Friday, 14 August 2009


A film born out of the artist's own invalidity, as the onset of AIDS robbed him of his most valuable and necessary commodity essential to his craft - chiefly, the gift of sight - and enthused by a sense that the end is drawing near; that time is passing like the memory of the great waves, or those half forgotten encounters, which ultimately remain more meaningful than any legacy that may or may not exist. That Blue (1993) describes for the benefit of the audience the filmmaker's own individual response and reaction to this particularly tragic situation, recited over a saturated blue image that never changes or relents, will possibly pose a problem for those seeking more conventional drama, or indeed more conventional cinema.

Although one can trace a line from Blue to many of the earlier films of its director Derek Jarman, simply by listening to the soundtrack and the ideas that are expressed therein, the decision to place these particular discussions against a single image of nocturnal blue seems like an incredibly audacious move, even by the standards set by Jarman's previous experimental features, such as The Garden (1990) or The Last of England (1987).

However, what initially seems like a novelty when discussed without the boundaries of context or clarification, eventually reveals itself to be a quite deliberate and remarkable stylisation used to evoke the perspective of the filmmaker and the deterioration of his sight; as the painful lesions on his retinas leave only a vague impression of light's soft illumination pulsating through the gaze of eyelids, too sore to open. The use of the colour blue, both as an artistic choice and as a concept that lends itself to certain creative associations, like as blue as the sea reflecting the sky, or blue like the heart that wails in mourning, work as a kind of shorthand to explain the sensation of sightlessness, or the feeling of the human body in the late stages of disease. The sensation of staring at this empty space filled only by colour, not blue like the moon, but blue like Picasso, becomes a sensory experience. Our eyes, transfixed on an endless image of cool blue, calming blue - the blue of winter or the blue sleep - as the voices on the soundtrack recount this story, suggesting the images that the ailing filmmaker was unable to create.

Although often fragmented by poetic expression, wordplay, quotations and personal reflection, the dialogue of Blue offers the most honest and straight-forward narrative of any of Jarman's work, relating specifically to the difficulties faced by the individual living with AIDS, the loss of his friends and loved ones, the loss of his sight and the realisation that life will soon be lost, like petals to the breeze. In this respect, the film is an important document, expressing Jarman's thoughts on and experiences with the disease at a time when the hostility surrounding the so-called "gay plague" was at its most frenzied, and combined with an already fierce criticism of the British political structure and its views on homosexuality, which found an outlet in previous films such as The Garden or Edward II (1991).

The Garden directed by Derek Jarman, 1990:

Edward II directed by Derek Jarman, 1991:

What ultimately reinforces Blue as a relevant work is its detailed description of the illness from the perspective of someone attempting to survive it. The lengthy dialog about hospital visits and medication, as memories, fading like the sight, are suggested by the subtle use of sound and music; or the continual asides and interjections of the actors John Quentin, Nigel Terry and Tilda Swinton, who offer their voices alongside Jarman's own to flesh out this dialogue, or to further establish this implied world as it exists in the dark of our imagination.

The prose throughout is beautiful; rich in detail, honest but self-deprecating. It's tragic, without descending into mawkish sentimentality, and remorseful without succumbing to wanton self-pity. In discussing his illness, Jarman pulls no punches as he talks about a virus that "rages fierce." Later, he talks about the toll this illness has taken on his body and the side-effect of being one of the many statistics, slowly dying, watching others die, but unable to do anything about it. He says - "I have no friends now who are not dead or dying. Like a blue frost it caught them. At work, at the cinema - on marches and on beaches. In churches on their knees, running, flying, silent or shouting protest." The particular suggestion of death as the blue frost - everything blue, for better or worse, like the images on screen - is the central theme that runs throughout, as the coming to terms with death is contrasted with life's rich memories, finding expression, perhaps for the final time.

In the closing verse, after the horror stories of hospitals and deterioration - the continuing high-wire act between life and death - peace is found in a half-remembered sexual encounter, which, for one brief moment, offers a reprieve from the suffering; as sweet memories - personal (we assume) to the author, but nonetheless recognisable to the viewer, despite the specifics of sexuality - calm the fires of outrage and ennui.

It is one of Jarman's most remarkable evocations as a filmmaker, made all the more astounding given only the suggestion of the image; as soft music combines with the lapping of waves and the caw of seagulls, as pebbles crush underfoot. The sex is passionate and intense, though Jarman speaks of it as a voyeur, looking back at a specific time and place; a blissful moment, un moment de bonheur, drifting through the memory like a cloud. The notions of time and time passing are reinforced in the final word, which moves us, precisely because of its simplicity, being the perfect counterpoint to the complicated soundscape of thoughts and fears, or the beauty and richness of Jarman's text as it unfolds on the screen.

Pearl fishers in azure seas
Deep waters washing the isle of the dead
In coral harbours amphora spill gold across the still seabed
We lie there
Fanned by the billowing sails of forgotten ships
Tossed by the mournful winds of the deep
Lost Boys, sleep forever
In a dear embrace - salt lips touching
In submarine gardens, cool marble fingers touch an antique smile
Shell sounds whisper, deep love
Drifting on the tide forever
The smell of him
Dead good looking
In beauty's summer
His blue jeans around his ankles
Bliss, in my ghostly eye
Kiss me on the lips
On the eyes
Our name will be forgotten
In time
No one will remember our work
Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud
And be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun
For our time is the passing of a shadow
And our lives will run like sparks through the stubble.

I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave

Blue directed by Derek Jarman, 1993:

Naturally, there will be viewers who balk at the idea of watching a plain blue screen for close to eighty minutes. Needless to say, there is already enough criticism about Jarman's supposed audacity to "release a radio play with visual accompaniment" on various sites around the net: but such reactions are to be expected when a film or filmmaker strays so far from convention, even if such experiments are made out of necessity, rather than choice. But the use of blue, essential in creating a mood that we can associate with the feelings of sadness and regret, is beautiful, and far more rewarding than any of the cluttered, conventional mise-en-scene currently on display at any local multiplex. It doesn't deserve to be denigrated simply because it refuses to compete with the figures in a frame, shot/reverse-shot, close up to wide shot conventions that we've come to accept as the requirements of the moving picture. If one, as a filmmaker, is encouraged to express their ideas visually, or to offer a visual experience for the viewer that is unique to the medium, then Blue is as valid as any other work in which the visual design is intended to stir emotion or response.

Like much of Jarman's work it is a film worth returning to; where the impact of the drama is intensely personal, but in no way private. It is open to the projections of an audience, who can read into the filmmaker's own thoughts and meditations and try to take something away from the experience. Whether it is the plight of the dying man, reduced to painting in broad-strokes, away from the complexity of his previous work, rich in visual splendour; or the simple fact that life and love hang in the balance – the dream, where everything dies. That life must pass "like the traces of a cloud", or that in the face of death, it is the combination of the mundane, new shoes in a shop window, and the memory, a life that runs "like sparks through the stubble", that we cling to. Where the chiming clock-like sounds and sustained notes, meshing with a continuation of seaside reminisce, lingers during the closing credits, suggesting... an elegy.

Éloge de l'amour directed by Jean-Luc Godard, 2001:

"The measure of love is to love without measure"

If ever I dreamed of my dead name
High in the heart of London, unsurpassed
By Time for ever, and the Fugitive, Fame
There seeking a long sanctuary at last

I better that; and recollect with shame
How once I longed to hide it from life's heats
Under those holy cypresses, the same
That shade, always, the quiet place of Keats

Now rather thank I God there is no risk
Of gravers scoring it with florid screed
But let my death be memoried on this disc
Wear it, sweet friend. Inscribe no date nor deed
But may thy heart-beat kiss it night and day
Until the name grow vague and wear away.

- Wilfred Owen, With An Identity Disc

Blue Monochrome by Yves Klein, 1961: