Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 4)

Jarman spent much of September 1993 in hospital, where he underwent two eye operations that temporarily postponed the loss of his sight.  In the same month, according to his biographer Tony Peake, “as if to celebrate this respite, Blue was given a last-minute release in central London before its simulcast on Channel 4 and Radio 3 [19.9.93].  Radio listeners were invited to write in for a blue postcard at which to stare for the length of the broadcast, while on television the film was shown without pause for commercials, a breakthrough as far as Jarman was concerned.  Of the 252 calls taken by the Channel 4 duty officer after the screening, the majority expressed horror and disappointment.  Ten queried problems with transmission and four declared a preference for red.  Jarman’s old sparring partner the Sun was predictably, punningly dismissive:  ‘It may be Blue, but it’s no movie’ [18.9.93].  Elsewhere, the film met with a generally positive reaction, especially from those who felt that by dispensing with the image, Jarman had made a different film for each and every member of his audience.”  [Peake, 527]

It is perhaps only fitting that some members of the simulcast’s audience should query “problems with transmission” of a film that “treats” the effects of HIV.  Anticipating in effect the “preference for red” expressed by others, Jarman himself mapped out a sequel to Blue, “a scarlet film in choking hellfire:  smashing glass, madness, a horror film with HIV as a conscious beast rustling round, hysteric laughter, Beelzebub, legions, PCP is summoned, HELL ON EARTH, red generated from sulphur, demonology” (Smiling, 312).  Moreover, the tabloid reviewer’s characteristically uninformed opinion (“It may be Blue, but it’s no movie”) proves a weak, unwitting echo of the filmmaker’s own judgment, in “There we are, John…”, that “It is a film…. Technically speaking, it shouldn’t be.”  And Smiling in Slow Motion lends some specificity to the “generally positive reaction” alluded to by Jarman’s biographer:  “Blue has been a great success; some of the reviews have been a bit over the edge for such a modestly conceived film; of course I’m thrilled…. Everyone happy, not least a young man who told me it had stopped him committing suicide at a moment of great depression, something that had happened since he was the victim of a hit-and-run driver” (Smiling, 377).  The young viewer’s testimonial does more than recall the near-miss recounted early in Blue, accompanied on the soundtrack by a cacophony of traffic noise:  “I step off the kerb and a cyclist nearly knocks me down.  Flying in from the dark he nearly parted my hair.  I step into a blue funk” (Blue, 3).  It bespeaks the life-and-death stakes of a work whose aim and achievement is to bear witness to the awful devastation of the pandemic.

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

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