27 February 2008


In an effort to write more, I’m taking on the films of one director at a time. While I would love to do this on a weekly basis, I’ll start off monthly and see how it goes.

To kick things off, I’ll be revisiting the work of British New Gay Cinema pioneer Derek Jarman. I wrote my master’s thesis on him nearly a decade ago, but I haven’t viewed any of his films in well over five years. When I was studying Jarman in depth, he had only recently passed away (from AIDS in 1994) and he still seemed fresh in the public’s memory (or at least the specialized, mostly academic audiences in this country who knew of his work). Since then, I sense his profile has faded. One could argue that his films are too esoteric, too British, too much of an era long since passed to have a lasting impact (and it doesn’t help that more than half of his features are unavailable on region 1 DVD). In reviewing these films, I hope to rebuke all of that, for something in Jarman’s style singled him out to me from the many directors I was exposed to as a Film Studies grad student.

The 33-year-old Jarman was already an established painter and set-designer (both for stage and screen). He had picked up a Super 8 camera a few years before and had begun to make off-the-cuff experimental short films with his friends (many of these were collected in the feature IN THE SHADOW OF THE SUN (1980), which I haven’t seen because it’s never been available in the US on VHS or DVD). In his first memoir, DANCING LEDGE, Jarman recounts meeting producer James Whaley at a luncheon. After introducing himself as a "maker of little films", Whaley asked him if he had any ideas for a feature. The producer was most taken with Jarman’s mention of St. Sebastiane, and the two set off on writing a treatment.

Jarman may share a co-director credit with editor Paul Humfrees on SEBASTIANE (1975), but the film clearly bears the former's stamp. It nearly overflows with stylistic motifs that would reappear in all of his subsequent work: the emphasis of mood over narrative, a painterly visual tableaux, and dominance of the male gaze, for starters. One can easily trace his revisionist approach to portraying the lives of historical figures from its humble beginnings here to his more sophisticated, conceptually daring takes on CARAVAGGIO, EDWARD II, and WITTGENSTEIN.
The film opens dauntingly and loudly with a party at Diocletian’s palace straight out of Kenneth Anger’s SCORPIO RISING. Lurid pinks, golds and blues and a relentless tribal beat accompany a troop of half-naked men wielding plastic, super-soaker-sized phalluses as they wildly gyrate around a debased central figure, climaxing in what Jarman calls “a condensed milk orgasm.” Although the sequence has little to do with what follows in the narrative, it undoubtedly sets a tone, not only for SEBASTIANE but for Jarman’s entire filmography: an unrepentant celebration of homoeroticism, sex and camp.

The rest of the film follows Sebastiane (the slight-framed, beatific Leo Treviglio) as he is sent into exile in the desert by the Romans for professing his Christian faith and eventually martyred. We get many scenes of Sebastiane and his fellow soldiers engaging in fight practice, goofing off and lazing about—in the first of a long line of deliberate anachronisms, Jarman has his cast throw around a plastic frisbee.

Between these seemingly trivial, often comic moments exist lyrical ones that shape the film into something far more ambitious than a simple historical piece, revisionist or not. Thirty minutes in, Jarman fixates on two soldiers, Anthony and Adrian, as they sensually frolic and embrace each other in the water. Drawn out in a series of slow-motion shots with Brian Eno’s ambient score languidly hanging overhead, the sequence is passionate and blissfully erotic without being pornographic (though in some versions a glimpse of an erection appears in one shot). Arguably, it’s more audacious than the opening orgy—to portray on film a physical act of love between two men, as opposed to merely sex, did not have much precedent in 1975; nor did depicting homosexuality as something other than an affliction to overcome.

Also audacious is how Jarman recontextualizes Sebastiane’s faith in God as something material. Early on, Sebastian muses on his own beauty, devotedly staring at his reflection in the water. Throughout, he recites his winsome, plainspoken poetry (both out loud and in voiceover); combined with visuals like the soldiers' embrace, they start to sound less like prayer and more like paeans to the male form. I don’t think Jarman is suggesting that Sebastiane was gay (he actually fends off sexual advances from one of his superiors) so much as appropriating his status of persecuted outcast as an allegory for anyone who upsets the status quo by being different.

At this early stage in his career, Jarman has all the disparate pieces on the table but not the ability to successfully alchemize them into a convincing whole. The fragmented narrative rambles without any sense of momentum or poetic epiphany. Sebastiane himself is so much a generic cipher that when his execution concludes the film, it has precious little resonance. As each soldier methodically shoots an arrow at Sebastian as he is tied to a post, we hear nothing, not even the arrow puncturing the skin; only the wind is audible. Such a somber, mournful tone is the complete opposite of the film’s opening frenzy. The lack of melodrama is soothing, but not haunting enough. An earlier, minor scene where Sebastiane and another soldier find divine revelation by listening to a sea shell is far more affecting.

When researching my thesis, I quickly dismissed SEBASTIANE as a first film by a talent awaiting refinement and development. It’s still not the best Jarman work to begin with, though it’s far from the most challenging one. Sure, it’s a little naive, but in a charming rather than annoying way. Stay tuned to see what happens as that naivete gradually transforms into knowingness and something approaching both rage and lament.

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