Derek Jarman & England’s Sub-Culture

Jubilee (1978) was Derek Jarman’s much anticipated follow up to Sebastiane (1976), and like Sebastiane, Jubilee was shot on a low-grade color film stock with shots composed to evoke the classic paintings of the Renaissance and the portraits of the Dutch Masters.  But Jubilee, a natural progression in visual style, is a much more political film than Sebastiane, not only satirizing post modern interpretations of the necessity of art, but also Thatcherism, the London Police Force, media moguls, and Fascism.  With the “punk” movement in full swing across Britain, Jarman sets about scrutinizing contemporary London from the vantage point of Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre), the representative of all the traditional English values and morals.

The plot, episodic in nature, begins with Queen Elizabeth I summoning the angel Ariel, with the aid of her occultist John Dee (played by Rocky Horror Show writer Richard O’Brien), to see into Britain’s future.   In the future, the film follows the exploits and interactions of Bod (Jenny Runacre), Crabs (Nell Campbell), Mad (Toyah Wilcox), Amyl Nitrite (Jordan), Chaos (Hermine Demoriane), Angel (Ian Charleson), Sphinx (Karl Johnson), and Kid (Adam Ant).  This cast of characters epitomizes Britain’s “punk” generation, from their need for destructive rebellion to their ambitions for super stardom.  The character who exercises the most power in this Thatcherist nightmare is media mogul Borgia Ginz (Jack Birkett).

Presumably, the “future” action of Jubilee is a comic prediction on how things will turn out unabated, the flourish of Thatcherism and the end of England.  The “future” action seems to take place only a few years in the future from the start of the film’s production.  In this hostile environment of murderous policemen and punk rockers, Jarman manages to photograph London to look like Hiroshima, a decaying landscape of urban development.  Jarman is setting the stage for his greatest cinematic achievement The Last Of England (1986) that will consist exclusively of such visuals, employed again to juxtapose the “England Of Old”.

The conflict of the past versus the present is one of the mainstays of British counterculture as well as the “punk” movement.  Jubilee epitomizes “punk” in film, and became the blueprint for a dozen like-minded films such as Jack Hazan and David Mingay’s pseudo documentary on The Clash Rude Boy (1980), and Ulli Lommel’s films with Andy Warhol Cocaine Cowboys (1979) and The Blank Generation (1980).  Episodic narratives about media corruption and rebellion were the mainstays of Jarman’s imitators, of which the only film that seems to be moving in a new direction is The Blank Generation, which exhibits Lommel and R.W. Fassbinder’s affections for melodrama.  Rather quickly this approach to youth targeted underground filmmaking was commercialized by MTV, and would manifest itself later as Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1987).

In its moment, Jubilee was shocking and controversial, not just for Jarman’s visual comparisons of Thatcher and Hitler, but also for the depiction of homosexual intercourse and police violence.  Of all the “punk” films that followed, Jubilee is the only film with a clear political perspective and filmic style.  Jubilee’s suppression is not surprising given the political turmoil in England at the time, but such blatant censorship only strengthened the resolve of the counter culture, propelling Derek Jarman into a sort of underground super stardom.

In order to better understand the context and significance of Jubilee, one must take into account a number of influential figures upon both Derek Jarman and the British underground in general.  Figures as diverse as William S. Burroughs, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, and Nicholas Ray all figure into the cinema of Derek Jarman rather heavily.  Consider William S. Burrough’s Nova Trilogy (The Ticket That Exploded, Nova Express and The Soft Machine), whose primary focus is the corruption of man by a vast influx of new information and technology, that gives way to a grim future akin to an orgiastic homosexual reinterpretation of Orwell’s 1984.  These texts are indispensible to Jarman, who will employ Brion Gysin’s cut-up technique on the soundtrack of The Last Of England.  Jubilee requires Burroughs’ text to invent it’s own television induced corruption.  Through all three of Burroughs’ novels, the television set is an object of menace, just as it is a means for Borgia Ginz to control the youth population in Jubilee.

David Bowie’s influence on the “punk” movement is immeasurable, but to Jubilee more exclusively, Bowie’s influence can be pinpointed to the years 1972 and 1973 of his career when he assumed the persona Ziggy Stardust.  Bowie’s invented character embodies campy high fashion and a fame seeking self-destruction.  These two character traits outline the trajectory and concerns of the characters Kid, Crabs, and Mad in Jubilee, just as they coincide with every struggling musician’s ambitions to some degree.  The difference here is the “camp” that Jarman pushes to excess in his performers, so that each becomes a terribly funny and self-aware parody of them.

The “campy” quality of the performances is indicative also of the circumstances surrounding the performers themselves.  Like Andy Warhol, Derek Jarman (also a painter) surrounded himself with a group of outlandish individuals who would hang around his studio space.  From this collection of unique individuals, Jarman cast many of his short films, and a number of roles in Jubilee.  The influence of Warhol in this fashion is typical; underground filmmakers, without many professional connections, are reliant upon Warhol’s tactics of casting his friends and hangers on in his films.

The final major influence on Jubilee is the least expected, Nicholas Ray.  Jarman infuses his film with the devices invented in Ray’s Rebel Without A Cause (1955) to evoke the “youth in trouble” sub-genre.  Slow panning shots that build tension are a mainstay in each film, as is the adoption of a family unit by a group of friends.  Bod and her gang of girlfriends are an appropriate “punk” perversion of the James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo family unit in Rebel Without A Cause.  Jarman repeatedly calls the audience’s attention to the parallel with his use of the color “red” in interior shots, recalling the deep Technicolor red of Dean’s jacket in Ray’s film.

Color and form themselves are exciting components that are essential to Jarman’s visual style.  A painter first and foremost, Jarman’s obsession with the human form in the work of Caravaggio is infamous.  Beyond Jarman’s biopic on the painter, Caravaggio (1986), Jarman implements Caravaggio’s compositional style into many of the shots in his films.  Most often, Jarman will employ Caravaggio’s strategy of highlighting a performer’s form by lighting them against a black backdrop.  The effect not only directs the viewer’s focus, but also conveys a sensuous longing and desire.  The tactic described above is used numerous times in Jubilee; most notably during the first interior at Queen Elizabeth I castle.

All these stylistic influences from the counterculture and Jarman’s passion for the Baroque represent individual signifiers that run throughout Jubilee.  This allows not just for a diverse sensory experience, but also an intellectual one.  The prowess with which Jarman addresses each component is often overlooked by audiences and critics alike, the “camp” and violence overshadow the heavier themes at work in the film.  Yet, this appears to be the precise mode that Derek Jarman wishes Jubilee to function in.  Consider Dick Hebdige’s observation in his book Subcultue: The Meaning Of Style, “the ‘working classness’, the scruffiness and earthiness of punk ran directly counter to the arrogance, elegance and verbosity of the glam rock superstar”.  Hebdige has described glam rock as “extreme foppishness, incipient elitism”, the exact connotations Jarman tries so hard to avoid in his filmmaking style.  The “camp” and violence in Jubilee is simply a means to reach the British “every man”.  The loftier issues Jarman addresses are meant to linger in the background, working subliminally on the film’s audience so as not to isolate or condescend.  I would therefore argue that such a device is not a detractor from the film, but a necessity.

The kind of manipulation and cultural understanding to execute a seemingly simple yet infinitely complex film like Jubilee speaks to a maturity critics were not willing to recognize in Jarman when Jubilee was first released.  Perhaps the campy violence made it a film that was easy to dismiss, or perhaps it was Jarman’s open homosexuality that prevented serious critical evaluation.  Regardless, the work of Derek Jarman requires reappraisal and consideration.

-Robert Curry

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