British Cinema Now: The Lost Leader

Film still for British Cinema Now: The Lost Leader

When Derek Jarman burst on to the UK film scene with Sebastiane in 1976 he brought an acute vision, a collaborative attitude, and a prescience about Britain's future. That's what's missing from today's cinema, argues Colin MacCabe

Derek Jarman and I first met in May 1985. To call him a legendary figure is to understate his role in the culture. His 1976 film Sebastiane was the first homoerotic movie shown on general release in the UK and it is near-impossible to describe the impact of that bunch of upper-class boys cavorting in the scrub of Sardinia while exchanging Latin sentences and less linguistic tongues. Nobody would call Sebastiane a film, but Derek capitalised on its success with two real contributions to cinema. In Jubilee (1977) he trained his camera on the anger and violence of a punk movement that recognised long before the rest of us that there was no future and that the peace and love of the 1960s had been a colossal exercise in wishful thinking. And then, as if to demonstrate his range, in 1979 he made a version of The Tempest that went right to the heart of Shakespeare's play, focusing not on its colonial resonances but on the security state that is the domestic condition of empire.

At the end of the 1970s Jarman was heading full tilt for Italy and Caravaggio. The idea for the film had come from art dealer Nicholas Ward-Jackson, who contracted him to write a script. Derek could never be bothered with lawyers and so signed a contract that left Ward-Jackson owning the script in perpetuity. Ward-Jackson himself failed to raise the money for the film, but anybody who wanted to finance it now had to come to terms with a man who prided himself on the vigour of his negotiating style and the expensiveness of his lawyers. Many had retired hurt by the time Jarman came up with a cut-price version that could be shot in a studio in Docklands and which the British Film Institute agreed to fund.

My first meetings with Derek were in the favourable circumstances of him finally getting to make a film he had toiled over for more than six years. When he was initially approached he had known little about the life of the great painter of the late Italian Renaissance. Caravaggio was a dissolute figure who took the models for his religious paintings from the streets of Rome and then sold his art into the corrupt world of the Roman Curia. It took only a little research for Derek to identify totally with this Renaissance bad boy, many of whose paintings glow with homoeroticism. For him to make the film became a passion.

To work with Derek was immediately to be accepted as a collaborator, and while a cynic might say that he had every reason to wish to please his bureaucratic funder, for Derek the point of film-making was to conjure an atmosphere in which everybody's creative energies were used to their utmost. For me, the battle with Ward-Jackson constituted a crash course in the business of film and by the end of the first week I knew more about copyright law than my lawyer. We got through one or two lawyers more before I discovered Bob Storer, and by the time the 200-plus-page contract was finally signed I really felt like a participant.

If collaboration was basic to Jarman's aesthetic, so was the determination to turn limitation into opportunity. If he couldn't film in Italy then he would create an Italy of the mind in Docklands. Together with his cinematographer Gabriel Beristain and his designer Christopher Hobbs he produced an image of Italy indebted as much to the iconography of the neorealist classics of the late 1940s as to conventional images of the Renaissance. And if he couldn't have Italian images, he would have Italian sound, so composer Simon Fisher Turner was dispatched to Italy with a tape-recorder to bring back the noises of Rome.

Finding the light

Caravaggio is most clearly about what had been Jarman's chosen profession: painting. He had painted all through the 1960s with little public recognition, moving in the circle of the David Hockneys and Patrick Proctors but without their success. His film casts a very cold eye on the process: the effort of mixing colours, of holding a pose, above all of finding the light. But this effort is always at the service of betraying life for art and art for money. The film is at its most brilliant in its representation of the power politics of Renaissance Rome, where art is simply another commodity to be traded in a game of influence that can never be fully understood, with the painter at the mercy of patrons as brutal as they are civilised.

But Caravaggio himself is not simply a heroic artist ensnared by capital. He too is an arch manipulator, stealing from his friends and lovers the images he will sell to the cardinals. When Ranucio, the boy with whom he's obsessed, fights for money before a baying crowd, Caravaggio sits apart, his eye noting musculature and shade. Caught between desire and distance, he is condemned by his art and profession to endless observation.

Caravaggio brought together a team that was to constitute the school of Jarman for the next decade. At its centre was Tilda Swinton, playing the street-girl Lena. Her image brands Jarman's later films, but here it is Christopher Hobbs' sets and Sandy Powell's costumes that linger in the mind. Jarman's bet that he could fashion Italy in East London and produce a picture more faithful than any simple recreation had been triumphantly won.

In another sense, though, Caravaggio was a detour. Jarman had started using a Super-8 camera after working for Ken Russell on The Devils and in the wake of the 1969 launch of the Gay Liberation movement, following riots protesting at police raids on New York's Stonewall Inn. For him Super-8 was another way of investigating film, and the investigation was simply part of his life. He would shoot whatever came his way day by day, creating shorts that had no audience beyond the friends and lovers caught on camera, who would gather at his studio on Bankside where, against a background of music and ribald chatter, footage shot during the day would unreel at night.

Derek shot slow and projected even slower. The project was that of modernism: to slow life down to Joyce's fulsome Bloomsday, to Woolf's anticipation of the trip to the lighthouse, to the "unattended moment" of Eliot's Four Quartets: "the moment in and out of time,/The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,/The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning/Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply/That it is not heard at all, but you are the music/While the music lasts."

When Caravaggio stalled in the mire of money and contracts Super-8 once again became the focus of Jarman's attention, a medium he could work with independent of the enervating demands of capital. But the early 1980s were different from the early 1970s because he now had a producer in James MacKay and a patron in Peter Sainsbury and the British Film Institute. Both MacKay and Sainsbury had been immersed in experimental film-making in the 1970s but both could also juggle budgets and contracts on the much more difficult scale of the small independent film.

Two boys, one night

And so was born the idea of blowing up these Super-8 shorts to a 35mm film produced to the highest levels of technical excellence. The story would be simple: two boys, one night. A tale as old as time, but which in our monotheistic cultures reeks of the devil, a satanic story. For Derek, though, it would be The Angelic Conversation (1985).

As before, any problem begat its own solution. If telecine was too expensive, then the images could be projected on to a white wall and shot straight on to 35mm. If that gave the image a certain ethereal quality, what could be better? If MacKay, dispatched to a ship's chandlers for flares, came back with much more powerful ones than Derek had asked for, then that was just what the film needed. Every accident became aesthetic necessity.

Derek was a very competitive queen and was consumed with jealousy when Peter Greenaway got a commission from Channel 4 to make a television version of one of Dante's cantos. His retaliation was to start a project based on Shakespeare's sonnets, the first 126 of which are the most powerful songs of homosexual love in the English language. The endeavour came to nothing, but Shakespeare's hymns to his "sweet boy" were to become the dialogue track for The Angelic Conversation.

At the centre of the film is the magic of sex. Derek was far too intelligent to believe that the only moment, other than death, in which our discontinuous individual beings merge with the continuous sea of life could be represented in the image. He'd used enough pornography to know how misleading such images are. But magic, with its notion of secret private knowledge, provided the perfect metaphor for the sex at the film's core.

When he was 11, Derek and another boy had been hauled out of the bed in which they were exploring each other's bodies and paraded before his school as symbols of wickedness. The Angelic Conversation remakes that trauma as delight. Derek was to describe it as, "My most austere work, but also the closest to my heart." In the aftermath of Caravaggio it became clear to him that the way forward was not to return to standard forms of financing and production but to use his crew from Caravaggio and the experiments of The Angelic Conversation to make The Last of England (1987).

The first thing you have to say about Derek is that he was queer. The second thing to say - and hard on the heels of the first - is that he was English. I'm not sure that I've ever met anyone who better understood what it is to be English, despite, or perhaps because of, a New Zealand father and a half-Jewish mother. I certainly never met anyone who understood more clearly what was at stake as Margaret Thatcher incubated the Blairites in the blood of the Falklands war and the boom of City deregulation. Derek's anger at what was being done to his country was compounded by his anger at what was being done to his lovers and friends as the scourge of Aids allowed homophobia to clothe itself in respectability. Aesthetic experimentation combined with political fury to make The Last of England one of the greatest of avant-garde films.

I will never forget the sheer surge of energy I experienced as Derek showed me a fine cut of the film and I saw the possibilities of The Angelic Conversation become a glorious actuality. But some of the energy that infused the film came from the early death Derek now knew awaited him. During the shooting he had tested HIV positive, which in the late 1980s was a death sentence. If he found death, however, he also found love. He met a young boy from Tyneside, Keith Collins, and they became inseparable. Collins' ferocious intelligence and mordant wit complemented Derek's enthusiasm and energy and perhaps helped to provide the focus that created the final masterpieces Edward II (1991), Wittgenstein (1993) and Blue (1993).

Before that there was one more experiment, The Garden (1990), with Collins as both actor and editor. Then Working Title contributed its producing skills to Jarman's first masterpiece. I have written at length about Edward II in Sight & Sound (October 1991), but what should be added here is how prescient the film was. When Derek showed me the rough cut of Caravaggio I was disappointed that his vicious and perverse script, which mixed sex and violence, art and exploitation, had been softened in production. "Well, that's what the actors wanted," he said, and given his views on collaboration there was no further discussion. Six years later Tilda Swinton and Nigel Terry delivered two of the most brilliant performances ever projected on to a British screen as they embodied the New Labour elite that would see Tony Blair and his crony John Scarlett slouching towards Westminster for their carnival of blood and corruption. Edward II ended with the call "come death" - but there were two more masterpieces to follow.

Life visibly ebbing

Wittgenstein, unlike so many of Jarman's projects, was neither long meditated nor developed over many years. Tariq Ali had a commission from Channel 4 to dramatise the lives of famous philosophers - and who more famous in England than Wittgenstein, that very queer Austrian genius who had come to Cambridge to seek the foundations of mathematics with Bertrand Russell and had stayed, always unwillingly, to produce a philosophy of language that placed meaning in practice, in its use in a specific language game? Ali arrived with a script by Terry Eagleton, the most famous of contemporary literary critics.

Derek was now very ill, in the last stages of the disease. But his phenomenal energy remained: all Wittgenstein's writing was devoured and the project became his own. As always, there was no money. But now there was no time either, as the illness progressed and Derek's sight began to vanish. Much of the Eagleton script was discarded as too concerned with the details of Cambridge, but it did provide a structure as the 52-minute TV drama morphed into a theatrical feature when Ben Gibson at the BFI came to the aid of the party and Derek summoned his sad captains: Sandy Powell, Michael Gough and the ever-faithful Swinton. There was money for only two weeks' shooting and Derek himself was now barely able to distinguish colours, but as always he made a limitation into a possibility, and the film was shot almost entirely in primaries.

Wittgenstein tells the tale of a being perpetually ill-at-ease in his world, from the monied Vienna of his youth to the privileged Cambridge of Russell and Maynard Keynes. And it tells the story of a philosopher who argued ferociously that you have only one world to live in; there can be no appeal to some external criteria by which to judge it. Jarman's film illuminates this paradox in large part thanks to an extraordinary central performance by Karl Johnson. The intensity of Wittgenstein's presence and the force of his argument are brilliantly displayed by a director at the height of his powers, conjuring a film out of a bare sound stage a decade before Lars von Trier's experiments. Jarman's ability to balance light and sound, to compose cinema out of its constituent elements, is joined to an interest in narrative and performance that makes this late project one of his most accessible films.

One of the happiest memories of my life is of driving up to Cambridge with Derek on 30 January 1993 to premiere Wittgenstein in the Arts Cinema where the philosopher had passed so many hours. I had invited my former tutor Theodore Redpath, whom Wittgenstein had asked to translate the Philosophical Investigations, and others who had known him. As the film unreeled I was caught between delight at Derek's fiction and embarrassment at the thought of what the assembled octogenarians were making of it. But at the lunch that followed they couldn't contain their enthusiasm or admiration for the accuracy of Derek's vision.

Finally, with his life visibly ebbing, there was Blue. There is little to say about the film - no description of an image of unvarying colour with a soundtrack of incredible complexity can convey how entrancing this final work is.

I miss Derek terribly. Over nine years we would meet intermittently, either bumping into each other in Soho or caught up in one another's projects. One reason I miss him is simply to do with him: he handed out energy like no other person I have ever known. But partly it is the times. The England he saw passing has passed. Thatcher's children, the Blairites, have inherited the earth and film is scorned by every national institution. The BFI Production Board and British Screen - the funders of his films - have been abolished and we now have a film body that recycles lottery money to pay individual salaries, each one of which could finance an entire Jarman film. He saw it all coming much more clearly than I knew.

About two years before Derek died I persuaded Bernard Rose to shoot a day of him recounting his life, footage that Isaac Julien is now turning into a biopic. In summoning Derek from the grave it provokes laughter and hope - and if a new audience can discover his films then there is always hope. But watching Derek live again makes me realise what a mean time this is, and how Chris Smith and Alan Parker together destroyed the national institutions that fostered an interest in the art of film.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012