Fire figures prominently in the passionate, furious films of Derek Jarman: the conflagrations that consume London streets in Jubilee (1978), the flares and torches held aloft in The Angelic Conversation (1985), the infernos that roar in The Last of England (1987), the flame-colored tresses of Tilda Swinton, who made her screen debut in Caravaggio (1986) and remained an indispensable collaborator until the director’s death, at age 52, in 1994. BAMcinématek’s complete Jarman retrospective — featuring all 11 of his features, several short- and medium-length works (many shot on Super 8), and music videos — provides a welcome, too-rare opportunity to marvel at the director’s burning talent and inextinguishable energy. A pioneering force in queer cinema, Jarman was not only one of Britain’s most fearless, uncompromising filmmakers, but also a diarist, poet, painter, activist — and committed gardener. His diagnosis as HIV-positive in late 1986 did nothing to slow down his prodigious output; he made six films between 1987 and 1993.
Born in 1942 in Middlesex County to a high-ranking pilot in the British military, Jarman moved around the globe as a child. From 1963 to 1967, he studied at London’s prestigious Slade School of Fine Art. A career in stage design followed, leading to work as the production designer on Ken Russell’s feverish freak-out The Devils (1971; included in the BAM series). Co-directed with Paul Humfress, Jarman’s debut feature, Sebastiane (1976), would be even more audacious: Shot mostly in Sardinia, this life of the saint is performed entirely in vulgar Latin and teems with both naked soldiers making out in slo-mo and BDSM tableaux. (One veteran officer remains unimpressed by all the homo concupiscence: “When I was young, there were real orgies.”)
Sebastiane was the first of Jarman’s four iconoclastic, anachronistic interventions into the biopic, each of which foregrounds the queerness of its subject. Caravaggio, a simultaneously lush and austere reimagining of the Baroque master — played by Nigel Terry, another crucial member of Jarman’s stable of actors — waggishly features calculators, tuxedoes, typewriters, and light-jazz combos in 16th-century Italy. Despite the visual gags, Caravaggio is a profoundly ardent work, anatomizing a painter who found bedmates and subjects in both a street fighter (Sean Bean) and that pugilist’s lady (Swinton).
Edward II (1991), in which Jarman remixes Christopher Marlowe’s play about the 14th-century regent as a tale of gay insurgency, stands as one of the foundational titles of the New Queer Cinema. (A scene from the movie, showing two nude studs locked in a deep kiss, appeared on the cover of the 1992 issue of the Voice in which critic B. Ruby Rich laid out the defining characteristics of the burgeoning lavender film movement.) The king (Steve Waddington), forced to banish his inamorato (Andrew Tiernan) owing to the machinations of the monarch’s wife (Swinton) and Lord Mortimer (Terry, bedecked in WWII battle wear), finds himself surrounded by an army of lovers: 30 members of OutRage!, at the time an ascendant LGBT activist group that included Jarman as a member. Gentler in tone, Wittgenstein (1993), the last of the director’s singular, eros-fueled biographies, is easily the most spirited treatment of analytic philosophy ever committed to film. Its sensibility is best summarized by this quote from the Austrian-born logician of the title, read aloud by his pubescent incarnation: “If people did not sometimes do silly things, nothing intelligent would ever get done.”
As often as Jarman looked to the past in his films, several of his works, even those that don’t fully abandon time-toggling, seethe with the urgency of the here and now. London is terrorized by a sextet of distaff intifadists in the abovementioned Jubilee, tartly named for the silver jubilee commemorating the 25th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s ascension to the throne, pomp and circumstance that absorbed much of the U.K.’s attention in 1977, the year the film was shot. While this revolution is being carried out, whether in cafés where ketchup bottles are weaponized or on the city’s rubble-strewn streets (ghastly souvenirs of the Blitz three decades prior), a diabolical media mogul cackles, “As long as the music’s loud enough, we won’t hear the world falling apart.” That music — by Siouxsie and the Banshees, Wayne County, and an Adam Ant so baby-faced that his character is listed as “Kid” in the credits — is the soundtrack of a nation soon to be riven by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative agenda.
While his own body was being ravaged by AIDS, his eyesight growing dimmer and dimmer, Jarman conceived of a project that, brilliantly and paradoxically, visualizes his sightlessness. Blue (1993), his final film, consists solely of one single frame of the title color, very close on the spectrum to the signature deep hue of the French artist Yves Klein. For 75 minutes, we stare at an unchanging ultramarine screen, listening to a dense audio collage dominated by Jarman’s first-person observations (voiced primarily by Terry and John Quentin, who played a dandyish John Maynard Keynes in Wittgenstein). Its rich text filled with details of hospital visits and the side effects of antivirals, and with the multiple metaphors engendered by the eponymous tint, Blue is many things — sober and puckish, elegiac yet intensely alive — but never maudlin. Above all, it is the work of an artist who, even in the last year of his life, was still incandescent.