Derek Jarman

We never met. I never sat in the same room and let the shine from his overly large, overly generous face, wash over mine. But in the public privacy that is the movies, I always called him Derek, and more than that, I thought of him as my Derek. I had long ago committed myself to a life of difficult movies which were all made, of course, out of our difficult lives, lives which might have been easier if we hadn’t been such difficult people. In the midst of the war we couldn’t stop from happening over and over again between ourselves, how wonderful it was to see his small, fragile super-8 home movies as he became the father I never had, the brother who never spoke to me, not like this. He would slow his pictures down until we could watch the way a smile oh so gradually took over a face. He invited into his frames some of his many traveling companions and lovers, a close-up in life the necessary prelude to a close-up on camera. In his lens, their youth was already a kind of challenge and political statement: how could they be so fabulous in the midst of the ongoing horrors of Thatcher-era England which was bent on bringing the empire home?

Section 28 of the Local Government Act of 1988 included the following amendment, explicitly requested by the subPrime Minister: “(Local authorities) shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”

The faces of Derek’s comrades and lovers stood in that wind, and he was fearless enough to show how even these perfect looks could turn suddenly old, just for an instant, in the middle of what seemed an unbroken embrace. In the very moment of opening to each other, to me, to us, they would open to this too, showing us, showing me, how to live and how to die in a single kiss. I called him Derek, my Derek, he belonged to me, to the clubhouse and our small clubhouse movies, our private pictures we shared with one another in what none dared to call any longer the underground.

And then something happened to Derek, my Derek. From his painterly ambitions, his loft parties, he started having (did I say started?) large dreams, and all of a sudden, it might have happened that fast, he was making feature-length films. Long stretches of Derek-time were showing up on the brand new Channel 4, there were journals dedicated to his work, and he started making appearances on the international film festival circuit. He had become, nearly overnight, after working his whole life, England’s filmmaker. This smaller-than-life, queer, super-8 underground homo-core hero was dreaming out loud for an entire country. It was hard at first not to want to scratch away at him, or take the piss, but he managed something very rare and unusual, Derek did, my Derek, which is that when he made the deal, when he sat on the wrong side of the large desk where the moneychangers yes or no, he never stopped being small. I mean, he never stopped being himself. He never stopped being my Derek. He kept right on working with his friends, and his little cameras, and his little large dreams, and instead of using that money to stop him from feeling anything at all, he kept right on opening himself, making it up as he went along. With the small bits left over from one of his eleven features he bought a cottage out in Dungeness, and made a strange beautiful garden in the shadow of the nuclear plant there. That too, like everything else in his life, became part of his movies.

He was diagnosed with the HIV virus in 1986, a year before I was. It was something I never wanted to share, and particularly not with Derek, my Derek, because it was more important than ever now that he be able to go on making his small large movies, because they had been granted a new and unwanted foundation, and I guessed, rightly as it turned out, that he would turn his diagnosis on its head, and use it to make his work clearer and stronger and more necessary than ever. Is it too obvious to say that I miss him? And I miss the company of his pictures, even after he’d stopped making movies with pictures, and could grant us only what was left of his voice, his imagination, his words. But I have learned to take some comfort and consolation in the fact that he no longer needs to belong to me. I don’t have to hold him in the tight fist of my imagination. Instead I’m happy to see him floating in and out of the mouths of strangers – as rumour and example, plague artist and televisionary. Why not let ten, a hundred, a thousand Dereks flourish, one for each and all of us?

(Originally presented at the Reel Artists Film Festival, Toronto, Feb. 27, 2009 before a screening of Derek by Isaac Julien (2008) at the Al Green Theatre.)

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Derek introduction by John Greyson

I’ll start with Derek’s words, from his book Chroma, his joyful, incantory, pagan ode to the mysteries of colour, published the year before he died, written after he already given us his cinematic Blue.

“And we end in deathly grey. The elephant is too large to hide itself, and the rhino too angry. The old grey goose will not become the silver foxes dinner. Grey is the sad world, into which the colours fall, like inspiration, sparkle and are overwhelmed — grey is the tomb, a fortress, from which none return.”

In this film, three artists fall, like inspiration, to sparkle together and refuse to be overwhelmed. Three sly camp saints, three colours. There’s Saint Tilda of the Crimson Lips, the muse that gave such majesty to Derek’s films, iconic and passionate, so classical, so modern, now lending her sparkling words in tribute to her great friend and mentor. There’s Saint Isaac of the Ebony Dandies, ever regal and revelatory, justly celebrated for his lustrous meditations on our bodies, our races, our fluttering passions, now lending his deft brushstrokes to this heartfelt portrait of his comrade and fellow traveller in all things queer, cinematic and activist. And of course, most of all, there’s Saint Derek himself, posthumous Derek of the Divine Delphiniums, Saint Jarman of the glorious gutters and profane sunsets, of the petrol in the puddles, the death-defying floral-torch bearer of a persistent artistic flame, one that weds the avant-garde to the leotard, one that digs out both the punk and the punctum of camp excess and affect, one that crucially accomplishes a baton-passing generation-bridging between the queer pioneers of the mid-20th century — Genet, Anger, Smith, Cocteau, Pasolini, Visconti — and a new generation that is equally global and grateful for the gifts and debts we owe St. Derek.

Tilda, Isaac, Derek: three artists, three colours, who in making this film manage to overwhelm for a time the greyness of our fortress, our world, achieving a shimmering rainbow iridescence. Again from Chroma: “Oh rainbow colour, please wash away, the grey in my life, the grey of the day. Squall heard this wish, and there and then, blew him away, to the rainbows end, where on the ground, lay a lustrous shell, rainbow bright mother of pearl. Opaline pearl, moonstone bright, petrol on puddles, and shimmering bubbles, Mother of Pearl is my delight.”

(Originally presented at the Reel Artists Film Festival, Toronto, Feb. 27, 2009 before a screening of Derek by Isaac Julien (2008) at the Al Green Theatre.)

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