25 November 2009

Three films by Derek Jarman

Three reviews of films by Derek Jarman, originally published in Filmwaves between 2005 and 2007.


Derek Jarman’s early short Super-8 films were characterised by their intense beauty and eschewal of dialogue, establishing him as a director working very much within a tradition of artists’ film. His films drew in a diverse range of influences – English literature (Marlowe and Shakespeare), alternative music (Jubilee and works with Throbbing Gristle and The Smiths), Renaissance art, and gay culture, nearly all of which were combined for The Angelic Conversation.

Scored by gay experimental musicians Coil, The Angelic Conversation was initially shot on Super-8 and converted to 35mm, with Jarman’s images of beautiful men on seashores, by streams and in luscious gardens complementing Dame Judi Dench’s reading of fourteen Shakespeare sonnets, originally addressed to the ‘Fair Youth’.

Coil’s soundtrack veers between grandiose and obtuse, lending the film a dream-like quality – occasionally, it moves into tone-poem territory, providing an awkward contrast with Dench’s eloquent recital of Shakespeare. As always, Jarman’s composition is impeccable: unconstrained by conventional dialogue, or any narrative, he focuses purely on image, and the style developed in early works like Garden of Luxor and Stolen Apples for Karen Blixen reaches its apogee here.

Unfortunately, the adventurous (and sometimes incongruous) mix of images does not always work, and certainly is not enough to carry an 80-minute film. Occasionally, Jarman’s juxtaposition engenders moments of incredible beauty, but too infrequently. Admirable as its daring combination of aesthetics seems, The Angelic Conversation will keep an incredibly small number of viewers interested for its duration – a collection of Jarman’s shorter Super-8 films may have proved more diverse and more intriguing.

Jarman’s most radical departure from conventional narrative film, The Garden is also his most personal work. Filmed around Jarman’s home near Dungeness power station, the film is a sequence of dreamscapes.

The narrator tells the viewer, “I want to share this emptiness with you”; sadly, The Garden is a curiously empty film. Jarman achieves flashes of awesome poetic beauty, but these really are flashes – brief shots of swaying reeds, a burning oil rig or two men kissing; Simon Fisher Turner’s dignified score is essential to their power.

The Garden is most successful when it aims to be funny. An outrageous exhortation to female shoppers to “think pink” fulfils the radical potential of ‘camp’, while a credit card commercial with a modern ‘Judas’ hanged in the background also uses playful humour to savage consumer society.

Despite these inspired moments, much of The Garden seems unbearably pretentious. The more complexity of meaning Jarman tries to shoehorn into a sequence, the less successful he is. Whilst the scene where a drag queen is beaten by women and photographers offers some commentary on a conservative media, it is one of the few times that a longer scene achieves any emotional or intellectual impact. A lengthy scene where two men are gagged and humiliated fails to unsettle the viewer, and many of the longer vignettes are similarly flawed.

Ultimately, Jarman’s film is disjointed, and the suspicion remains that little lies beneath the collection of images presented over its 86 minutes; it is not an abstract film and so stands or falls of the depth of its dreamscapes. The Garden recalls Fassbinder’s astonishing epilogue for Berlin Alexanderplatz, but does not have the luxury of hours of brilliantly controlled narrative to reinforce the aesthetic power of its imagery with a unifying theme or established meanings.

Wittgenstein, Jarman’s penultimate film, is also one of his most deftly constructed. Losing his sight in the final stages of AIDS, Jarman was asked by Tariq Ali to direct Terry Eagleton’s screenplay as part of a series of philosophical films for Channel 4. Discarding part of Eagleton’s script, Jarman spent most of his meagre budget on the costumes, shooting every scene against a plain black backdrop with minimal sets.

Jarman was an artist, not a wordsmith, and many of his full-length films were literary adaptations (such as The Tempest and Edward II), allowing him to concentrate on his visuals. A lifetime of such concentration reaps full reward in Wittgenstein: the beautifully co-ordinated sets and costumes contrast brilliantly with the black background, demonstrating Jarman’s ability to triumph over adversity (an ability that allowed him to complete Blue, despite near-total blindness).

Eagleton’s influence helps Wittgenstein overcome Jarman’s lack of comfort with dialogue. Although Jarman’s film is (typically) meditative, its script is never dry, with Wittgenstein presented both as (deliberately knowing) child and adult, focusing on his struggle to convince the Cambridge establishment (and Bertrand Russell in particular) of the brilliance of his ideas.

There are some genuinely bizarre touches – the green alien with whom the child Wittgenstein discusses doubt and the existence of Martians, for example – that playfully undercut the film’s refreshingly self-assured intelligence. The performances of Tilda Swinton (much beloved of Jarman, and given some truly resplendent costumes), Michael Gough and Karl Johnson do much to lift the film, delivering potentially heavy dialogue with admirable lightness. (Johnson admits here that he did not understand a good number of his lines).

Wittgenstein is a film that should not have worked, for so many reasons. It works brilliantly. When did Channel 4 stop broadcasting – let alone commissioning – films this adventurous?

24 November 2009

William Raban

A review of the BFI's William Raban DVD, originally published in FILMWAVES in 2004.

A chimney collapses in a cloud of smoke, and the camera cuts to a scene of regeneration, the construction site around the Millennium Dome. In this moment, the thematic and stylistic evolution in William Raban’s work since the London Filmmakers’ Co-op is encapsulated. River Yar (1972, co-directed with Chris Welsby) combined a willingness to explore the possibilities of film – not just the camera, as Vertov, one of the Co-op’s icons, had done, but also those of projection and the experience of exhibition – with an interest in the effect of time on space. Raban’s experiments with film materials are documented in theFrame, with extracts from Diagonal, 2’45” and Angles of Incidence detailing his foregrounding of celluloid and its ability to capture moments.

The films on this collection, from the BFI’s British Artists’ Films series, focus largely on Raban’s post-Co-op work: the documentary highlights the importance of the dialectic between filmmaker (or film projectionist) and audience in the LFMC performances during the early 1970s. Consequently, the earliest full film incorporated here is Thames Barrier (1977), which serves to highlight the gap between cinema and home viewing. The three-screen film, documenting the construction of the Barrier from a fixed vantage point, combining real time with time manufactured by the shutter, works best on a large canvas, the aesthetic qualities of the changing light losing something in the translation to television. Here, Raban distances himself from commenting on the mechanisation that he captures, the use of a single image (over three screens) denying the film overly complex semiotic capabilities.

This linguistic awareness is heightened in A13 (1994). Using only found sounds, Raban combines footage of newspaper presses, John Major, fishermen, a homeless man, market stalls (these scenes feel like a wry contemporary re-working of Lindsay Anderson’s Every Day Except Christmas) and an Anti-Nazi League protest against the election of BNP councillor Derek Beackon to create a film that, while concerned with the proliferation of mass media and linking Major’s specious post-Thatcher politics with the rise of the far Right, celebrates the plurality of contemporary urban life and retains an optimistic tone. MM (2002), covering the construction of the Dome and the celebrations of New Year’s Eve, works along similar themes, highlighting the massive response to a division of time that is, of course, arbitrary.

Raban’s reflective, ambivalent approach to cinematic Modernism reaches its apogee in Thames Film (1986), the obvious centre of this compilation. Narrated by John Hurt, it is the closest Raban comes to a conventional documentary, incorporating archive film from 1921-1951, panoramic photographs taken in 1937, Brueghel the Elder’s painting The Triumph of Death and T. S. Eliot reading Four Quartets. Raban centres a study of the sites of modernity, and the meanings that time has inscribed into them, on the Thames, juxtaposing shots of the river in 1986 with readings from Thomas Pennant’s Journey from London to Dover (1787, close to the emblematic date of ‘modernity’, 1789). Modernity is put on trial: Pennant’s links between British imperialism, technological advances and the Thames are juxtaposed with derelict products of the Industrial Revolution and pompous voiceovers from post-war newsreels anticipating the collapse not just of the Empire but also the ideals which supported it.

This is an important release from the BFI, who have ignored the Co-op for too long: a compilation of Chris Welsby’s work is also planned, also featuring a commissioned documentary. The package is lovingly presented, with extensive notes on Thames Film and an illustrated filmography. It is a triumph for the BFI and for anyone interested in the British avant-garde.

Kellie Telesford (November 2007)

A brief article on the murder of transwoman Kellie Telesford, originally published in one80news in November 2007:

The tragic murder of trans woman Kellie Telesford – in the same week as the ninth International Day of Remembrance for victims of transphobic violence – serves as a cruel reminder of the challenges still facing many trans people simply in surviving.

Ms Telesford, born Kayiode Dexter Telesford in Trinidad & Tobago 40 years ago, frequented Croydon and Brixton’s LGBT nightclubs and local ‘cruising’ hotspots. She was strangled in her Thornton Heath flat in mid-November – London police have charged a homeless teenager, and it is a sign of progress that they have handled their investigation so efficiently and sensitively.

Kellie lived on the very fringes: a black, working-class immigrant, her ultimately fatal choice to as a woman without surgery – beyond all male/female boundaries – completely baffled the mainstream media, who variously labelled her inaccurately as ‘transvestite’ or ‘transsexual’ but never ‘transgender’.

The Sun’s headline – ‘Trannie killed ‘in sex mix-up’ – offered the killer the ‘homosexual panic defence’ long before court proceedings began, and their headline says far more than intended. It is The Sun that is ‘mixed up’: its report attempts sensitivity, but its diminutive, derogatory ‘trannie’ and imprecise ‘transvestite’ description do little to combat the ignorance and prejudice that cost Kellie her life.

Kellie’s death demonstrates the necessity of the Incitement to Hatred laws, but also greater protection for, and more secondary education about transgender people and the ways they live. Hopefully she will not die in vain: the police response to Kellie’s tragedy has been commendable, but how effectively will its roots be tackled?

An article on the Hate Crimes Bill (November 2007)

From one80news, November 2007:

I grew up in a Daily Mail household (relax – this isn’t a ‘confessional’). I first criticised its editorial policy when I was eight years old, and started cross-dressing when I was ten. I rarely braved reading it, but deprived of any community in mid-Nineties (meaning pre-Internet) Surrey, anything trans-related caught my eye.

Generally, ‘trans-related’ meant an article attacking any ruling against transphobic discrimination, with cartoons depicting transsexuals as burly, stubbly, capricious men in ill-fitting dresses. Confused, closeted and deeply depressed, these cartoons were the lowest blows, unfailingly affirming my ‘freak’ status.

Ten years on, I’m delighted by the inclusion of transgender people in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill amendment to outlaw incitement to violence on lifestyle grounds.

The Bill is problematic: Johann Hari argues that columnists such as Richard Littlejohn (gainfully employed by the Mail) should be able to expose their views to discussion. Fair enough, but there’s a (rarely debated) wider argument: if there are no checks on individual freedom of speech, whole groups have no protection from incitement to ridicule and hatred, especially when a hateful media holds far more influence.

Balance is everything. Subjugating individual to collective rights means Stalinism, but unrestrained freedom of speech has pitfalls if used irresponsibly, as any student of German history or Danish cartoons can explain.

Trans people know the importance of language. We strive for words creating space between ‘male’ and ‘female’, and terms that help organise our diverse community. Approving the word ‘transgender’ was crucial, beginning our battle for positive self-definition and against negative media portrayal – a battle that doesn’t deny freedom of speech, but realises that violent actions are founded upon violent opinions – worth recalling on 18 November, Transgender Day of Remembrance.

Writing this, I realised how much work we have – my spell-checker refuses to recognise ‘transphobic’.

Old journalism/writing

What better way to launch a blog than with links to a bunch of old stuff? (I'll call it "background"). So here, in no particular order, are a few things I've written that can be found on the web:

I wrote an obituary for the writer Paul Ableman, published by The Guardian on 8 December 2006.

In September 2007, the Dalkey Archive Press published my book on the English author Rayner Heppenstall. Their journal, Context, carried an article I wrote on Heppenstall in Issue 18.

This is one of my favourite pieces - an interview with Richard (Dick) Witts, who fronted Manchester post-punk act The Passage and published an influential critique of the Arts Council. I spoke to him about music policy, and The Independent published the result in September 2008.

Foto 8 magazine used a short story I wrote, 'Keep Still', inspired by a song by the Manchester band Performance, on their website.

Here is an article I wrote in October 2008 after political correctness went dangerously insane and Manchester University labelled one set of toilets in the Union basement 'Toilets with urinals' and 'Toilets without urinals'. Trans-accommodating bastards.