VA - Blue: A Film by Derek Jarman
or better or worse, we here at Stylus, in all of our autocratic consumer-crit greed, are slaves to timeliness. A record over six months old is often discarded, deemed too old for publication, a relic in the internet age. That's why each week at Stylus, one writer takes a look at an album with the benefit of time. Whether it has been unjustly ignored, unfairly lauded, or misunderstood in some fundamental way, we aim with On Second Thought to provide a fresh look at albums that need it.
Words and music; or is it music and words? Yes; words and music are underrated as a couple. They are the single most powerful pairing since man and woman. Since the beginning of time, drums have banged and chants have whirled to the heavens above in synchronicity.
Derek Jarman was not a musical artist. He was a man obsessed with the image—specifically the lavish, the garish, the gay!, the flamboyantly beautiful; the body, its forms and its nude frame. He was avant-garde, no doubt, his images striking, bold and uncompromisingly his own (even though he was obviously influenced by Jean Cocteau and Kenneth Anger). Based around his unique vision of the world, his work was a vision that put leather and mohawk clad punks in Shakespearean plays; a vision that created a garden of unparalleled beauty in the shadow of a nuclear power plant in southern England; a vision that he lost in his latter stages of his battle with AIDS.
In his latter days he had vision, however. It was little more than shadows and a blue tint. His final film before he passed was a reflection on this fact. Blue, consisting of nothing more than a blue, ovulating screen and the reading of Jarman’s diary, detailed his struggle with “the virus”. Simon Fisher-Turner, an avant musician in his own right composed the score that glides along with the shimmering blue and Jarman’s prose—prose that is humorous, bleak, candid, vulgar, mundane and real.
Over a pounding industrial ambiance that bursts forward into a cacophony of shouting, stomping, and the faint cry of “Jesus”, Jarman speaks: “The virus rages fierce. I have no friends now who are not dead or dying. Like a blue frost it caught them. At work, at the cinema, on marches and beaches. In churches on their knees, running, flying, silent or shouting protest”. Jarman darts from the overly-melancholic to the dryly mundane in an instant. “Would you faint if someone stuck a needle into your arm? I've got used to it—but I still shut my eyes”. Female voices fade in and out of the mix. “I fill this room with the echo of many voices,” he says. The many voices include actress Tilda Swinton, John Quentin, and Nigel Terry, as well as musical contributions by Brian Eno, John Balance from Current 93, Coil, Vini Reily, and Kate St. John of the goth band Miranda Sex Garden. Specific credits are not given. The music and voices of these people, Jarman’s close friends, are not introduced. Each contributor melds with each other, the limelight remaining untarnished—the music acting as an extension of Jarman’s words, not as an outlet for individual talents. The album has no track titles, yet it has 14 tracks—it’s only flaw. Listening to pieces seems rude, like skipping a page of Blake.
The first track, the longest of the fourteen sections, has Jarman most explicitly speaking of his so-called “blue funk”. At one point, Jarman hauntingly recites the names of five men. Names that are repeated later. “My heart’s memory turns to you,” he says. Who these men are is the listeners guess: I like to think they are Jarman’s lovers; he runs them through is head, wondering which, if any, is responsible for his “blue funk”. Other characters weave in and out. The most memorable is Miss Punch, “the first out dyke” Jarman ever knew. She was a sparrow, he says, “she looked like Edith Piaf,” and she rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, enticing women all summer long. Then there are other victims of the virus: David, Terry, “Mad Vincent,” and Karl, the suicide. Then there is the sweet-smiling Jean Cocteau-look-a-like, struggling to read a newspaper in the hospital waiting room.
Weaving throughout Blue are Jarman’s notes on everything from Mortality (in his dry, self-depreciating way): “I caught myself looking at shoes in a shop window. I thought of going in and buying a pair, but stopped myself. The shoes I am wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life”, to Nostalgic Sex: “Mating on suburban duvets / Cum splattered nuclear breeders / What a time that was,” to Passionate Vulnerability: “The darkness comes in with the tide / The year slips on the calendar / Your kiss flares / A match struck in the night / Flares and dies / My slumber broken / Kiss me again / Kiss me / Never enough / Greedy lips”.
Near the end, he seems to have become weary with his battle: “A bullet in the back of my head / Might be easier / You know, you can take longer than / The second world war to get to the grave”. Jarman wouldn’t have to wait too much longer: two months after Blue was completed, he died. At the end, the same chimes that opened the album, close the album, over the sound of the soft crashing sea upon the shore that I imagine is the one near Jarman’s fisherman's cottage in Dungeness, Kent. The same shore he would walk at sunrise, scavenging for detritus to add to his cathartic garden.
Note: The entire text of Blue can be read at http://www.evanizer.com/articles/blue.html, although I don’t have to say that the prose is best experienced in video or musical form.
By: Gentry Boeckel
Published on: 2004-05-18