Tag Archives: “Smiling in Slow Motion”

‘what history teaches,’ part 8

In the text of “Generation,” what constitutes a memorial, a legacy, a historiography is an allegorical reinscription, exemplified in the San Francisco wind and windfall (the latter in both its senses, literal and figurative:  as the material evidence of the wind’s passing, and as a sudden or unexpected acquisition or advantage):  “A hundred years was lost, but the integrity with which their falling rewrote the landscape drew me to their monumental sides again and again to gape.  (The sound they must have made I’m glad I didn’t hear.)  The speed and scale of the devastation excited me even as I mourned the losses:  so big I couldn’t blink away the incontrovertible facts.  I wanted the hugeness and the solidity of the mess, the grim external confirmation, the proud physicality literally shaken to its roots” (86).  The rewritten landscape also serves as the scene of a telling encounter in a San Francisco park “famously – famously! – known for casual sex, though it’s been drastically pruned by AIDS, by which I mean not only that its practitioners have dwindled, but that the censors and jurists early on tried to garden away the underbrush that offered pagan cover to public acts” (87).  [Derek Jarman makes a comparable observation about London’s Hampstead Heath, “where there has been another massacre of holly bushes by the moral guardians.  It’s sad to see the place raped by the city which now condemns the old trees to the bonfire if people make love under their branches” (Smiling in Slow Motion, 177).]  In this park already “pruned” by AIDS and further harassed by the winds,

A man I knew minimally – we never really spoke – approached and kept my eyes.  I’ve seen him for fifteen years along a variety of erotic routes.  He paused to talk about the weather – you do that in San Francisco because you like to show off your luck at living here – and he eyed the tumble of branches, the inviting trouble they’d made.  He thought there might be human cover there too, and chuckled at the fortuitous change.  The place is ghosted – we both knew that – it was nice to contemplate a turn.  “It’s good to see you,” he said pointedly, far more direct than either of us expected, “I mean there’s so few of us left.  It’s good to see you still around,” by which he meant “alive.”  [88]

In the wake of the San Francisco windstorm (it might have been an earthquake), the quasi-strangers come together, by way of an unexpectedly direct address, as witnesses, survivors, veterans – at least as of 1996, the date that punctuates “Generation,” the closing chapter of Unbound:  A Book of AIDS.

Here again, Shurin’s text is dated, and in more senses than one, thanks to the double functioning in English among other languages of the verb “to date”:  Transitively, one dates a text; intransitively, a text dates when it ages, whether well or poorly – in other words, when it acquires a history.  The dating of “Generation,” for example, gives us to read the remarking of a commemorable provenance:  San Francisco, 1996, a year in which the introduction of more effective antiretroviral therapies led some, “contemplat[ing] a turn,” to invoke (not for the first time) the imminent prospect of a cure, in what would soon enough prove a false promise.  Thus the date makes the text newly legible for us, here and now, in our finite outliving of the pandemic.

If reading in the archive of HIV/AIDS demands a reckoning with such dates, it is here a matter of a deliberate practice of dating that bears spectral witness to “the process of history itself disappearing” in an effort to turn it around.

VOICE:  This is a story about becoming a story.  It has to be told.  It has to be put in the past….

It’s a story about becoming the past….

NEY:  It has to be told.

VOICE:  It has to pass through.  Telling turns it around.

It doesn’t disappear.

NEY:  It turns around.

VOICE:  It begins again, and it turns around….

NEY:  It turns into the past….  [“TURNAROUND, a solo dance with voice” (1993)]

At every turn, Unbound:  A Book of AIDS summons those of us who have so far survived what has come to pass to make the effort required to read this receding past even as it threatens to disappear before our eyes.  For “all persons of voice (first, second, and third)” remain at risk:  “given its spatial and temporal dimensions, its structure of relays and delays, no human being is ever safe from AIDS” (Derrida, “Rhetoric of Drugs,” 251).  Now and henceforth, lives depend on our recognition of this overwhelming fact of life.

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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 10)

Because, as Jarman attests, “we don’t lack images – just good ones,” because “The image is a prison of the soul, your heredity, your education, your vices and aspirations, your qualities, your psychological world” (Blue, 15), Blue forgoes visual imagery, presenting its viewers instead with a blue after-image sustained beyond its ephemeral lifespan for seventy-seven minutes:

In the pandemonium of image

I present you with the universal Blue

Blue an open door to soul

An infinite possibility

Becoming tangible  [Blue, 11]

The supplanting of image by the “infinite possibility” of Blue is further linked to Jarman’s own history, and specifically to his ambivalent sense that (like Yves Klein’s) it is drawing to a premature close:  “Some part of me dares this blindness to progress, it says I’ve seen enough” (Smiling, 230).  It is perhaps the same part of him that seeks relief from the “cacophony,” the “pandemonium of image”:

Over the mountains is the shrine to Rita, where all at the end of the line call.  Rita is the Saint of the Lost Cause.  The saint of all who are at their wit’s end, who are hedged in and trapped by the facts of the world.  The facts, detached from cause, trapped the Blue Eyed Boy in a system of unreality.  Would all these blurred facts that deceive dissolve in his last breath?  For accustomed to believing in  image, an absolute idea of value, his world had forgotten the command of essence:  Thou Shall Not Create Unto Thyself Any Graven Image, although you know the task is to fill the empty page.  From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image.  [Blue, 15]

Saturating the screen with “the universal Blue,” Jarman releases his viewers from image as an affront to sore eyes, but not from the obligation to read.  His caveat to the commandment invokes the ongoing “task” of writing, and with it the inevitable, invisible images in the language enlisted “to fill the empty page” and destined for our ears:  the images we hear rather than see in Blue.  As Derrida reminds us in his Memoirs of the Blind,

One must always remember that the word, the vocable, is heard and understood, the sonorous phenomenon remaining invisible as such.  Taking up time rather than space in us, it is addressed not only from the blind to the blind, like a code for nonseeing, but speaks to us, in truth, all the time of the blindness that constitutes it.  Language is spoken, it speaks to itself, which is to say from / of blindness.  It always speaks to us from / of the blindness that constitutes it.  [Memoirs of the Blind, 3]

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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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Archive of Devastation (Derek Jarman’s ‘Blue,’ part 7)

But in Blue, crucially, the IV drip is also more and other than a medical technology, for “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).  It functions here as a kind of prosthetic timepiece that measures or marks the time remaining, on the order of a watch, a clock (at this stage, the soundtrack reproduces the differential ticking of multiple clocks), and eventually a calendar.  [In 1991, Jarman published Today and Tomorrow, a perpetual calendar that featured reproductions of a number of his paintings.  Cf. Blue:  “The darkness comes in with the tide / The year slips on the calendar” (20).]  Indeed, the passage recalls a series of journal entries dating from July 1990, when “I was taken into hospital…for an emergency brain scan, which picked up the toxoplasmosis that had destroyed my sight in the previous days” (Modern Nature, 304).  Modern Nature records an early stage in Jarman’s gradual loss of vision under the assault of successive opportunistic infections, chronicled further in Smiling in Slow Motion and both thematized and figured in Blue.  In part because the language of the journals informs so much of the artist’s subsequent writing, painting and film, it warrants citation at some length.

No books to read, no newspapers.  So, what did I think about during the long hours?

I watched the clock.

On the first day its face was a fuzzy halo, the digits telescoped and disappeared.

On the second day I could see the red second hand move in a jumble of black.

On the third day I paused, looked and looked again and read the time.

On the fourth day I could read the numbers round the dial….

Beware of very hot water reads the sign above the basin.  The number 13 in the corridor slowly came into focus.  It’s 11:25, I have written three pages.  My writing is illegible.  It is remarkably easy to lose your sight:  a bad headache on a Friday evening and words slide off the pages.  Within a few days they disappear altogether.

In the waiting room of the West London Eye Hospital I was barely aware of the drip sticking in my arm watched by curious children.  I read the flashing dot in the machines and longed to get back into my bed….

I feel I should be able to record more than I have or more deeply and find I cannot….

My symptoms are a first.  I will be written up in the BMJ….

I see the blue sky veiled with shadows….

The nurse said today that this must be a frightening experience.  It isn’t, just aggravating – so silly to lose your eyes.  I can write clearly and in straight lines across the gloomy page.  How many aftershocks must I endure until my body, broken, desiccated and drained of colour, fails to respond.  I live in a permanent hangover, after years of good health.  A little green light flashes in the drip, the cool poison runs into my arm….

Blind as a bat he took to finding his way with sonar, flitting this way and that across the empty page, the starchy whiteness of a page of St. Mary’s foolscap.  Silent as the salt lakes, dazzling, blinding white to the horizon.  [Modern Nature, 304 ff]

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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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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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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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