Quite obviously a poet and painter even before he became a filmmaker, Derek Jarman came to movies with his singular style of cerebral camp already honed. “Gay sex, please, I’m British,” seemed like his unofficial motto, borne out in an arrestingly sensual vision, and he knew perfectly well how subversive that could be in UK art houses of the ’70s and ’80s.
A handsome new four-disc DVD set shows off some of the late director’s most well-aging experimental works. For viewers not yet initiated into Jarman‘s mysteries, it’s a fine primer; for fans, a reminder of how far he came from paying his bills with videos for the Smiths and Pet Shop Boys.
How embarrassingly banal today’s biopics seem by contrast to Caravaggio (1986) and Wittgenstein (1993), Jarman’s highly unorthodox (and of course homoerotic) portraits of the painter and philosopher. How correct all that random-seeming imagery still looks against voice-over Shakespeare sonnet recitations by Judi Dench in The Angelic Conversation (1985). How surprisingly not tedious and indeed vast those 76 minutes of nothing to see but blue (and lots to hear from more lyrical voice-overs and Simon Fischer Turner’s austere score) in Blue, the last film Jarman made, when blind and dying from AIDS in 1993.
He also gave cinema the lasting gift of his good friend and frequent muse Tilda Swinton; heady, weirdly erotic independent movies haven’t been the same since. With Glitterbox as a welcome reminder, Jarman’s films still seem at once yearning and confidently hypnotizing, as capable as ever of achieving that ideal art-film balance of urgency and serenity.