Derek Jarman, Dancing Ledge
University of Minnesota Press, 2010
256pp US$18.95 (pb)
Derek Jarman, Kicking the Pricks
University of Minnesota Press, 2010
ISBN 978-0-8166-7450-3256pp US$18.95 (pb)
(Review copies supplied by University of Minnesota Press)
Film-maker, painter, queer activist, AIDS awareness activist, gardener and writer, Derek Jarman has left a great legacy in a variety of artistic and cultural fields. Jarman is undoubtedly best known for his films which include Sebastiane (UK 1976), Jubilee (UK 1978), The Tempest (UK 1979), The Angelic Conversation (UK 1987), Caravaggio (UK 1986), The Last of England (UK/West Germany 1988), Edward II (UK 1991), The Garden (UK/Germany 1990), Wittgenstein (Japan/UK 1993) and Blue (UK 1993) and his work is still studied on alternative cinema modules and also in related subject areas such as gender and sexuality studies. Jarman’s films are often enigmatic and difficult for the spectator, not least because Jarman is a film-maker not immersed in classical film-making traditions at all. His work is indebted to the art cinema tradition but yet strays from narrative conventions and while making a nod to underground or counter cinema traditions is often too personal a vision to be pigeon-holed in that area either. To appreciate a Jarman film, the spectator needs to abandon cinematic preconceptions and simply yield to the power of Jarman’s unique and very personal vision.
In many ways, Jarman’s books echo the dynamics of his film texts. Both Dancing Ledge and Kicking the Pricks are unconventional journals, blending interviews with personal musings and details of banal, everyday activities. However, although the books offer the reader the pleasure of delving into Jarman’s mind and personal life, they are always underpinned by considerations of his specific films. Dancing Ledge, for example, is inspired by Jarman’s musings on Caravaggio while Kicking the Pricks is, for the most part, devoted to The Angelic Conversation and The Last of England. Dancing Ledge and Kicking the Pricks are part of a series of books which Jarman penned in the 1980s/1990s including At Your Own Risk, Chroma and Modern Nature.
Written as a diary/journal, Dancing Ledge details Jarman’s early life—his public school upbringing, education at King’s College London, early travels, first sexual experiences and his first ventures into film-making. Like his films, the book is written in a unique and personal style, often wandering through a range of topics in a non-sequential fashion. Part of the charm of this writing is its intimate nature in which the reader really feels that he/she “knows” Jarman from engaging with the diary entries. The text is remarkable for the way it juxtaposes technical discussion of the films with cultural musings and everyday gossip. On p.19, for example, Jarman includes a charming entry in which he relates industrial and financial issues of making Caravaggio and then finishes the entry with “The weather is awful here. Freezing”. Like Jarman’s films in which the personal is very much the political, the books will continually elide the boundary between public/private and elevated/ banal. There are innumerable deadpan references to sex throughout the texts and these are often interspersed with Jarman’s own speculations on art and philosophy. For example, on p.26 Jarman details a conversation about Yates followed by the deadpan detail of how he then fucked with no amyl (amyl nitrate—now known as “poppers”) but had baby oil to hand and so that was “ok”. Such is the charm of Jarman’s aesthetic (in both his films and his writing) and whether the reader engages with this style or finds it repellent is a matter of personal taste.
Another interesting point raised by Jarman’s writing in all his books (but especially Dancing Ledge) is the way he will offer very reductive readings of great works of art (including his own) for a mildly sensationalist, even titillating effect. Much of Dancing Ledge is devoted to a consideration of Caravaggio—both Jarman’s film Caravaggio, and Michelangelo di Caravaggio the painter—and Jarman is prepared to offer a shockingly simplistic reading of Caravaggio’s painting The Martyrdom of St Matthew on p.14. This famous painting contains a self-portrait of Caravaggio the artist—a small figure in the top left of the painting—who watches the violence in the scene. Jarman appropriates Caravaggio’s look in a highly unconventional reading of the painting in which he writes
Michele (Caravaggio) gazes wistfully at the hero slaying the saint. It is a look no one can understand unless he has stood till 5am in a gay bar hoping to be fucked by that hero.
As I am someone who has indeed waited in a gay bar until 5am, hoping to be picked and fucked, I must admit that I don’t recognise the “look” that Jarman reads in Caravaggio in the self portrait. Indeed, this type of reading is very much Jarman “selling out” in order to make his films (and other great Art) attractive to a particular (sub)cultural audience. The irony is that Jarman’s film, Caravaggio, is far from being a gay identity politics film and, if anything, is remarkable for the way it queers sexual identification and the circumscription of desire to gendered bodies. In many respects, this is a particular danger of delving into Jarman’s writing in order to find “explanations” or “illuminations” of his highly personal, enigmatic films. Jarman’s books often sensationalise specific details or else “sell” the film to the most popular of readings in an attempt to garner the support of a specific group of spectators.
Another interesting point in Jarman’s writings is the way in which specific historical details change according to his retellings. In Dancing Ledge, p.41, Jarman describes an “innocent” event at school in which he was found in bed, cuddling another schoolboy. Jarman explains this in terms of wanting to alleviate the loneliness of boarding school—a child simply seeking affection. This same event would transform in each subsequent retelling in his future books until finally becoming a truly angry account in At Your Own Risk in which Jarman writes that “I was unsuccessfully trying to fuck the boy in the bed next to mine”. This blurring of historical accuracy with personal (poetic?) licence is certainly something which we have come to expect from Jarman and is either part of the charm of his art or else something which readers/spectators find difficult to accept.
While Dancing Ledge is very much in the style of a journal or diary, Kicking the Pricks is largely given to an interview about the making of The Last of England. Jarman reflects in some depth on this truly terrifying film. Surprisingly, he seems to draw considerable comfort from the bleak vision which is The Last of England, finding a small measure of hope in the midst of all the despair. At this time, Jarman had just been diagnosed HIV positive and this diagnosis was obviously affecting all his artistic output. The considerations of The Last of England are, like his other reflections, a mixture of philosophy, cultural politics and lamentations about the demise of the British film industry. Perhaps his reflections on The Angelic Conversation offer more support to the scholar of this film but yet even these are wilfully self indulgent where Jarman often sells this beautiful film a little short by suggesting that it is considerably more homoerotic than it actually is.
Like Jarman’s films, Dancing Ledge and Kicking the Pricks are fascinating reads, blending reflections on film-making with autobiography and an occasional rant about British cultural politics. Although it’s nearly twenty years after Jarman died from AIDS related infections, his work has yet again been showcased in the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (2011), demonstrating that the appeal of this great man’s work is still there for lesbian, gay and queer (and possibly even post-queer) spectators. Books such as Dancing Ledge and Kicking the Pricks should very much remain part of that appeal.