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Jarman, Derek (1942-1994)

Director, Writer, Art Designer, Editor, Cinematographer

Main image of Jarman, Derek (1942-1994)

Derek Jarman was the maverick radical of the British cinema during the late 1970s, '80s, and early '90s. His highly idiosyncratic form of avant-garde art cinema managed to sustain itself due to his personal reputation as an auteur, as an enfant terrible, and to his more or less public private life.

Jarman was an artist of many dimensions: an author of autobiographical journals, a poet, a painter, a scriptwriter, a film director, a cinematographer, and a set designer. Jarman was at the same time a modernist and a Renaissance artist. His scathing attacks on present-day British politics and challenging use of aesthetic forms as well as images from popular culture were combined with a neo-romantic fascination for and a subversion of traditional English high art. Jarman's fame, however, mostly derived from his outspoken homosexuality, his never-ending public fight for gay rights, and his subsequent personal struggle with AIDS.

Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman was born in Northwood, Middlesex, on 31 January 1942; he died in London on 19 February 1994. He was educated at the University of London and at the Slade School of Art. His first work in the cinema was as a set designer on Ken Russell's The Devils (1971) and Savage Messiah (1972).

Having begun making his own experimental films on a Super-8 camera in the early 1970s, Jarman's first feature film was the low budget Sebastiane (co-d. Paul Humfress, 1976), a story about the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, which created a stir on the art cinema market because of its overt depiction of homosexual desire. Its implications as "camp" were further enhanced by its dialogue being in Latin.

Jarman's next venture, Jubilee (1977), was fiercely anti-Establishment in its post-punk vision of a social wasteland, depicting the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II's twenty-fifth year on the throne, partly through the eyes of Queen Elizabeth I and her astrologer magician John Dee, a typical Jarman anachronism. This use of the anachronistic was further employed in his bold adaptation of Shakespeare's The Tempest (1979).

Jarman continued throughout his career to make films on Super 8, films which were later cut together and blown up into cinema formats. This was his major form of artistic practice in the early 1980s, perhaps most famously so in The Angelic Conversation (1985), a film in which the imagery is accompanied by a voice reciting Shakespeare's sonnets, obviously chosen for their openness to a homoerotic re-reading.

With the advent of Channel 4 funding in the mid-80s and the ensuing wave of internationally distributed low-budget British art cinema, Jarman was able to develop his status as a major European auteur. Caravaggio (1986), a pastiche period biopic based on the life of Italian seventeenth-century painter Michelangelo da Caravaggio, funded by the BFI and produced by film theorist Colin MacCabe, became Jarman's most famous film.

Here, his trademark aesthetics flourished: the overt depiction of homosexual love, the narrative ambiguity, the superb visuals, particularly the live representations of Caravaggio's most famous paintings, the imposing art design invoking the artistic spirit of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the deployment of anachronisms, as when Caravaggio's angriest critic writes his condemnations on a typewriter in his bath, an image alluding to both David's painting of the murdered Marat in his tub and to Waldo Lydecker, played by Clifton Webb, typing vigorously in his bath in Otto Preminger's film noir Laura (US, 1944).

The Last of England (1987) was another collage of Super-8 films and a harsh judgement on the Thatcherite politics of the late '80s; the title ingeniously re-interpreted Maddox Brown's famous painting of emigrants leaving the English shores for a life in the New World. The film has been compared to Humphrey Jennings's documentary Listen to Britain (1941) which constitutes its very antithesis. Where Listen to Britain indulges in the idyllic, The Last of England tries to expose the decay.

Towards the end of the 1980s Jarman became a well-known person in Britain. He had been diagnosed as HIV positive and became a major public spokesman against what he perceived to be anti-gay politics. He published some well received monographs and he moved to a cottage on the Kent coast where he cultivated a much publicised garden.

He directed War Requiem (1989), a film version of Benjamin Britten's musical treatment of Wilfred Owen's war poetry, and subsequently Edward II (1991), a visually magnificent adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's Elizabethan drama, blending theatricalised staging, pop video aesthetics, overt homoeroticism, covert misogyny, and poetic dialogue. Edward II à la Jarman emphasised the tragedy of martyrdom, political violence, and sexual oppression against the homosexual king and his followers. This return to more narrative forms continued in Jarman's next tour de force, Wittgenstein (1993), a brilliantly surrealistic and provocative film on the biography of homosexual philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Jarman's last film, if the posthumously released, but much earlier made Super 8 collage Glitterbug (1994) is excluded, is Blue (1993). As a metaphorical reflection of his own blindness, caused by his disease, Jarman here showed just a blue frame, a monochrome surface - inspired by French painter Yves Klein - shown throughout the performance. The blue frame was accompanied by Simon Fisher Turner's synthesised music and words spoken by Nigel Terry, John Quentin and Tilda Swinton, three of Jarman's favourite actors. Blue, first shown at the Biennial in Venice in 1993 and later as an installation at various museums of modern art around the world, was a considerable artistic achievement in a commercial medium, much in line with the high spirits and aesthetic extravaganza of Derek Jarman, surely one of Britain's most significant avant-garde film-makers.

Chris Lippard (ed.), By Angels Driven: The Films of Derek Jarman (Trowbridge: Flicks Books, 1996)
O'Pray, Michael, Derek Jarman: Dreams of England (London: BFI, 1996)
Peake, Tony, Derek Jarman: a Biography (Woodstock, NY: Overlook Press, 2000)

Erik Hedling, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Angelic Conversation, The (1985)Angelic Conversation, The (1985)

Derek Jarman's very personal take on Shakespeare's sonnets

Thumbnail image of Caravaggio (1986)Caravaggio (1986)

Derek Jarman's stunningly beautiful portrait of the gay Renaissance painter

Thumbnail image of Devils, The (1971)Devils, The (1971)

Ken Russell's controversial film about the political abuse of religious faith

Thumbnail image of Jubilee (1978)Jubilee (1978)

Derek Jarman's anarchic portrait of two Elizabethan eras

Thumbnail image of Last of England, The (1987)Last of England, The (1987)

Derek Jarman's darkly poetic vision of a nightmare England

Thumbnail image of Nighthawks (1978)Nighthawks (1978)

The first British fiction feature with a realistic portrait of the gay community

Thumbnail image of Sebastiane (1976)Sebastiane (1976)

Derek Jarman's notorious gay Roman epic, with dialogue in Latin

Thumbnail image of Tempest, The (1979)Tempest, The (1979)

Derek Jarman's wildly imaginative version of Shakespeare's play

Thumbnail image of War Requiem (1989)War Requiem (1989)

Derek Jarman interprets Benjamin Britten's oratorio about Wilfred Owen

Thumbnail image of Wittgenstein (1993)Wittgenstein (1993)

A playful portrait of the philosopher by Derek Jarman

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How the BFI tried to create an alternative British art cinema

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