February 7, 2008

Park City Dispatch. 10.

Brian Darr wraps his coverage of the first big festival of the year, focusing on Derek before pondering the question of which films at Sundance 08 might be best remembered ten or more years from now. A few notes follow.

Derek Jarman The lights of Sundance have receded in the rear-view mirror by now, well over a week after the screenings ended. But before the festival becomes a too-distant memory, I want to make sure I get a few words down on Derek, which had its world premiere in Park City and is headed next for the Berlinale. This documentary, perhaps the best I saw at this year's festival, depicts the life and art of Derek Jarman nearly 14 years after his death from AIDS complications.

Derek is structured around two important pieces of "Jarmanian" history: Colin McCabe's 14-hour interview with the filmmaker in 1990 and an expanded version of Tilda Swinton's 2002 address to her deceased collaborator, found in its original version as an extra on the Edward II DVD, and transcribed in full here. Both of these documents are generously excerpted on the soundtrack, weaving between Jarman's jubilant reminiscences and Swinton's voiceover of august insurgency, all accompanied by a trove of images from the British Film Archive's collection of Jarman's home movies, media appearances, and of course feature film excerpts.

Isaac Julien and Tilda Swinton A sinuous path is traced, from a middle-class upbringing and Oxford education, to a re-education in the London art world. We hear of milestone film viewings (The Wizard of Oz, La Dolce Vita, Scorpio Rising) and of tales from the filming of Sebastiane, Blue and practically everything in between, including the video for the Pet Shop Boys' "It's a Sin," which Jarman calls "quite honestly one of the best things I've ever done." It all adds up to a moving portrait of just how much artistic electricity can surge through a mere 52-year lifespan. Ethereal echo effects that very occasionally trail off from the end of Jarman's sentences are neither insignificant nor ham-handed; instead they help serve as a reminder that the delightful raconteur we're seeing and hearing exists not as an active participant in the film but as an archival spirit to be edited and otherwise manipulated. It's a subtle but effective method of allowing the audience to mourn as we celebrate a filmmaker's life.

There's a great deal to celebrate. Derek makes the case that Jarman is one of the most under-appreciated directors Great Britain ever produced. His name is known and a good number of his films are available on DVD, but he rarely comes up in the critical conversation today. Perhaps this is because, as general interest in both the classical and the avant-garde seemingly wanes, there are fewer modern reference points to a filmmaker who was so deeply committed to both, and to their heretical fusion. Perhaps it's because the decidedly political nature of his work makes it seem dated (or worse, too relevant for comfort). Perhaps it's simply because of his films' approach to sexuality. Unlike other struck-down-too-soon auteurs Fassbinder and Pasolini, Jarman's name has not yet transcended the "gay ghetto" and become fashionable for cinephiles of all sexual orientations to drop.

Edward II At least, that's the way Jarman appears to this writer, whose cinephilia was predated by the director's life and death, and who hadn't seen a single one of his feature-length films until a couple weeks ago. The festival selected Jarman's Edward II to play as part of its "From the Collection" mini-section, spotlighting films from Sundance festivals past which have stood the test of time. In this case, the 16 years since Jarman, Isaac Julien (director of Derek), Gregg Araki (whose The Living End was the other "From the Collection" selection this year) and other filmmakers appeared together at the "Barbed Wire Kisses" panel organized by B Ruby Rich. Seeing a pristine 35mm print of Edward II, its untheatrical take on Christopher Marlowe's play so unlike anything I've seen at this or any other recent film festival, is what inspired me to catch Derek's final Sundance screening days later. Edward II was introduced by Bob Rosen of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, where the Sundance Collection is housed. He explained that, not only is there a cultural imperative to give special archival attention to independent films, there is a practical imperative as well: films made on low budgets and never mass-distributed are simply less likely to survive with all their elements in presentable condition than studio-backed films for which many more prints were struck.

I must wonder which films from Sundance 2008 are most likely to remain in memory 16 years from now; perhaps Lance Hammer's Ballast, which could conceivably be canonized as a Mississippi Delta inheritor to that strain of quiet realism that stretches from Rossellini and Ray through to the Dardennes? The nerve-wrackingly fun Baghead by the Duplass Brothers, which could end up as the mumblecore film to outlast its moment? Perhaps one of the highly-praised films I regretfully missed at the festival, like Momma's Man, Sugar or Man on Wire? I'm not sure. I enjoy imagining that the film that will be shorthand for Sundance 2008 a decade or two from now might be Eat, for This Is My Body, a visionary, heavily symbolic work from Haitian-American filmmaker Michelange Quay. Eat, for This Is My Body builds astonishing, sometimes bewildering set pieces around the theme of the intergenerational legacies of colonialism. It does so with earnestness, but also with a sustaining playfulness of camera, music, and presentation of its mostly non-professional actors (Sylvie Testud being one exception.) Some of the images soar, others are a mirror for the performative aspects of consumption (of a film, even) and can make us feel the need to question what we've just seen, and how we've seen it. It's clearly the work of an artist with an audacious spirit, and I'm excited to see what Quay will come up with for his next project. And I can't help but think that Derek Jarman might approve.

- Brian Darr

Derek is "Isaac Julien's heartbreaking and giddily alive biopic about filmmaker, painter, and general renegade Derek Jarman," writes Steven Henry Madoff in a diary entry for Artforum. "Tilda Swinton's gorgeous presence, ripe with immensely articulate and sometimes mournful reminiscences, walks through the film like a grave revenant."

"Admirers of this cultured, warm and funny man will find plenty to enjoy in Isaac Julien's film, which rests squarely on a long and candid interview conducted by Colin McCabe, shortly before Jarman's death from an Aids-related ilness in 1994," writes Damon Wise in the London Times. "In it, Jarman talks frankly about his youth, his move into the art world and his accidental break into cinema after working on The Devils as a production designer for Ken Russell. Such memoirs are a breath of fresh air in today's PR-controlled climate, and no subject is off-limits, from his parents to the tricky subject of his sexuality, which Jarman admits was not something he allowed himself to address until the age of 22."

"Julien's shrewd strategy of permitting only Jarman himself to be the expert intensified his presence, so much so that it seemed as if Julien and Swinton had rubbed the proverbial lamp and released the genie, bringing Jarman's radical cinema back to life," writes B Ruby Rich in the Guardian.

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Posted by dwhudson at February 7, 2008 9:05 AM


Note to myself: Follow Brian Darr's advice and catch Derek and Eat, For This Is My Body when (if?) they come to SF. Thanks for the Paul Revere, Brian.

Posted by: Maya at February 7, 2008 10:32 AM

I can't imagine Derek bypassing our city, Michael. I suspect it's only a matter of when. Eat, for This Is My Body, however, is an open question. I'm crossing my fingers that a local festival or cinematheque programmer likes it as much as I do.

Posted by: Brian at February 7, 2008 2:36 PM

I was talking with Matt Johnson of The The back in the 90s about music, art and about Jarman, but mostly about those that hung around him. Johnson warned me about those that sap an artist.

Talking with Trent Reznor once, I casually mentioned Jarman and he said I needed to meet his video director Peter Christopherson who was in Coil and worked with Jarman. Cool guy!

In London meeting a friend from Channel 4 he took me to see, "The Garden" and later decided I wanted to see everything I could about Jarman and his work. I was in a bookstore and my friend grabbed my arm and pulled me outside just in time to see Derek Jarman's lanky body walking away around the corner alone. I should have run after him, but I didn't.

It's funny how much he comes up in my life when interviewing others. I think about many of the images he created in the most inopportune times.

I hope I can catch "Derek" in the theatre, but I'm guessing I'll have to book a flight to do it.

Posted by: Jerry Lentz at February 7, 2008 11:07 PM

Great reminiscences, Jerry. Funny about the Peter Christopherson connection. Seeing Genesis P-Orridge appear in Derek shot me back to my old college radio days; I used to play Coil and Throbbing Gristle records fairly often, though I never had In the Shadow of the Sun- now it's the Jarman film and TG album I'm most interested in tracking down. Along with Psychic Rally In Heaven, which is apparently available on R2 DVD through Raro.

Posted by: Brian at February 8, 2008 3:58 PM

Hey thanks, Brian! Everything I have is in boxes, but I think "The Super 8 Programme VOL. 1" is what you might want. It's also got "Glitterbug" and Psychic TV and William Burroughs... Oh so much fun!

Ah, the good old days of College Radio... These young podcast punks don't know what they missed. Splicing tape with a razor. Using alcohol to clean tapeheads. Being the most popular and most hated on campus at the same time.

Posted by: Jerry Lentz at February 9, 2008 12:17 PM