Monday, October 27, 2008

Rule, Derek!

A rousing punk version of "Rule, Britannia!" performed by the artist known as Jordan is a show stopper in Derek Jarman's classic 1977 film "Jubilee" which I saw yesterday at the 6th annual World Film Festival of Bangkok. Even though I've long been repulsed by the destructive aesthetic of punk, I found the film, and Derek Jarman's life riveting. The screening of "Jubilee" was followed by Isaac Julien's recent BBC 4 documentary, "Derek," with interviews by Colin MacCabe before the director's death at the age of 52, and a commentary by Tilda Swinton, described as Jarman's "muse" (she appeared in several of his films). From the afternoon's two films, I concuded that Jarman, a British artist and gay activist who died of AIDs in 1994, has been, I think, unfairly pigeonholed as a just a gay filmmaker.

I've been curious about Jarman for some time, and had downloaded of copy of "Caravaggio," his film about the Renaissance artist who, like himself, had trouble finding financial backers for his work. But I hadn't yet watched it. This film will also be screened at the World Film Festival along with "The Angelic Conversation," a surreal film illustrating the homoerotic possibilities in Shakespeare's sonnets as read by actress Judi Dench. "Jubilee," looking more like an Andy Warhol or Kenneth Anger experimental film, can also be seen as an extension of Stanley Kubrick's 1971 film, "Clockwork Orange," with its vision of gangs of youth engaging in "ultra violence" in an apocalyptic Britain. The anarchistic violence in "Jubilee" is even more startling and graphic, but there is also beauty inherent in the compelling eccentric characters that people his "post modern" (seen as graffiti in one of the opening scenes) vision to mark the 25th silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II's reign. Mad the pyromaniac, played by Toyah Wilcox (now a TV personality who records voice overs for "Tuletubees" and who is married to musician Robert Fripp), breaks down in tears after castrating a policeman who has murdered her friends, two gay brothers (one played by Ian Charleson, later to win an Oscar for "Chariots of Fire").

Amyl Nitrate, played by Jordan (real name Pamela Rooke), is the girl gang's anti-historian, and she has some of the more interesting lines. "History still fascinates me. It's so intangible. You can weave facts anywhere you like. Good guys can swap places with bad guys." In the past, she reads from her book, "desires weren't allowed to become reality. So fantasy was substituted for them - films, books, pictures. They called it 'art.' But when your desires become reality, you don't need fantasy any longer, or art." Jordan, once an icon of the punk world, is now a veterinary nurse in Sussex and breeds Burmese cats.

This aesthetic philosophy is echoed by another character, Viv: “Artists steal the world’s energy...They become blood donors. Their life blood drips away till they’re bled dry, and the people who control the world make it as inaccessible as possible by driving the artists into corners. Our only hope is to recreate ourselves as artists, or anarchists if you like, and liberate the energy for all.” Trying to control the energy is Borgia Ginz, played by the blind actor Jack Birkett, the music mogul who has taken over Buckingham Palace and turned it into a recording studio. “As long as the music’s loud enough we won’t hear the world falling apart!," is his motto. Presiding over a wild party in a cathedral, dressed as a cardinal, Bogia (the name is revealing), declares: "Without progress life would be unbearable. Progress has taken the place of Heaven. It's like pornography; better than the real thing." There is just enough truth is this to leave one squeamish. And with an aging Hitler by his side, he sums up the depravity of the present.
This is the generation that grew up and forgot to lead their lives. They were so busy watching my endless movie. It's power, babe. Power. I don't create it. I own it. I sucked and sucked and I sucked. The media became their only reality and I own their world of flickering shadows.
A magazine in London charged that the film's "determined sexual inversion (whereby most women become freakish 'characters', and men loose-limbed sex objects) comes to look disconcertingly like a misogynist binge." But for punk historian Jon Savage, the misogyny was the point: "Those scenes are about that kind of cruelty which was so evident at the time. It doesn't endorse it. In fact it doesn't endorse anything very much." Jarman called himself a “controversialist,” according to Dennis Lim in the New York Times. But he was "no mere troublemaker. Aesthetics and politics were, for him, inseparable. His signature combination of beauty, wit and anger was a polemical stance." Jarman was an aggressive outsider. Asked by Lim what her friend would think of the Oscar she won for "Michael Clayton," Swinton said, “I think he would have laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed and laughed.” And then, she added, “he would ask me for the thing to melt it down into an artwork."

In the interviews, Jarman comes across as a charming, intelligent and witty, a kindly uncle rather than an angry gay auteur. We learn that he's a gardener who collects rocks, that his cottage is full of crucifixes, and that he likes to gossip about Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic saint. At the age of 9 he was discovered in bed with a boy at public school and the trauma forced him to block out sex until he was seduced in college when he was 22. He had been a set designer for Ken Russell's "The Devils." Film attracted him because it was a communal activity, and when he was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1986, he became an activist for gay causes. “I think he made films primarily for the company,” Swinton said. “Working with him was to work alongside him.” In the documentary the actress speaks of his boundless generosity. I found myself sad that this man I never knew was no longer around to help the world in its present perilous state.

In addition, "Jubilee" is a fascinating piece of cultural history. Jenny Runacre plays both Queen Elizabeth I and Bod, the queen of the girl gang who mugs Elizabeth II in one of the opening scenes. Her first film role was in John Cassavetes' "Husbands" and she was in the original London cast of "Oh! Calcutta!" with its famous nude scenes. She currently is an art professor. Richard O'Brien, who plays the first Elizabeth's advisor, John Dee, wrote "The Rocky Horror Show" and played Riff Raff in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Columbia in the play and film was Nell Campbell who is Crabs in Jarman's film. During the punk period, she owned three different clubs in New York City. Adam Ant, Jordan's boyfriend, played the Kid in "Jubilee" and was spotted by a smitten Jarman before he'd even formed his first band. But he refused to do a scene where he was raped in a photo booth by two policemen. Adam (or should I refer to him as Ant?) continues to perform and record today. In his biography, he referred to Jarman unkindly as a gay terrorist filmmaker. Wayne County, a celebrated transsexual actress and perform, played Lounge Lizard, and there were cameos by music groups Siouxsie and the Banchees (who later called the film "hippy trash") and The Slits. Music was scored by Brian Eno, a frequent collaborator with Toyah's husband Fripp (whom I met on King Crimson's first tour of the U.S. in 1969). "Jubilee," according to historian Savage, has "aged amazingly well. It's the best film about punk, for all its failings."

For a more extended analysis of this amazing film, check out the 2003 academic article by Jon Davis and this comprehensive piece from Jim's Reviews. A good backgrounder is Stuart Jeffries "A Right Royal Knees Up" in the London Guardian from 2007.

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