I've taken off the "A Year of" prefix, as I began this project at the beginning of 2008, and you can be assured it will not be finished by the end of it. I meant to write about this film four months ago; I didn't partially due to less frequent blogging in general, but mostly because it's a daunting film to write intelligently about, and possibly the worst place for a neophyte to begin - or perhaps the best if you're a particularly adventurous cineaste.
Six years passed between THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION (1985) and Jarman's previous feature film. However, he didn't exactly spend that period resting on his laurels. He devoted much time and energy to developing a screenplay and finding funds for what would become CARAVAGGIO; he also turned out an extensive body of work, including set design for a stage production of The Rake's Progress, a number of ultimately unfilmed screenplays (such as the sci-fi allegory NEUTRON, which almost got made with David Bowie in the lead role), his first memoir (Dancing Ledge), "pop promos" (music videos) for everyone from Marianne Faithfull to Wang Chung, and, as always, many Super-8 short films.
Following a retrospective of his work at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, he finally managed to secure funding from the British Film Institute for CARAVAGGIO. But first, he diverted a portion of those funds towards a very different project that had far more in common with his shorts than his features. In fact, it's not difficult to think of THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION as a typical Jarman short expanded into a 77-minute tone poem: of the finished work, The Times duly noted, "The film seems like an excellent short spun out of control."
Jarman made many of his shorts as a communal activity, a simple but creative means of filming his friends, and THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION was born out of this intent. The project began when, at a bar, Jarman met and was taken with Paul Reynolds, a young archaeology student. Reynolds did not reciprocate Jarman's feelings, but when he expressed interest in Philip Williamson, another young man at the bar, Jarman decided he would film what he witnessed (and, to an extent, imagined to be) their subsequent affair. The results follow a trajectory of sorts: Reynolds and Williamson are both shot separately for the first half, then come together to share the frame as they physically embrace, only to be shown apart again during the final sequences.
Most of the film is shot in Super-8 and projected in slow motion (approximately 5-10 frames per second), giving it both a dreamlike, somnambulant feel and an exceptionally glacial pace. As expected from Super-8 stock, the images are grainy and are also often washed out with earth tones and orange and beige filters. A few fleeting sequences are in regular motion and their sudden appearance startles nearly as much as, say, the one fluid shot amongst the still frames of LA JETEE.
There is no dialogue and possibly no sync-sound (it's often hard to tell); in their place is an electronic, ambient score by Coil, an extended snippet of Benjamin Britten's "Sea Interludes" from Tammy Grimes, and the occasional voice-over reading of Shakespeare sonnets by Judi Dench. One could offer up a detailed analysis of how the sonnets add meaning to the imagery and are Jarman's way of advocating the theory that they were written out of some homoerotic intent, but in all my viewings of this film, I was less struck by the words than by Dench's reading of them. Her tone is cool but not without urgency, and it's a perfect match for the swirling, clanging, alternately soothing and jarring noise surrounding her interludes.
For anyone accustomed to the narrative-centric structure (no matter how loose or stretched) of Jarman's first three features, THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION might seem completely alien. Even on my second viewing of it this year, it took me a good fifteen or twenty minutes to adjust to its challenging style. Jarman counters this somewhat by stocking the film with motifs that will register with anyone familiar with his work: the sound of water and its calming presence; reoccurring images like a rotating radar and a burning car; the bold, fluid reflection of a mirror against sunlight; the flame of a lit flare, this time slowed down into an abstraction.
One of his most gentle and pastoral films, it is also nearly unprecedented in Jarman's oeuvre as a paean to the male form, although not straightforward or bluntly rendered enough to be considered erotica or even kitsch. Instead, it plays out like a series of closely observed rituals. Reynolds and Williamson spend much of the film building up a head full of steam overflowing with longing and extended gazes (sometimes at each other, but mostly directed from Jarman). However, when they finally touch, they do so as a slow-motion wrestle that seems less tender than defensive and aggressive. Their first explicitly tender embrace is briefly shown at normal speed, before Jarman slows it back down and it plays out like a series of tiny, isolated gestures--a holding of hands, a chaste kiss on the lips, the reaction and turn of a face.
The "story" here is told almost entirely through such images, but left wide open in terms of a literal interpretation. We don't know why the lovers are apart at the end, whether the circumstances are tragic or not. What matters is they are apart - their placement and the suddenly icy music that envelops them tells us as such. In this sense THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION is not only Jarman's most intimate film but also, perhaps, his most inscrutable. Naturally, such a "difficult" effort was the one film he was apparently most proud of and felt truly represented him. It undoubtedly requires an openness on the viewer's part to look past its abstractions and approach it as one would poetry instead of prose. For me, it's not a breakthrough nearly on par with the work he'd be doing in another two years, but certainly a stepping stone towards a truly independent, personal, original cinema.