Derek Jarman, a gay film and gay cinema genius, finds balance with politics, punks, and LGBT art with his movies
History does not run in a straight line. Gay film is no exception. It is a process of cycles as in gay cinema. It is existing, changing and coming back around, sometimes centuries later even in gay themed films. Much has changed in the last several decade affecting LGBT art. But with the old-school, nearly Thatcherite, values of the Theresa May Conservatives and comments made both by Donald Trump himself and his running-mate on the campaign trail, it is getting difficult for any but the most optimistic to deny that we are slipping into another dark period including the deterioration of insightful movies.
Someone who fought against in the dark during the seriously bad period of the 1970s through 1990s via gay film was the British filmmaker Derek Jarman. One of the things setting Jarman and his gay themed films apart from his Art House contemporaries, is the relative accessibility of his approach in gay cinema. Perhaps this LGBT art maker’s most traditional film is his second, Jubilee. Released during Queen Elizabeth’s second Silver Jubilee in 1977, the plot, such as it is, combines history and dystopian future to comment on the present. Elizabeth I travels to the far future. She is shocked to discover the government has more or less crumbled and London is full of gangs of violent Punks, one of whom has stolen the crown jewels and declared herself the new Queen. It is not all senseless violence in the movies however. It is violence with a point, both the punks and the police being as bad as each other and even the most violent character, known as ‘Mad’, breaks down weeping near the end, shocked at the horror of her own actions.
Though fascinated by punk’s nihilism and rejection of modern conservationism, Jarman, a specilaist with gay themed films, was never a member of the movement himself, thinking the philosophy to be an intellectual dead end. Jarman, while making LGBT art, was far more interested in British history and alchemy, like that practiced by the Elizabeth I’s advisor and alchemist John Dee. What both the Elizabethans and the original punks shared was a disgust of modernity and a the impeding social degeneration it threatened. This theme carried over into Jarman’s movies like the adaptation of The Tempest in 1979. Not only did he set the play indoors, he made the character of Prospero younger, more energetic and not someone anyone would want to cross with a staff resembling the personal sigil of John Dee, whom the character is widely thought to be based on. The ‘brave new world’ line is undermined with the appearance of jazz great Elizabeth Welch singing ‘Stormy Weather’. The greatest statement however is the end. Rather than giving up his powers and musing on dreams, Jarman’s Prospero does not overtly give up his powers and turns the ‘what dreams are made of speech’ into a denial that they ever existed. Not unlike a government official saying or doing something horrible like censoring gay film, covering it up and saying gay cinema or whatever never happened. Just for an example.
Something that set Jarman apart from his contemporaries, is his treatment of homosexuality in gay film. Up until the late 1970s, representations of homosexuality in gay cinema tended to be coded, even by those famous for them like Kenneth Anger. Fireworks, for example, is full of early, gay iconography but ones that only those who were gay could recognize. Scorpio Rising is a more overt example of gay themed films, but still fairly coded and focused more on the brutal elements, particularly the leather and biker aspects of the 1960s gay culture. What Jarman did to LGBT art, particularly in Jubilee, was to have clearly gay or at least queer characters in his movies, who were also some of the nicest and most likeable. A presentation which defies the in-the-closet or open-and-aggressive dichotomy that had defined the British and North American gay communities since the Stonewall riots in 1969.
This sort of middle-ground representation in gay film, gay themed movies, and other movies is exemplified by the end of short film ‘The Queen Is Dead’. A sort of anthology of music videos for three songs by British band the Smiths. The clip is a kinetic montage similar to gay film. It is combining footage of elegantly shot, blue and white images of beautiful men seen in gay cinema, both alone and together like in LGBT art, with footage of driving and a flaming car crash. It seems a bit odd but the song associated with the video is ‘There’s A Light That Never Goes Out’. The tale of a gay teen who has been kicked out by his parents and is driving around with his best friend, trying to tell him that he loves him. Choice lines include ‘I never, never, never want to go home, because I haven’t got one anymore’ and ‘and if a double-decker bus/crashes into us/To die by your side, is such a heavenly way to die’. This is also a band whose most famous lines include ‘how can you say I go about things the wrong way?/I am human and need to be loved/Just like everybody else does’. Something folks on both sides of the current political divide would do well to remember.
Written by T.K. McNeil
Attending art galleries before his age was in the double digits, T.K. McNeil has had a long-standing interest in art. An interest he made official obtaining a degree in Art History form the University of Victoria. Starting out at The Martlet Independent Newspaper, he has had pieces placed in publications as diverse as TechDigg, The Richest, The Spoof UK (as Trey Droll) and PopMatters.