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Monday, November 3, 2014

Proceed At Your Own Risk—The Ecstatic Rage of Derek Jarman

BAMcinématek just kicked off the most comprehensive New York City retrospective of pioneering British queer filmmaker Derek Jarman in nearly two decades. From his collaborations with a young Tilda Swinton and rock legends like the Smiths to his audaciously experimental takes on classic literature, his was a career marked by fervent political commitment and a deeply personal aesthetic.

In addition to laying the foundation for the New Queer Cinema movement, Jarman was a gifted painter and writer. In conjunction with the retrospective, we’ll be giving away a copy of his book, At Your Own Risk: A Saint's Testament. Send an email to with the subject line “Jarman,” and read critic Thomas Beard on the important place Jarman’s books hold in the legacy of his art.

The Last of England. Photo: Channel Four Films/Photofest

by Thomas Beard

Why do we turn to writings by filmmakers? In some cases, a director’s memoir can offer us a window into cinema’s process with a behind-the-scenes tale, full of incident, about quarrelsome producers and eccentric starlets, while others take a more theoretical bent, addressing the most fundamental questions about the medium, arguing passionately for what cinema is and what it should do. Consider Dziga Vertov on the Kino-Eye’s expanded perception, Maya Deren on cinematography as the creative use of reality, or Stan Brakhage’s eye-popping metaphors on vision. Derek Jarman’s At Your Own Risk: A Saint's Testament, which I revisited in anticipation of BAMcinématek’s upcoming retrospective, belongs, interestingly, to neither genre, yet it is just as vital, for what it provides is a record of sexual awakening that is concomitant and inextricable with a political one—a rich context for the erotic imagination and fighting spirit that would animate Jarman’s films and cement their place within the annals of queer cinema.

The book’s straightforward division into chapters by decade (1940s, 1950s, 1960s...) belies its complex temporal structure. An auteur’s approach to language can often serve as a striking analogue to cinematic style—the aphoristic reductions of Robert Bresson’s thoughts on moviemaking in his Notes on the Cinematographer, for instance, mirror the sublime austerity of his films. So, too, with Jarman, who describes his autobiography as “a series of introductions to matters and agendas unfinished. Like memory, it has gaps, amnesia, fragments of past, fractured present.” The malleability of time is a recurring theme in his work—the willful anachronisms of Caravaggio, the transportation of Elizabeth I to punked-out '70s England in Jubilee—and At Your Own Risk likewise pulses from reminiscences of childhood in a military family to public sex in Hampstead Heath.

Caravaggio. Photo: Cinevista/Photofest

Yet the book’s idiosyncratic design provides more than mere flashbacks; Jarman punctuates his own story with interviews and appropriated text, bringing together scenes of cruisey Gay Liberation Front meetings with tabloid headlines, and police raids on gay bars with Parliamentary debate. It’s a narrative strategy that evinces the contrapuntal force of montage. The 1975 murder of Pier Paolo Pasolini is outlined in grisly detail: “In the forensic photo, Pasolini, disheveled sacrifice, run over by a boy in a car again and again and again to obliterate his identity.” Then suddenly, it cuts to an account by the gay press of the civil unrest which overtook San Francisco in May 1979 following the announcement of a lenient manslaughter sentence for the man who killed Harvey Milk: “Around 4000 homosexuals attacked the City Hall smashing its windows with iron bars and parking meters torn up from the streets, breaking into offices and destroying official records. Thirty police cars were wrecked or set on fire during the riot.”

It’s as though Pasolini’s death had been avenged that day in California. Indeed, one of Jarman’s great achievements—in At Your Own Risk as in his films—is the way he reclaims a queer past and forces us to reckon with it, to share in both the ecstasy and the rage of those lives which might otherwise have been hidden from history. He began this project with Sebastiane, but Jarman’s final hagiography would be his own. These furiously written memoirs, composed in the final years of his life, while he struggled with HIV amid the indifference and contempt of straight society, are astonishingly hopeful. Jarman’s book speaks to the promise of justice, and of love, though both may have come at terrible cost. He is a saint of the bit pillow and the clenched fist.

Thomas Beard is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn.

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