Monday, January 31, 2022

Tired of the cinema

Derek Jarman, the extraordinarily inventive film-maker, was born 80 years ago today. He was a fervent campaigner for gay rights, but died in his early 50s from an AIDS-related illness. He decamped to a cottage on the shingle flats at Dungeness in the last years of his life, where he found fulfilment in gardening. Here also he kept a diary of autobiographical reflections, often wistful in tone, which illustrate his passion for his garden and the wildlife nearby, and also reveals a jaded relationship with film.

Born near London on 31 January 1942, Jarman spent much his childhood at boarding schools, such as Canford in Dorset, before winning a place at Slade School of Fine Art. However, in deference to the wish of his father, by then a retired RAF officer, he put off his art studies to go to King’s College London, to take a more academic degree, in English, history, and the history of art. Thanks to the influence of Nikolaus Pevsner, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, this left Jarman with an ‘exhaustive and exhausting knowledge of London architecture’. After three years at King’s, he spent four at Slade, where he gravitated towards theatre and film studies.

In the late 1960s, Jarman found himself designing sets for West End operas; but, by 1970, he was working on designs for films, notably Ken Russell’s The Devils. Around this time, though, he acquired a Super-8 camera which allowed him to make his own short films without the restraints of more traditional methods. From the mid-1970s, he found success making full-length, but highly individual films, such as Sebastiane, with its positive take on homosexuality, and Jubilee, sometimes dubbed the first punk film.

In the 1980s, Jarman continued to design for celebrated stage productions, but he also moved into making pop videos for, among others, Marianne Faithfull, Bryan Ferry and the Pet Shop Boys. Through much of the 1980s, Jarman struggled to finance his first conventional 35mm film - Caravaggio. Finally released in 1986, the film brought him his widest audience, partly thanks to the involvement of a television company (Channel 4). That same year, though, he was diagnosed as HIV positive, and, in keeping with his overt homosexuality and his persistent fight for gay rights, he was very open about the condition.

Jarman’s illness led him to move away from London to Prospect Cottage on the shingle flats around Dungeness, in Kent, close by the nuclear power station. Although he continued to work with frequent visits to London, his life at the cottage was dominated by nature more than art, and in particular the development of his garden. One of his last films, Blue, was as alternative or radical as his earliest work - being no more than a single shot of luminous blue with a collaged sound track of original music and Jarman’s thoughts. It was released just months before his death of an AIDS-related illness in 1994. More biographical information about Jarman is available at Senses of Cinema, the British Film Institute, The Independent or The Guardian.

After moving to Prospect Cottage, Jarman began keeping a diary. Extracts from 1989 and 1990 were first published by Century - Modern Nature: The Journals of Derek Jarman - in 1991. A second collection, covering the final years of his life, were edited by Keith Collins and published posthumously in 2000, also by Century, as Smiling in Slow Motion. The Times said the latter was ‘the life-affirming expression of an artist engaged in living to the full’.

The diaries are very readable, full of wistful recollections about his past (his parents and his youthful years in the London arts scene), as well as passion towards the garden he is planting and developing, and the wildlife he finds in the area around his cottage. But here are a couple of extracts in which he shows little enthusiasm for the world that loved him, and also one that is the last entry in Modern Nature.

22 February 1989
‘I’ve grown tired of the cinema, the preserve of ambition and folly in pursuit of illusion, or should I say delusion?

Yesterday I was subjected to a barrage of questions for nearly seven hours without a break, my head spinning like a child’s top. I fled. Back home at the flat at Charing Cross Road another enormous pile of letters blocked the door: Would I write? Judge? Give advice? Approve? Help? The phone rings till I find myself running. What happiness has this cacophony brought? And what have I achieved when Pliny’s miraculous villa can vanish with barely a ripple?’

8 March 1989
‘I have re-discovered my boredom here. The train could carry me to London - the bookshops, tea at Bertaux’, a night in a bar; but I resist.

Film had me by the tail. Once it was naively adventurous - it seemed then there were mountains to climb. So I slogged onwards and upwards, often against a gale, only to arrive exhausted, and find I had climbed a molehill from where I had a view of a few yards, not endless mountain vistas. All around the traps were set. Traps of notoriety and expectation, or collaboration and commerce, of fame and fortune.

But the films unwinding themselves in the dark seemed to bring protection. Then came the media and the intrusion. At first a welcome trickle, something new. Then a raging flood of repetition, endless questions that eroded and submerged my work, and life itself. But now I have re-discovered boredom, where I can fight ‘what next’ with nothing.

You can’t do nothing: accusations of betrayal, no articles or airtime to fill. I had foolishly wished my film to be home, to contain all the intimacies. But in order to do this I had to open to the public. At first a few genuine enthusiasts took up the offer, then coachloads arrived.’

30 March 1989
‘March 30 is my parent’s wedding anniversary, neither of whom were particularly interested in gardening. Though in our family film it might seem otherwise: my mother picking the roses, and dad pushing a large wheelbarrow jauntily along blooming herbaceous borders.

On this day nearly 50 years ago my parents posed for their wedding photo under a daffodil bell hanging in the lych gate of Holy Trinity, Northwood. The photo, with my father in his RAF uniform and my mother holding a bouquet of carnations, her veil caught in the March breeze - captured the imagination of the press. It appeared in national papers - hope at a time of encroaching darkness.

Dungeness has luminous skies: its moods can change like quicksilver. A small cloud here has the effect of a thunderstorm in the city; the days have a drama I could never conjure up on an opera stage.’

17 August 1990
‘Sunlit cool autumnal day. Writing this diary on my way to St Mary’s in a taxi that cruises down Oxford Street alongside a lovely lad on a bike. Today London is a joy.’

This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 31 January 2012.

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