In the months preceding his death from AIDS complications in 1994, British filmmaker Derek Jarman was asked by an interviewer how he wanted to be remembered. “I think it would be marvelous to evaporate,” replied a visibly delighted Jarman. “I wish I could take all my works with me. That’s what I’d like to happen — to just disappear.”
Something of both that wish and its betrayal is bound up in Will You Dance With Me?, a sort of accidental addition to Jarman’s body of work. (Jarman’s film is the centerpiece of “Dim All the Lights: Disco and the Movies,” a Metrograph series programmed by Voice senior film critic Melissa Anderson and French Embassy cinema program officer Amélie Garin-Davet.) In 1984, Jarman spent an evening documenting the scene at Benjy’s, a queer-friendly bar in London’s East End. There, as a favor for his friend Ron Peck, who was then scouting locations for his film Empire State, Jarman followed with a VHS camcorder the poses, gazes, and dance moves of a happy assortment of clubgoers.
Newly rediscovered, that footage would become Will You Dance With Me?, an awkward, frequently transcendent document whose sense of rhythm, purpose, and narrative is as unlikely as it is ultimately persuasive, and whose fascination with moments of haunted impermanence signals, perhaps more than anything else, the mark of its maker.
Immediately apparent, watching Will You Dance With Me?, is the extent to which we are doomed to view past eras through the technologies that recorded them. The bangs that flop and those gelled into Matterhorns, the parachute pants, the patterned sweaters, and even the music (including, of course, Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax”) feel of a piece with the greenish tinge and at once smeary and particulate quality of the images. The aesthetic novelty might have overwhelmed whatever else this footage had to offer, asserting above the title question a philosophical query: When the signifiers that dominate our conception of the past become easily replicable — via app or eBay, filter or fashion choice — does the past exist? Can it?
Jarman’s cruisers, club workers, and dancefloor mavens are anonymous figures, more so in the rare instances that he addresses them directly. The camera’s interest frees Jarman’s subjects from their aesthetic trappings, returning them to a more individuated past, one defined not by images or pop anthems but lived-in moments: most dull, some sublime. For long stretches the camera focuses on an older man in a white muscle shirt and white pants, dancing alone — a familiar figure, somehow, one Jarman treats with the same level of fascination he does the B-boys practicing the robot, the new wave chicks scowling by the bar, the heartbreaker knocking his chest to the beat.
What predominates is a sense of waiting, of a moment wishing to be born. In those instances when Jarman captures the bleak, stand-around quality of a nightclub giving way to euphoria, connection, synchronized dancing, it’s impossible to calculate the heightening effects of the camera, which Jarman wields with unerring smoothness and dexterity, turning disco lights into squiggly ghost traces, electric vapors that flare across the screen. It’s also impossible to separate the moment from Jarman’s participation in it.
The film ends with the culmination it seems to be seeking. Jarman settles on a young man, soft-eyed and remote, as his subject, the night’s discovery. (In fact Jarman later cast him in The Angelic Conversation.) The young man dances, the camera follows. The song, the moment, begins to feel endless. Earlier in the film, Jarman struggles to find willing dancers; a group of men turn their backs. His voice, like all the other voices, hardly carries above the music, but his enthusiasm cuts through. “I’ve got to get you into the light,” I thought I heard him say.
Will You Dance With Me?
Directed by Derek Jarman
Opens August 5, Metrograph