By the time he made 1985’s The Angelic Conversation, the earliest film included in the Glitterbox: Derek Jarman X 4 DVD set, the avant-garde British filmmaker had witnessed the same England he envisioned as an anarchic punk playpen a few years earlier in Jubilee become a conservative reformatory under Margaret Thatcher’s grip. Societal strictures scarcely blunted Jarman’s anger—the fulminating The Last of England was made in 1987, the year the Iron Lady entered her third term—yet Angelic Conversation is one of Jarman’s most serene and lyrical works. It’s certainly his most romantic: While Shakespearean sonnets are read in Judi Dench’s dulcet tones, two boys (Paul Reynolds and Phillip Williamson) wander through densely layered tableaux of desolate, rocky landscapes in a sort of abstruse search for the “eternal touch.” Combining the Bard’s aural graveness with home-movie imagery (shot on Super 8 and blown up to 35mm for maximum grain), the film has the sense of subversive passion of a Genet poem while anticipating the ineffable melancholy of Sokurov’s mood pieces.
A restless artist (swinging-London painter, music-video experimenter, outspoken gay-rights activist), Jarman got his start in films as a set designer for Ken Russell, and there’s something of the impudence (but not, thankfully, the hysteria) of Russell’s mock-biopics in Jarman’s Caravaggio and Wittgenstein. A pet project for the director (and also his first collaboration with muse and friend Tilda Swinton), Caravaggio outlines the life of the 17th-century painter (played by Nigel Terry) with flesh-bound recreations of his most famous canvases and deflating anachronism—motorcycles, typewriters and boxing matches abound. Wittgenstein paints the mind of the Austrian philosopher (Clancy Chassay as a boy prodigy, Karl Johnson as an adult scholar) as a proto-von Trier bare stage of provocations, in which his anguished teachings (“Philosophy is a byproduct of misunderstanding language!”) become high-spirited blackout routines, complete with a pint-sized, green-skinned alien commenting from the sidelines. Both pictures are visually ravishing, frequently funny and entirely accessible in their view of artistic longing and achievement reflecting the struggles of gay men.
On his deathbed, Johnson’s Wittgenstein makes a confession: “I’d quite like to have composed a philosophical work which consisted entirely of jokes.” Blue, Jarman’s last film, made in 1993 when the filmmaker was blind and dying of AIDS, is that philosophical work. In addition to its bold jests (the defiance of a dying man hanging on to humor to face the pearly gates), the film has ruminations, remembrances and assorted pensées spoken by Jarman over an unchanging blue screen. What keeps Blue from becoming a Warholian abstraction is its clear-eyed toughness, the way the words modulate from plummy to morbid to ethereal and the color of the screen seems to undulate with feeling (it alternately suggests the ocean, the sky, a burnt retina, the chill of death and transcendence). In this profoundly felt film, the contrast is not just between sound and image, but between its auteur’s failing body and his still-ardent mind. Raging and humbled, Jarman stares into the darkness and finds unlikely bliss—a fitting requiem for an artist who insisted on dying as he had lived, a searching maverick.
Scarcely consistent across the four features, the image (purposefully gritty in The Angelic Conversation, deep and warm in Caravaggio, sharply lined in Wittgenstein) is well preserved. Angelic Conversation's layered mix of dripping water, tolling bells and Shakespearean murmurs and Blue's auditory barrage stand out in the sound department.
In welcome contrast to most DVD box sets, the extras in Glitterbox are abundant and film-specific. As Jarman's most widely seen work, Caravaggio gets the most features, including an excellent commentary track by cinematographer Gabriel Beristain and production storyboards and design sketches that show how the film's atmosphere of Renaissance splendor was achieved on a shoestring budget. Interviews with friends, collaborators and film historians are particularly illuminating, and Jarman's frankness and lucidity is evident in a handful of archival interviews. "Glitterbug," a collage of Jarman's home videos posthumously assembled by friends set to a Brian Eno score, is an evocative love letter, while Alexis Bistikas's 1994 short The Clearing pays moving tribute to Jarman as a pathfinder of queer expression. Most rewarding is a 25-minute behind-the-scenes look at the making of Wittgenstein, made the year before Jarman's death, that showcases the director's joyous creative engagement and the familial mood of his set.
"Sweet love, renew thy force." A commendable collection of a maverick's final films.