Derek Jarman: Super 8

Printed Matters

Derek Jarman: Super 8

By Anton Stuebner April 9, 2015

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.


Jarman's features represent the fullest expression of his creative energies even if they aren’t the entirety of his cinematic output

In his lifetime, Derek Jarman (1942–1994) was arguably Great Britain’s most prolific queer artist, a punk poet rallying against the homophobia and AIDS paranoia of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party government. Although originally trained as a painter at London’s Slade School of Fine Art, he created work that gleefully transgressed conventional boundaries of discipline and medium. In Jarman’s oeuvre, paintings function doubly as text pieces (incitements for political action with slogans like “FUCK ME BLIND” and “SPREAD THE PLAGUE”), while his journals, conversely, incorporate pictorial images: film stills, mixed-media collages, oil studies in miniature. By the time of his death, Jarman had amassed a staggering body of work that included countless canvases both large and small; multiple set designs for the Royal Opera House; over ten books of autobiography, poetry, and scripts; and even a house, a cottage near the Dungeness nuclear power station in Kent that Jarman designed and built from the ground up.

Jarman’s eleven feature-length films—from the highly sensual Sebastiane (1976), a homoerotic account of St. Sebastian’s martyrdom, to the autobiographical masterpiece Blue (1993), a monochromatic tone poem about Jarman’s physical and psychological experiences of living with HIV/AIDS—are undoubtedly his most lasting and powerful works. Twenty years after his death from AIDS-related complications, it’s still painful to imagine the films that Derek Jarman could have made had he survived. At once both painterly and highly cinematic, profoundly political while also deeply meditative, his features represent the fullest expression of his creative energies even if they aren’t the entirety of his cinematic output. Jarman’s initial forays in filmmaking were on Super 8, a medium he continued to experiment with and incorporate in his feature films throughout the early part of his career. Many of Jarman’s feature films were funded (in part) by the British Film Institute, the largest government-supported nonprofit for film production and preservation in Great Britain. This funding enabled these films to circulate through larger distribution networks, reaching a wider audience that the Super 8 films, as considerably smaller and more fragile works, could never reach. As a result, Jarman’s feature-length films continue to dominate critical assessments of his work.

Book cover for Derek Jarman: Super 8., ed. James Mackay (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014).

All of which makes Thames & Hudson’s recent monograph, Derek Jarman: Super 8 (2014), both a welcome surprise and an important contribution to queer/film studies. Edited by Jarman’s longtime producer and collaborator James Mackay, Derek Jarman: Super 8 compiles 780 illustrations, facsimiles, and stills from twenty-four of Jarman’s Super 8mm films, from The Siren and the Sailor (aka At Low Tide) (1972) to ICA (1982). Some of these works have been reproduced in various DVD editions and anthologies of Jarman’s films; others, such as Jordan’s Dance (1977), were excerpted and incorporated into Jarman’s feature films, which have been remastered.1 Until recently, however, the majority of Jarman’s early Super 8 films were virtually unseen. The scale of the film (roughly half the width of a fingernail) meant that while Super 8 cameras could be light, portable, and used with incredible ease, the stock was notoriously unstable. Most Super 8 films could only be projected a handful of times before the celluloid began to break down and disintegrate.

Jarman attempted to redress the fragility of the medium by transferring some of the earliest Super 8 shorts. He projected them against a wall and refilmed them to capture them on VHS, effectively creating a second-generation “copy” on less-corrosive video stock.2 The original masters, however, were considered largely irreparable and in effect unusable. A grant from Switzerland’s LUMA Foundation in 2008, however, enabled a large-scale restoration of these masters while providing funds needed to digitize the films. Derek Jarman: Super 8 commemorates the extended efforts to restore and preserve these films, but it also provides a vital look at a body of work that has, until now, been largely unavailable to the public. A series of essays are included to contextualize Jarman’s work with Super 8 film. Some add relevant historical context on the history of Super 8 and Jarman’s early adoption of it in his work. James Mackay’s conversations with curator Beatrix Ruf and cinematographer Tom Russell, for example, offer valuable insight into Jarman’s technical process of filming on Super 8 and the constraints as well as freedoms that the medium offered. Others offer a look at Jarman’s extended creative network and the environments in which these films were produced. Essays by fellow filmmakers Isaac Julien and Matthias Müller serve as loving appreciations of Jarman’s work while also signaling the effect that Jarman’s films had on larger communities of multimedia artists.

Derek Jarman. My Very Beautiful Movie, 1972 (contact sheet of film stills); Super 8mm; 17:13. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson and LUMA Foundation.

Initially, Jarman used Super 8 film primarily for documentary purposes, and early works like Studio Bankside (1970-1973) lovingly record the apartments and studios of his immediate network of creative friends and artists in London. Soon thereafter, though, he began to explore how film could reproduce painterly effects⎯by using, say, superimposition to mimic the layered effects of overpaint. My Very Beautiful Movie (1974), produced just two years later, is filmed in a similarly grainy exposition. Shot during a summer vacation in Fire Island⎯the New York resort town frequented by gay men in the 1970s⎯My Very Beautiful Movie has the same casual point-and-shoot feel of Jarman’s early Super 8 work. Like Studio Bankside, the film ostensibly documents a landscape (in the former, Jarman’s London studio; in the latter, the dunes and beach of Fire Island). But if Studio Bankside has the earnestness of a home movie, My Very Beautiful Movie feels more deliberately styled.

Derek Jarman. My Very Beautiful Movie, 1972 (film still); Super 8mm; 17:13. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson and LUMA Foundation.Derek Jarman.

Steeped in purple-tinged grayscale, the seemingly familiar beach landscape becomes strange terrain. Sandy imprints become redolent of lunar craters, their shockingly white brilliance marbling eerily hued surface. Pools of ocean runoff become shadow-drenched pits of unplumbable depths, while grass-covered dunes begin to resemble streaks of black industrial smoke. Suddenly, the color rapidly shifts from seafoam blue to burnt orange to blood red. Harmless waves become as threatening as lava, breaking against the unprotected surf. The images Jarman depicts may be the ordinary stuff of beach scenes, but rendered in increasingly strange colors and hues, they are filled with a diffuse sense of dread, unnerving in both their familiarity and uncanny strangeness. The film’s arresting visuality gives it the disorienting impact of an abstract painting come to life. Rightfully so, then, the film stills are the primary focus of Derek Jarman: Super 8. Mackay’s choices invariably reflect a particular set of aesthetic criteria, and it’s difficult to ignore the way these images are ultimately mediated by his decision to include certain sequences while excising others. But in focusing on a select few stills from each title, Mackay reveals how each frame in Jarman’s Super 8mm functions as its own composition in miniature.

Derek Jarman. Corfe Film, 1975 (film still); Super 8mm, color; 70:56. Courtesy of Thames & Hudson and LUMA Foundation.

Consider a still from Corfe Film (1975), which depicts a woman in profile, her hair pulled back with a headdress lined in luminescent pearls that catch the light above, and her torso clad in a billowing white blouse. At first glance, the pearls and billowing fabric suggest a kind of understated glamor reminiscent of a 17th-century Dutch portrait, perhaps of a merchant’s wife. But the woman’s longing stare into the distance suggests a deep melancholy, a feeling made more acute by the teal and blue hues awash in the image. Who is she waiting for, a warrior or a sailor adrift at sea? And how long will she continue to wait? Mackay’s summary of Corfe Film⎯“on the battlements of the Corfe Castle ruins, a begowned and bewigged Luciana Martinez awaits her knight in shining armour”⎯provides narrative clues, but they’re all but irrelevant: Jarman’s composition is so visually suggestive that additional context clues become superfluous, even unnecessary.3 If My Very Beautiful Movie used shifts in light and color to create a foreboding sense of dread, Corfe Film uses these same elements to elicit longing and loss with a startling visual economy.

Jarman didn’t become fully politicized until Britain’s 1979 general election. Margaret Thatcher’s blatant discrimination against queers through public policy and laws like Section 28 turned Jarman into one of Britain’s most vocal advocates for LGBTQ rights.4 If politics directly informed Jarman’s feature films, his Super 8s are relatively apolitical. But if Super 8 chronicles Jarman’s work right before that break⎯before Margaret Thatcher, before Section 28, before HIV/AIDS⎯it also shows an artist fully coming into his own at a social and historical moment when his distinct creative voice would become more needed than ever.

Notes

  1. The short Jordan’s Dance features prominently in Jarman’s anarchist parable Jubilee (1978). Jordan, a then-retail worker at Vivienne Westwood’s punk clothing store SEX in London, stars as anti-historian and self-proclaimed nihilist Amyl Nitrate. Jordan’s Dance is readily available online and can be seen in its entirety here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VytWR12WGEg
  2. Beatriz Ruf and James Mackay. “An Introduction to Derek Jarman’s Super 8mm Films.” Derek Jarman: Super 8. Edited by James Mackay. London: Thames & Hudson, 2014. 17.
  3.  Derek Jarman: Super 8, ed. James Mackay (London: Thames & Hudson, 2014), 162.
  4. Passed by Britain’s then largely conservative parliamentary majority, Section 28 was a parliamentary law in 1988 that banned many publicly funded institutions from circulating material that supported homosexuality, especially as construed as a “pretended family relationship.”

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