Having taken her under his wing, Derek Jarman told budding theatrical costume designer Sandy Powell that the best way to become proficient in making films was to get involved with pop music videos. The template of modern music worked exceedingly well for Jarman, whose painterly abstractions could evolve and develop as moving pictures under the coherent guidelines of modern music; his 12-minute promos for Marianne Faithful’s 1979 classic Broken English and The Smiths’ masterpiece The Queen is Dead (1986) savor human forms dwarfed by the imposing surrounding hazy urban squalor and burdens of history. They’re perfect experiments of sound and vision, but also time and place, the casserole of pictures superimposed, rhythmically jump-cutting, and blown up (from 8mm and 16mm film stock) on top of each other not an arbitrary collage but a hypnotizing exercise in viewer-to-film dialogue. Jarman, using the blueprints of Faithful’s and Morrissey’s voices, meshes the paradox of words and sublime wordlessness in considering the entropy of his England. In his own films or under contract for indie record companies, Jarman was looking for freedom.
"THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION"
“What is your substance, whereof are you made, / That millions of strange shadows on you tend?” The opening question from Shakespeare’s 53rd sonnet is asked (in the voice of Judi Dench) at one point in Derek Jarman’s The Angelic Conversation, his mind-boggling 1985 avant-garde treasure, and in the way the director pulls our attention to forms melding in time, the film speed slowed down to accent the shutter click of single frames reaching through light, the wondrous evocation of substance is not the throwaway indulgence of an artist’s conundrum, but a realization of spiraling sound and image that haunts the viewer long after the transfixing initial encounter. Non-linear and rejecting narrative, The Angelic Conversation is aptly titled because it gets to the quiddity of dialogical exchange, the problem and pull of symbolic exchange between disparate figures.
Given his interest in the mental relationship between image and language—or parsing out the inscrutable and the private anguish of an interiorized existence that reaches but can never fully grasp beyond itself—it’s not particularly surprising that Derek Jarman should have attempted to make a film about 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (played with tremulous perfection by Karl Johnson), or that the iconoclastic artist had his film distinguish itself from other historical biographies with its minimal art direction, with an emphasis on Sandy Powell’s colorful costumes saturated in front of opaque black. What is surprising is that Wittgenstein, released less than a year before Jarman’s death, is so much fun. In exploring the private life and intellectual journey of an individual whose own nature of apartness left him hopeless, Jarman’s oddity may well be the most playful of movie biographies.
“My vision will never come back,” a voice narrates in Derek Jarman’s final film, Blue, completed a few short months before the director died in 1994, afflicted with AIDS. “The retina is destroyed. I have to come to terms with my sightlessness.” The cogent articulation with which the voice speaks to us over the monochromatic blue during Blue’s 80 minute run time contrasts matter-of-factly with the horrifying corporeal devastation he describes. This speaker’s flesh is falling away, and his words rhythmically swirl above the body like a defiant whirlwind accelerating to assemble consciousness that is running away from the last death rattle. The lack of eye-sight, as perspective is locked on a full frame of blue, fastens us into the poignant and sensuous intimacy of words torn away from differentiating objects.