To each fiery cinema individualist his own honorial DVD box set: here we have a reacquaintance or initiation, for the babies of the Reagan/Thatcher era with the unique howl of Derek Jarman, dead in 1994 from AIDS at the age of 52, a career attenuated by the very same fate that ended up giving it such amperage. You’d never know it, but there was a time when British filmmakers, emboldened by punk culture, fueled by hatred for Thatcherite conservatism, and funded by the BFI and the new Channel Four, made outrageous, experimental, high culture vs. low culture collision movies, doped on structuralism and gender-bending and period-picture mockery. Jarman was the moment’s jester prince; he never made a film you’d mistake for the work of another, or a film that doesn’t manifest on the screen as an unpredictably impish riff on serious matters, Art-making and Sex and Death. Not to mention, Jarman’s was a not-so-distant day when thanks to a small number of artists, but largely to Jarman, gay cinema had a chance to be regarded as pioneering art, and not just politics.
His arsenal of tools was various but distinctive: voguing tableaux, camp ballet, cabaret schtick, poeticized narration, post-Genet softcore iconicity, satiric anachronism, found footage, etc. (Add in a tireless fascination with angels, before Tony Kushner saw AIDS in an angelic light.) But Jarman’s style, always meta-, freely mutated from film to film. “Caravaggio” (1986) put him on the map, and in addition to fulfilling the threadbare promise of “Sebastiane” (1976), it divided and conquered its relationship with classical culture. Jarman simultaneously reproduced the Italian master’s imagery and lighting dynamics (this was done so adroitly it was in turn slavishly co-opted by Tarsem Singh in his famous video for R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion”), but also insisted on a caricatured, theatrical distance when it came to character and biography, framing art history not as a matter of a lofty past, but of a chaotic, exuberant, erection-hard now. His actors Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton, Dexter Fletcher, Sean Bean gesticulate and fume and pose like street performers, and the artificiality of every aspect of the film repercusses around the contrived fauxness of all art. (Hardly anything is lent as much time and patience as the boredom and personality of Caravaggio’s models.) Applying a pregnant wit that has escaped both Peter Greenaway and Sally Potter, Jarman makes a pastiche out of the artist biopic, while at the same time revealing the process of making art as tangible and as just one factor in an artist’s stormy, sexual, emotional life.
Also in the glamly labeled “Glitterbox” set, along with a closet full of extras, essays, interviews and shorts, “Wittgenstein” (1993) pushes the palette of “Caravaggio” to extremes, characterizing the titular philosopher and the “art” of philosophy in general as mockable, cartoonish, vaudeville farce, complete with blackened stage background and dialogue with Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and a green-skinned dwarf Martian. “The Angelic Conversation” (1985) is a minor, impressionist collage film shot in Super-8 (a kind of warm-up for “The Last of England” three years later), but it’s “Blue” (1993), Jarman’s terminal work, that dares the most. Famously, it’s hardly a movie, but a complex narration and soundtrack playing behind (beside? atop?) an empty but bright blue screen. (It takes Godard and Gorin’s “Letter to Jane” one step further, from one image to none; it’s closest corollary might be a radio play.) Jarman’s text, about the decay of his body and eyesight in the grip of AIDS, and about his closing life already emptied of friends and lovers, is wry and intimate, and its relationship with what you’re seeing and not seeing is, to say the least, disquieting. “Blue” is intended to be seen in a darkened theater, where the relentless color amounts to an optical assault, and ends up playing tricks on your eyes. On home video, the experience is closer to seeing a Caravaggio in a textbook: edifying and necessary, but no replacement for being there.
A refreshing radical spirit thumps out of “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” (2007), a crudely assembled video doc by the team behind Vice magazine, in which editor Suroosh Alvi and his crew recount firsthand the tale of Acrassicauda, Baghdad’s only heavy metal band. It’s a potent tale, because there really isn’t any heavy metal culture in Iraq, and the band itself (badly named, they admit, for the Latinate moniker of an Iraqi black scorpion) could barely find a place to practice, much less play for an audience. What’s more, members keep leaving the country as refugees, and, of course, there’s a war going on. The film is rich with telling details the band wants to grow their hair ’90s-Metallica-long but cannot for fear of Muslim reprisals (their English, learned from American music and TV, often has a hick twang to it), and during one concert (performed in a catering hall dining room), the electricity shuts down, hilariously, in the middle of a song, inciting some griping about the American invasion before the power comes up again, resuming the thrash.
But in the end, the guys of Acrassicauda are just guys, making livings and starting families and eventually hightailing to Syria, where there isn’t any heavy metal, either, and “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” emerges as a rare, pro-am window on what’s actually going on in Iraq it’s a “gangster’s paradise,” says Alvi, who effectively smuggled himself and his crew into Iraq without official sanction. Acrassicauda’s eloquent and stalwart bassist Firas, who ran an electronics store in downtown Baghdad for years before leaving, decimates the U.S. media’s portrait of the “sectarian fighting” “Dude, I’m Sunni, my wife’s Shia, it’s just propaganda shit.” Jihad?, Alvi asks. “There’s no jihad. The people who are dying are all Muslim.”
[Photo: “Caravaggio,” Cinevista, 1986; “Heavy Metal in Baghdad,” Vice Films, 2007]
“Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4” (Zeitgeist Video) and “Heavy Metal in Baghdad” (Hart Sharp Video) are now available on DVD.