The IMAX, 7pm, 7 April 2014
Derek Jarman's last production is, like the man himself, intense, eclectic and sardonic.
Guests: Keith Collins from the Jarman estate; James McKay - producer; Simon Fisher-Turmer - composer; William Fowler, curator of the BFI Jarman season and Sam Ashby from Little Joe magazine, who assisted in staging it.
My first trip to the IMAX revealed a place like no other I'd been to before. A steep bank of seats in front of a huge, curved screen - the 'biggest screen in Britain,' apparently - has the feel of a high-tech gladiatorial amphitheatre rather than a cinema. The surreal feel of the place is heightened by the random pattern of small lights on the back wall, twinkling like constellations in the night sky. Projected on the screen before the performance was a repeatedly circling pattern of lights, reminding me of a similar effect in the sci-fi puppet series Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. A strange place, to be sure, that seemed appropriate for a sold out audience to sit and look at a blank, blue screen for 73 minutes.
'Blue - an open door to soul.'
Blue is Derek Jarman's last production, made when he was dying from AIDS and taking experimental medication. I hesitate to say 'film', because the definition of 'film' in the dictionary is a 'sequence of images projected on a screen, creating the illusion of movement.' There are no images and no movement here, bar the occasional flicker of light and scratch on the film which indicates that it's actually running through the projector. Rather, the visual aspect of Blue creates a sombre, intense mood as you literally look deep into the blue and concentrate on a succession of monologues.
'I have no friends now who are not dead or dying.'
The way I interpreted Blue was that, with Jarman having lost his sight, I was inside his personal mindset as he reflected on his creative and personal life. The lack of imagery heightens your awareness of sound as the artist's remaining connection to the outside world, as his thoughts move, sometimes randomly, through brilliantly realised aural landscapes. One moment Jarman is listening to the washing machine and the fridge defrosting, or the soothing sound of waves on the beach at his coastal home, the next he's looking inwards, imagining the Garden of Eden or the exotic travels of Marco Polo. On another occasion, a pounding disco beat celebrates the artist's memories of gay club culture as a voice rants incoherently, 'I am a not gay!' The most melancholy colour in the spectrum, here blue covers joy, introspection, theology, history, sex and guilt as, by this point in his life, everything in Jarman's head was coloured by it.
'The further one goes, the less one knows.'
The readings, courtesy of John Quentin, Jarman himself and (briefly) Tilda Swinton, are spellbinding. Particularly worthy of praise, though, is regular Jarman colleague Nigel Terry, who has one of those voices you'd happily listen to if read out a shopping list (random thought: why was this man never cast as Dr Who?) His reading of a very different kind of list, namely a diary entry about the many, truly horrible side-effects of the drugs Jarman was taking, is tempered by the artist's distinctively sardonic humour and Terry brings it to life deliciously: 'I can just see me travelling to Berlin with a fridge under my arm' he says, acidly, at one point. A word, too, for the remarkably atmospheric soundtrack by Simon Fisher-Turner, realised with the help of such notable left-field musicians as Brain Eno, Vini Reilly, Kate St John and Miranda Sex Garden.
'Buddha instructs me to walk away from illness. But he's not attached to a drip.'
Blue ends with an ominous sound increasing in volume and cuts to black, a fairly obvious aural and visual metaphor for death. As a man knocking on the door of 50, I was thinking about Jarman's mixture of philosophical acceptance, sadness and gallows humour, as the final curtain swept towards him, for days afterwards. One things that burns through Blue, even when he's at his worst, is Jarman's fierce intelligence and vivid imagination; as he put it, 'My mind as bright as a button, my body falling apart.' It's a bitter-sweet, brave statement typical of the man's life and work. With more years behind me now than lie ahead, I'd like to think I can make the most of each day to the extent Jarman obviously did.
'Teeth chattering February, cold as death, twitches at the bed sheets.'
I'd started my mini crash course in Jarman half expecting to have my ill-informed prejudices about his art confirmed: incomprehensible, too clever by half and pretentious, particularly Blue. The truth is I've found Jarman accessible, life-affirming and, above all, unexpectedly funny. As someone who's severely lacking in knowledge of British avante garde artists - but who's got an open mind - I can recommend him as a fascinating place to begin your education.
'Treat my illness like the dodgems - music, bright lights!'
Before the screening, several people came in with tubs of popcorn, proceeding to munch their way through a deeply personal and sometimes traumatic memoir. Somehow, I know Mr Jarman would have enjoyed the peculiarly English absurdity of that.