rubble will find scraps and relics of sublime beauty. Jarman’s intellect and passion come across on film so powerfully that you leave feeling more impressed than entertained or enlightened. And, at eighty-seven rambling minutes, the movie can become a chore to watch; The Last of England‘s lasting impact may be to remind us why the short format has become the preferred vehicle for non-narrative experimental films.

In conjunction with the film Jarman also published a (now long out-of-print) book entitled “The Last of England“; reportedly, it dealt mainly with the director’s relationship with his father, who Derek believed was scarred by his experiences as an airman in World War II.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Its inconsolable rage and bitterness is protean, chafing at the absurdities of Thatcher’s England, but also at the wider dome of existence, man’s inhumanity to man, and so on.”–Jaime N. Christley, Slant (DVD)

CAPSULE: THE TEMPEST (1979)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Heathcote Williams, Toyah Willcox, Jack Birkett

PLOT: Prospero, a magician and the rightful Duke of Milan, conjures up a tempest to shipwreck

Still from The Tempest (1979)

his usurper on the remote island where his lives with his virgin daughter and the magical creatures he’s enslaved.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Shaking up Shakespeare with a storm of weirdness, Derek Jarman’s The Tempest is an interpretation of the Bard’s final play featuring bizarre costumes, ample nudity, and an out-of-place, out-of-time closing song and dance number. The main argument against it making the List, however, is that this isn’t the weirdest—or even the nudest—adaptation of “The Tempest.”

COMMENTS: “This is as strange a thing as ever I looked on,” says seaman Alonso when he first discovers Caliban. Although Derek Jarman’s wild interpretation of The Tempest may not be quite the strangest thing you’ve ever seen, if you went into it expecting to see a dry Masterpiece Theater-style rendition of Shakespeare’s most fanciful play, you’d likely be shocked. Jarman keeps Shakespeare’s text intact (although it’s truncated for running time), but slowly teases out the hallucinatory elements in the magical story. The movie is set almost entirely in a dusty, abandoned English manner illuminated by candlelight. The early reels court a Gothic horror feel, with the spirit Ariel’s first appearance presaged by poltergeists rattling chandeliers and dramatic flashes of lighting. The makeup and costuming, beginning with Toyah Willcox’ unruly braids cut to uneven lengths and decorated with hanging beads, starts strange and gets ever stranger as the film approaches its baroque climax. The frequent nudity, although always tasteful and rendered with a classical sense of composition, is continually surprising. It’s difficult to imagine in 2012 how shocking the male full-frontals must have seemed in 1979, but the flashback to the obese witch Sycorax breastfeeding her adult son Caliban still delivers a jolt today. More weirdness results from the late appearance of bizarrely costumed carnival dwarfs (some in drag) as fairy spirits of the magical isle, as the movie builds towards its extravagant wedding climax. In this notorious ceremony, a dozen sailors in starched white suits appear from nowhere to perform a style production number, and jazz singer Elisabeth Welch appears in a downpour of flower petals wearing a glittery showgirl headdress to croon the blues number “Stormy Weather.” Although the song title reflects the play title, this mournful tune about lost love is not the ditty most brides want to hear at their wedding reception. The performances in The Tempest are merely adequate. Pop singer Willcox makes for a endearingly sexy Miranda. Jack Birkett’s bald, raw-egg eating Caliban has been criticized as overly grotesque—indeed, at times he comes off like he’s playing Igor in a Frankenstein film—but compared to Heathcote Williams’ bland (and too young) Prospero, he’s a delight. This is not an actor-centered production, and none of the performers threaten to upstage the lush production design and Jarman’s florid imagination. The Tempest may not be as kinky and outlandish as Tromeo and Juliet, but if conventional Shakespeare doesn’t have enough kick for you, this bizarre variation might just be the answer to your Bard blues.

Many critics reflexively describe The Tempest as “homoerotic” because of Jarman’s openly gay lifestyle and past films, but the nudity here is non-sexual, there are as many females as males disrobed in the film, and there are no textual or subtextual homosexual relationships (unless you really stretch things looking for an unrequited Ariel-Prospero passion). This is, demonstrably, Shakespeare’s “strangest” play: the word “strange” appears in The Tempest at least nineteen times, more than in any of his other works.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “…a most bizarre version of Shakespeare–one that’s not for all tastes…”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Movie Reviews (Blu-ray)