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September 26, 2008


All that Glitters is…meh

Uneven box set has only one real Jarman gem

Many of writer-director Derek Jarman’s films are inventive, haunting, and filled with decadent visuals.

Others are pretentious, overly cryptic, and a bit aggravating.

More often than not, a Jarman film is all of the above.

Glitterbox: Derek Jarman × 4, a new collection of films by the influential gay filmmaker, spans the entire Jarman spectrum.

Caravaggio (1986) is the best of the lot. Jarman’s approach to the Baroque painter is clever and visually rich. 

Moments from Caravaggio’s life play out, often beginning or ending with the actors freezing in the action of the scene. These shots are replications of the artist’s controversial paintings, tying his “blasphemous” imagery to his often rowdy life.

Like all of Jarman’s work, Caravaggio is still an acquired taste. If you know what you’re getting into, it’s one of Jarman’s best.

Wittgenstein (1993), the director’s last “traditional” film, is a minimalist take on the typically flamboyant Jarman signatures.

Based on the life of 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the film is shot on a relatively empty, black sound stage. Large portions of every shot are filled with negative space, a visual representation of Wittgenstein’s deconstructive theories.

Weighty philosophical discussions and a touch of the absurd make the film thought-provoking, but ultimately confounding.

In The Angelic Conversation (1985), Jarman takes his symbolism to the point of complete inscrutability.

The plot, if one could call it that, is of a youth who wanders silently through rocky terrain, finally encountering another young man. They get half-naked, violently wrestle for a while, and then fall asleep snuggling. Intercut are scenes of a tattooed king having his feet kissed by male disciples.

All the while, odd sounds play and a voiceover by Dame Judi Dench intermittently recites Shakespearian love sonnets.

It’s even less coherent than it sounds.

At least the film does capture some beautiful, homoerotic images to help pass the overly long running time.

Not so for the fourth film.

Blue (1993) is a work that is sometimes touching and has moments of real power. However, it is also very trying.

The entire 76-minute film is a letterboxed, unchanging, solid blue screen.

As self-indulgent as the project may be, it was made when Jarman had justification for trying something so cinematically daring. This was the director’s final film, made after the effects of AIDS had left him blind.

The soundtrack provides the majority of the experience. Most moving are the descriptions of the politics of the AIDS epidemic and the medical procedures Jarman endured, read in voiceover by the director himself.

The unwavering, glowing image captures some of the disorientation a visual artist must feel upon loss of their sight. Perhaps too successful, the film is an overall frustrating experience.

Sometimes brilliant, sometimes maddening, Derek Jarman’s works are certainly not for everyone.

For the adventurous, rent Caravaggio.

The rest of this collection, however, is probably best left to lovers of the avant-garde and hardcore Jarmanophiles.

It suffers, perhaps, from the patchwork of rights to Jarman’s films. Other popular titles, like Edward II, Sebastiane, The Last of England and Jubilee, could not be included in the boxed set because of distribution rights in the hands of other companies. Of course, with the exception of Edward II, all of those films suffer from Jarman’s love of punk rock, underground filmmaking, or both.

This material is copyrighted by the Gay People’s Chronicle. Permission is given only to repost the headline, byline, and one or two paragraphs, with the full name of the Gay People’s Chronicle and a link to the full article on our website. Reproduction of the entire article is prohibited without specific written permission.


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