Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 3)

A journal entry dated March 2, 1993 registers Jarman’s satisfaction on completing the film whose possibilities he had contemplated for years.

We sit in the Blue…. Intricate landscape of pain, all at sea, leaving one’s senses.  We finished Blue just before midnight…. I think the film is magnificent – it’s the first time I’ve been able to look one of my films in the eye.  Cinema catches up with the twentieth century, this is the first feature to embrace the intellectual imperative of abstraction, it’s moody, funny and distressing; … it takes film to the boundary of the known world, the River Oxus.  The film is dedicated to HB and all true lovers.  [Smiling in Slow Motion, 320]

For the reader of the journals written from 1991 to 1994 and published posthumously as Smiling in Slow Motion, there is no small irony in the figuration that has Jarman, for “the first time,” looking his last film “in the eye” (and that has cinema, in and through Blue, “catch[ing] up with the twentieth century,” as the virus whose appearance is dated from the 1980s catches up with its director).  For by this point, HIV has more than once cost him (among much else, certainly) his sight.  The journals of this period chronicle a series of opportunistic infections that deprive him of visual perception, as well as the treatments administered to ward off the encroaching blindness.  In August, 1992, in language that will resurface in Blue, Jarman notes:

Dr. Mark thought that he could detect lesions in the back of my retina, and put the stinging drops in….

Eyes again, a terrible blinding light.  I was put on a succession of machines.  “Look left, look up, look down, look right.”  The torch was blinding, but worse was to come, as CMV, now diagnosed, was photographed.  A blinding flash into the eye while you concentrated on a small flashing red and green light, a green moon after-image and then the world turned magenta.  The photos of my eyes looked like one of those colour photos of a distant planet.  “Like a pizza,” said the doctor.  “We often use culinary terms in the hospital”….

A young South African doctor came to inspect the damage.  I won’t get the vision back this time, though when the bleeding in the eye is stopped it might improve slightly.  Blindness is on the cards.  I’m relieved that I know what is happening, the worst is the uncertainty.  I think I have played this scenario back and forth nearly every day for the last six years.  [Smiling, 189]

Shortly thereafter, he resolves to play the hand he has been dealt, and to stay true to his vision even in the absence of his sight:  “I think I have to come to terms with my blind fate, there is so much to do, if Beethoven could write the ninth without hearing, I’m certain I could make a film without seeing…. I wonder how long it takes to learn Braille.”  [Smiling, 192]

It was a year later, in August 1993, that Jarman participated in an interview with John Cartwright of the British Arts Council, filmed in his art dealer’s studio against the backdrop of one of his last paintings and released under the title “There we are, John…”  [dir. Ken McMullen, British Arts Council, 1993]

In response to a question about his most recent feature, Jarman observes that “It is a film…. Technically speaking, it shouldn’t be.”  His spare formulation underscores the fact that Blue, with its “roots in painting” (it began as a film loop of a Klein monochrome in the collection of the Tate Gallery), has a singular status in the annals of cinema.  For not only is it a film without images, whose sole visual content is a blue colour field that approximates IKB.  It did not, moreover, ultimately result from any activity of filmmaking as conventionally conceived and practiced:  in the event, the film loop was set aside, and the colour produced in a lab.  Blue thus stands in stark contrast to the director’s earlier endeavors, notably The Last of England and The Garden, with their highly wrought image montages and internal references to the process of their own creation.

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

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