Derek Jarman’s Angelic Conversations

On Film / Short Takes — Dec 7, 2009

Jim Ellis’s insightful new book, Derek Jarman’s Angelic Conversations (University of Minnesota Press), builds from the premise that “Jarman is the mostimportant Anglo-American gay director in the post-Stonewall era, although it is surprising that, to my knowledge, no one has ever made that claim for him.” Ellis proceeds to advance this view not by fending off rival claimants to that distinction (quick: who if not Jarman?) but by subjecting Jarman’s films to exceptionally attentive readings in which formal, political, and autobiographical values are not forced to compete with each other for dominance.

Ellis is hardly the first to recognize the foundational importance of the English cultural and historical patrimony to Jarman’s artistic imagination, but he’s persuasive in arguing that this inheritance provides the work with its dominant through line. Jarman’s career was made early on with the “scandal” ofSebastiane, an acknowledged homage to Pasolini and an unambiguous avowal of homoerotic desire in cinema. But beyond the gay sensibility it prefigures as central to Jarman’s subsequent work, it’s also a frank upending of historical convention, a gesture equally vital to the director’s temperamental method and intent. Ellis carefully traces Jarman’s development—from the varied Super 8 home movies, rock promos, and casual diary entries to such rage-fueled lyrical fantasias as Jubilee and The Last of England to his explicit reclamations of his English heritage in The Tempest, The Angelic Conversation, Edward II, and War Requiem, among others—identifying how Jarman continually confronted his nation’s history from the position of political provocateur, both refreshing and extending the cultural stakes.

Jarman made himself a public figure after being diagnosed with HIV in 1986 (an issue of the Weekly World News from 1989 depicts Jarman on its cover, beneath the headline “I’ve got AIDS and I’m glad, says movie bigwig in shocking interview!”), and Ellis is sensitive to this being the epochal moment in the director’s career, deepening his urgency (it had been there from the start) to ponder human continuity, to identify communities of affinity from which a person might take solace and get help in the effort to make sense of what one’s lived through and faces in a hereafter. Though Jarman’s films usually gesture in the direction of an existing genre, they consistently expose generic limits by giving primary importance to his own birthright as a gay artist whose claims to history are subservient to none.

Ellis consults Jarman’s written texts along the way, but he takes pains to aver that his own book is not a biography but rather a critical exegesis of a body of film in which the figure of the auteur is precisely not self-effacing. Not to have understood this would have been not to have understood Jarman at all, but Ellis sees that and embraces it. The book is careful, not tendentious, but compellingly resolute in valorizing Jarman.

The book focuses pretty squarely on Jarman’s films, but I’d have liked to read a bit more about his parallel practice of painting and occasional sculptural installation (Isaac Julien’s 2008 exhibition at London’s Serpentine Gallery, Derek Jarman: Brutal Beauty, brought the two together), which remain relatively unexamined. Lastly, with the understanding, again, that Ellis is writing as a critic rather than as a biographer, it ought to be mentioned that his statement that Jarman “was diagnosed as HIV positive in December 1986” is likely inaccurate, as he had disclosed his positive status before that, including to me and to Bruce Jenkins (neither of whom had met him before), when Jarman joined us in Minneapolis in September 1986 for his first U.S. film retrospective, traveling subsequently to ten other American cities.