Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 9)

In a proposal dated May 1991, Jarman contemplates a scenario for Blue in which the only trace of “the original Klein idea” would be a “sea of time, presented as a blue void.”  The relationship between the “blue void” and the “sea of time” it is meant to present is not so much metaphorical as allegorical, unfolding over time:  in the event, not ninety but seventy-seven minutes of a feature film that translates the devastation to which Jarman has been witness.  To the extent that Blue succeeds not so much in surmounting the obstacle of incommensurability (“No ninety minutes of cinema could deal with the eight years HIV takes to get its host”) as in rendering the predicament itself on film, the difficulty and the responsibility to address it become the viewer’s own.  If the “blue void” that is the sole visual content of this film without images figures (among other things) a “sea of time,” how do we, erstwhile survivors of the pandemic, read this time, which subsumes the multiple temporalities inscribed in the passage in which “The drip ticks out the seconds, the source of a stream along which the minutes flow, to join the river of hours, the sea of years and the timeless ocean” (Blue, 18)?  How do we read what in Blue is more and other than a theme:  the possibly illegible signature of Jarman’s last film?

One hypothesis might be ventured based on the film’s association of blue with the telling phenomenon of the after-image:  “The shattering bright light of the eye specialist’s camera leaves that empty sky blue after-image.  Did I really see green the first time?  The after-image dissolves in a second” (Blue, 27).  Jarman’s final film is of a time after the time of images, in several possible senses.  One of these, perhaps the most readily legible, is a function of its position in his trajectory of filmmaking:  It completes the notional trilogy whose earlier components, The Last of England and The Garden, partake of his characteristic image montages that configure past (e.g., in their incorporation of Jarman’s earlier Super-8 films and his father’s home movies), present (e.g., in their depiction of the Thatcher era in Britain), and future (in their respective prophetic elements), conjugating these three tenses as they unfold over their feature length.  Blue concludes the Dantesque sequence in which “The first film represented the underworld, the second the real world, Bliss paradise” (Peake, 475).  In this sense, its serene colour field comes after the time of images in the context of Jarman’s filmography.

It does so, too, insofar as the “age of AIDS” conceived as a historicist periodization follows an era characterized by the project of gay liberation and its vaunting of “positive images,” a nomenclature that arguably failed to stand the test of time from one decade to the next.  As Jarman attests in Smiling in Slow Motion, “The concept of positive images was born out of gay liberation in the 1970s…. There was a disgraceful review of my films by the [Gay Times] positive image ‘film critic’ Steven Bourne.  Positive images are an illusion, like commercials – they are not the stuff of art” (Smiling, 168).  What he deplores in a reliance on such images is the failure to engage with the graphic realities of homophobia in a tactic that seeks to counter bigotry through a mimicry of the acceptable, youth and health being constitutive components of the putatively positive.  For Jarman, the political and historical matter of “positive images” was inseparable from the filmmaker’s ever-present pragmatic dilemma, as he noted in preparing to shoot Wittgenstein:  “How do you make images resonate?  They can’t be illustrative, there’s not much point in making a film ‘about’ something” (Smiling, 133).  (It was also at times difficult to disentangle from the problematic “visual illiteracy” he deplored in the London passersby [Smiling, 177]).

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

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