Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 1)

Somewhat unexpectedly, the posts on Felix Gonzalez-Torres have, according to my stats, received a good deal of traffic.  Also unanticipated was the satisfaction that accompanied copy-blogging my own formulations from the past that seem, to me at least, to hold up pretty well.  For these and other reasons – including the fact that I like the thought of having as much of my work as possible in one place, and on the Web in particular – I have decided to continue with this exercise for now.  The next several posts will present another chapter from my manuscript The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible.  This one has already seen the light of day – it was published in a volume edited by Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour:  Subtitles:  On the Foreignness of Film (MIT, 2004).  “Archive of Devastation” sets out to read Derek Jarman’s film Blue (along with other films and writings he authored), in a context much the same as that in which I analyze the work of Gonzalez-Torres. 

Every view ends in illness, the whole world staggering into the grave just a little too soon.  It should have begun in ten years’ time, but started ten years ago and now it’s all but over.  I wonder if any of this will be remembered; probably not….  [Derek Jarman, Smiling in Slow Motion, 359]

In January 1993, Derek Jarman recorded in his journal his thoughts on the difficulty of translating HIV/AIDS, whether in autobiographical or more broadly historiographical terms, onto film:

No ninety minutes  of cinema could deal with the eight years HIV takes to get its host.  Hollywood can only sentimentalize it, it would all take place in some well-heeled West-coast beach hut – the reality would drive the audience out of the cinema.  We don’t lack images – just good ones…. Even documentaries cannot tell you of the constant, all-consuming nagging, of the aches and pains.  How many times I’ve stopped to touch my inflamed face even while writing this page.  There’s nothing grand about it, no opera here, just the daily grind in a minor key.  [Smiling in Slow Motion, 290]

For Jarman, the problem of rendering the “awful devastation of AIDS” [Smiling, 139], which he had been endeavoring to do in his writing and painting since his diagnosis as seropositive in December 1986, was not simply a function of the resistance of a practically invisible virus to visualization, nor of the pitfalls of pathos and sentimentality that would likely attend any quasi-realistic representation of its effects:  both predictable dilemmas for an artist working in any medium.  Rather, it was a matter of a fundamental incommensurability between the temporality of the virus (here, “the eight years HIV takes to get its host”) and that of the medium in question, in this case feature film (“ninety minutes of cinema”).  A version of that incommensurability, the mutual untimeliness invoked in the journal as the obstacle to be overcome, is arguably the predominant theme as well as the signature of Jarman’s late work, most emphatically in the instance of his final film, Blue, released less than a year after the journal entry was written, and only months before his death.

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Filed under Books, Culture, Death, History and historiography, Media, Reading and writing

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