17 May 2008


If it seems a little random that Derek Jarman chose to follow up a homoerotic biopic of Saint Sebastiane with a punk movie, well, it was 1977—the seminal year the Sex Pistols and the many bands inspired by them saturated British pop culture. Ever since he was an art student, Jarman always had an eye on his country’s counterculture while keeping himself at a critical distance from it. This peculiar approach—to be in the moment, but also apart from it—is what makes his work so frustrating for many; it’s also, decades later, what remains fascinating about this film in particular.

Jarman’s “in” to punk came when, through a mutual friend, he met Jordan, a model/actress/groupie who worked at Vivenne Westwood’s infamous SEX boutique. Taken by her striking, unusual style and fashion sense, he began filming her with his Super 8 camera. Some of this footage, consisting of Jordan dancing around a bonfire, made its way into JUBILEE, which Jarman structured around his new muse, her friends and other scenesters. Funding for the project came together thanks again to producer James Whaley. Filmed in the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee (but not released until 1978), those involved probably intended it as a harbinger of a new punk cinema.

Jordan stars as Amyl Nitrate, a nihilist “anti-historian” and ringleader of a group of mostly female friends, including unstable, flaming redhead Mad (Toyah Willcox), sex-crazed Crabs (“Little” Nell Campbell) and violent Bod (Jenny Runacre). There’s also Chaos, the girls' much-debased female French au pair; Sphinx and Angel, two brothers who are also homosexual lovers, and a wanna-be pop star named The Kid (in case of art imitating life, he's played by an unbelievably young Adam Ant). Meanwhile, Jarman views modern Britain as a garbage-strewn wasteland where the Royal Family has been booted out of Buckingham Palace and replaced by a recording studio run by the all-powerful Borgia Ginz (memorably played by the bald, blind, forever cackling Jack "Orlando" Birkett). Much of the film scans like post-apocalyptic Mike Leigh with a safety pin through his nose: characters sit around, talk, commit random acts of violence and debauchery, and struggle to make intellectual arguments that are often at odds with their emotions.

It all sounds fairly straightforward, but with Jarman, there’s always a catch. He opens the film with a lengthy sequence set in the time of Queen Elizabeth I (also played by Runacre). Assisted by her occultist, John Dee (Richard O’Brien—that’s two ROCKY HORROR vets in the cast if you’re keeping count), Elizabeth summons the spirit guide Ariel, who transports the trio to modern-day Britain, where they observe (but do not interact with) Amyl and her brood. This reoccurring framing device actually came from a separate screenplay Jarman had written years before about John Dee and alchemy, one of the director’s favorite subjects.

By structuring the film this way, Jarman sets up a glaringly obvious contrast: the ethereal scenes with Elizabeth I are set in the calm, idyllic, mist-filled countryside, while the “punk” scenes are abrasively loud, ugly and despairing. Where Jarman’s artistry shines through is in how he tempers this contrast. In the modern-day scenes, he occasionally allows for a moment of tenderness amongst all the attitude and irreverent, cod reggae versions of “Rule Britannia” and "Jerusalem"; in the historical scenes, he adds a smidgen of camp by casting Elizabeth’s “lady-in-waiting” as a bejeweled dwarf waddling around after her.

Mostly because the director was in the right place at the right time, the bulk of the film celebrates and aptly captures the punk aesthetic. It’s right up there with THE GREAT ROCK 'N' ROLL SWINDLE as a candidate for the movement’s time capsule. And yet, the film was widely rejected by its target audience, not least by Westwood (Jarman later proudly put her disparaging remarks about it on a t-shirt). With its measured pacing, esoteric framing device and long, talky scenes which sometimes threaten to drift off into the ether, it’s not difficult to see why most punks found JUBILEE underwhelming.

Although it gets off on the movement’s extreme visual style and playful anarchy, the film simultaneously lays bare punk’s limitations. Scene after scene of people just sitting around talking undercuts punk’s ability to accomplish anything. When characters actually leave the flat to do something, it’s often aggressive. Sometimes, the violence results in gallows humor, such as when Crabs and Bod asphyxiate a male gigolo, or when the gang murders an aging drag queen Lounge Lizard (Wayne County, whose pre-death musical number is not to be missed).

However, the violent acts soon have consequences. After a bunch of military police murder Sphinx and Angel in a bingo parlor, Bod and Mad track one of them down at his home and pummel him to death (right after Crabs sleeps with him, no less). During this particularly brutal interaction, Mad reaches such a fevered state of catharsis that at one point, she erupts into hysterical tears. Although that part was apparently unscripted (according to a great interview with the now middle-aged Willcox in the Criterion DVD), it sums up Jarman’s attitude toward the punk ideology, making explicit the difference between nihilism and revenge. The scene also highlights the remarkable 19-year-old Willcox in her first film role. Much more than Jordan, she emerges as the film’s star, mostly because her outrageous punk mask is far easier to see through.
Admittedly, the past/present contrast is a little schizophrenic at times—it really feels like one is watching two separate films. But without it, JUBILEE would just be another study of angry youth, a territory well-covered by filmmakers such as Alan Clarke. The Elizabethan scenes carry over the languid, poetic style of SEBASTIANE, while the punk scenes introduce Jarman's love-hate relationship with his country. This dual narrative is essential to understanding his aesthetic. Subsequent films thrive on such contrasts as they veer between sexual celebration and persecution, dreams of an idyllic English past and remorse at a crumbling English present/future, traditionally structured (yet unconventional) biographies/adaptations and instinctive, free-form experimental essays. JUBILEE concludes at the sea, always a place of serenity for Jarman both on-screen and off, as we will see in his next film, a typically idiosyncratic version of THE TEMPEST.

No comments: