Tuesday, 11 March 2014

BFI DEREK JARMAN SEASON: 'The Garden' review

NFT 2, 4pm, Sunday 9 March 2014

The BFI Southbank is currently hosting a season by experimental film maker Derek Jarman. Keep an open mind and it's an ideal chance to get to know a genuine one-off among British artists.

Jarman in the garden he created on the beach at Dungeness (BFI)

As regular readers will know, avant garde film making isn't something I know an awful lot about, let alone write about. But this year, looking down the barrel of fifty, I've decided that there's never been a better time to be open minded. Handily, the British Film Institute is now hosting a retrospective season of Derek Jarman's work under the provocative title Queer Pagan Punk, and I'm sure the man frequently (and lazily) described as the 'enfant terrible of British cinema' would have approved. With my mind open, empty of preconceptions and almost completely lacking in facts about Jarman, his life and art, on the first warm, sunny Sunday afternoon of the year I went to see the director's 1990 polemic The Garden.

My only real connection to Jarman in the past has been through the wonderfully iconic videos he made for The Smiths, based around their 1986 LP The Queen is Dead. The connection between the band and Jarman becomes clear when you see The Garden. From the bleakly beautiful Kent coast at Dungeness – where the dying Jarman made his home in his final years, building the garden of the title – to his distaste for the tabloid press, he clearly shared the same combination of love and loathing for England in the late 1980s as The Smiths’ Morrissey did.

Jessica Martin thinks pink. (BFI)
The Garden is a journey inside Jarman's personal preoccupations and neuroses. In a largely dialogue-free film, he makes this clear through footage of himself in his home and on Dungeness beach, and before the film starts off-screen you hear him marshalling his production team. From there, the film invites you inside his personal universe which filters the story of a gay Christ through everything he loved and hated about the 1980s. It seems incredible now, but when The Garden was made it was a time when there was no gay marriage, no gay adoption and the sinister clause 'Section 28' was still government policy. Elsewhere, the press was becoming increasingly intrusive and the 'me me me' culture was fuelled by an uncontrollable bubble of credit. It's not surprising that the most powerful images in the film, for me, draw on this harsh cultural background: Judas swinging from a rope as he endorses credit cards; Mary (Tilda Swinton), after giving birth to Jesus, pursued to the point of distraction by press photographers dressed like the SAS; a transvestite being humiliated by three women on a beach, again in front of the SAS paparazzi and, most uncomfortable of all, the two central gay lovers (Johnny Mills and Jarman's partner Keith Collins) being tarred and feathered by Special Patrol Group-era police. Even twenty-four years on, you can still feel the rage these scenes grew from.

It's not all as disturbing as this. Jarman's camp humour is in play throughout. Clearly on his way home from a Frankie Goes to Hollywood video, the Devil (Pete Lee-Wilson) is a moustachioed, leather cap wearing man in fetish gear, complete with strap on rubber penis. Actress Jessica Martin drops by to sing 'Think Pink' in authentic (and deceptively political) diva style, three Santas sing an increasingly manic 'Merry Christmas', while the Judas credit card scene is Jarman's humour at its blackest.

'Yo ho ho...!' (BFI)
Watching this mad collision of imagery made me realise why we need avant garde directors like Jarman. The film was made on a budget of £420,000 – which wasn't a lot for a film, even in 1990 ­– yet, as Keith Collins pointed out during his introduction, The Garden manages to have almost as many optical effects – done on tape then, not on a hard drive ­– as the multi-million dollar feature films Superman (1978) and The Black Hole (1979). Artistic limitations are the mother of invention and The Garden has been more influential that those two lumbering blockbusters could ever hope to be. Jarman's moving collage of Super-8 film stock mixed with black and white and overexposed colour, scenes with backgrounds that deliberately make them look false and juddering, abstract imagery have all helped many a pop video director out of a hole, as well as enrich the palette of mainstream cinema. The truly extraordinary music score by Simon Fisher Turner is a seminal example of how to marry mood into sound and image.

So there we are: I was exposed to culture and I survived. I’d sometimes cynically thought that The Garden would be pretentious, self-indulgent rubbish and I'd come out moaning that it was ninety minutes of my life I wasn't going to get back. It wasn't. OK, I didn't get all the references – among them other films such as The Testament of Orpheus and The Gospel According to St Matthew, as well as classical paintings – but you don't need to. Whatever your cultural knowledge or education, you can take something from The Garden. The friend I was with said she was still spotting new things in it and she's seen it loads of times, so it keeps rewarding as a piece of art. I like that.

All in all, I'm quite looking forward to Edward II next Saturday.

In his talk, Keith Collins related a particularly funny and relevant story. When Jarman was in the final stages of his illness he was in a hospice and visited  a regular parade of celebrity visitors such as the Pet Shop Boys and Tilda Swinton, who the star-truck orderlies waved on to Jarman's room. One day, he woke up to find a man he didn't recognise holding his hand. 'Oh, Freddy,' the man wailed, 'you look terrible!' The man was Elton John. Freddy Mercury was in the room next door.

Comedy mixed with tragedy: Derek Jarman's artistic worldview in a nut shell. 

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