"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Wire MAY 2007 - by Brian Dillon
British film maker Derek Jarman's painterly Super-8 experiments are keys to examine the connection between the director and the music that inspired him.
In 1978, Derek Jarman - who had designed the sets for Ken Russell's 1971 film The Devils and more recently had acquired a certain notoriety with his first features as director, Sebastiane and Jubilee - was invited to screen his home movies at the London Film-Makers Co-op. As the LFC's programmer at the time, James Mackay recalls Jarman arrived clutching a bag full of Super-8 reels and audio cassettes. Since the early 1970s, Jarman had been making intimate and poetic portraits of his friends and lovers, grainy studies of his home and studio in an old warehouse by the Thames at Bankside and luminous records of sojourns in the English countryside. "I had foolishly wished my films to be home," Jarman wrote later, "to contain all the intimacies". Now, says Mackay, who went on to become Jarman's producer, he proposed to soundtrack them with selections from David Bowie, Mahler, Tangerine Dream and Ravel. "Here's a really good one," he would declare, cueing up a particularly apt or affecting marriage of sound and dreamlike celluloid.
It's that spirit of improvisation, of the film screening as performance - as his confusion of gallery, cinema and stage - that makes him appear so pivotal today. Thirteen years after his death, Jarman's Super-8 experiments seem the most enduring and charged fragments of a body of work that included, alongside the feature films, diaries, essays, paintings and spectacle. They were also, as a number of current and forthcoming events confirm, perhaps the most suited to musical collaboration, elaboration, or apparently incongruous accompaniment. At Tate Modern this month, Throbbing Gristle will perform during a screening of some rarely seen films from the Super-8 archive. The event is billed less as a live soundtrack, more a collaboration between group and director.
Meanwhile, several of Jarman's home movies and mid-'70s footage are included in two current London exhibitions tracing connections between art, punk and its subsequent discontents: The Secret Public: The Last Days Of The British Underground at the ICA, and Panic Attack! at the Barbican. Jarman's diaristic and painterly films now look like the real key to his work, and connect him again with the music and musical cultures that never ceased to inspire him.
In one sense, as James Mackay acknowledges today, each of the Super-8 films demands its own distinct soundtrack. Jarman never filmed them with specific music in mind, but they are structured so as to suggest certain rhythms. To conserve stock, he slowed the film down, then projected the result at an even slower speed to give a characteristically jerky but languid movement.
It's a mode that has a natural affinity with Brian Eno's Ambient works. "On Land is the music of my view," wrote Jarman in 1989, "a crescent moon, clouds scudding in the grey dawn." Glitterbug is soundtracked by Eno, giving the director's oneiric film journals a suitably elegiac cast. These are films that attest to a milieu later devastated by AIDS and the onset of a cultural chill in the 1980s that Jarman constantly resisted.
But the Super-8 films are not themselves simply melancholic, and the contexts in which Jarman himself reused them indicate also the exuberant scope of his musical concepts. They feature in Jubilee, the 1977 film that portrays punk through the time travelling eyes of Queen Elizabeth I. They were cannibalised for In The Shadow Of The Sun, a film that originally matched their handheld blur to Verdi's Requiem, before Throbbing Gristle were commissioned to create a new soundtrack. Around the same time, Jarman, whose later videos for The Pet Shop Boys and The Smiths are now better known, contrived a promo for Marianne Faithfull's desiccated 1979 comeback single Broken English, an austere compilation of footage of mid-20th century totalitarianism, with the singer herself a mere revenant, fading in and out of view. The video might as easily have matched a TG track.
There is a similar ghostliness to The Angelic Conversation (1985), a film that Jarman called "my most austere work, but also closest to my heart". Judi Dench reads Shakespeare's sonnets to a soundtrack by Coil, and the opening lines of Sonnet 53 might also be directed at the image itself, or at its eerie musical mirror: "What is your substance, whereof are you made / The millions of strange shadows on you tend?" Here, the Super-8 footage turns abstract. Jarman's shots of beautiful young men - avatars of Shakespeare's mysterious beloved - constantly threaten to evanesce into a fog of film grain. The soundtrack is by turns pastoral and sinister, lyrical synthetic strings alternating with hissing and crackling electronics in a perfect analogy of the luminous but distorting surface of Jarman's images. It is as much a film about the alchemical properties of sound and celluloid as it is an evocation of the rough magic of desire.
In the '80s, Jarman's musical collaborations had become more intimate, but as Simon Fisher Turner recalls, no less open. Having met Jarman while working as a runner and driver on The Tempest, Fisher Turner found himself vetting prospective soundtrack composers for Caravaggio when the director asked, "why don't you do it?" Jarman was sure he wanted period instruments for his portrait of the Renaissance painter, but was otherwise quite willing to trust SFT's judgement. By the time of Blue, in 1993, "we barely talked about music at all"' he muses.
At the end of the previous decade, Jarman had begun to conceive of a film about Yves Klein, or more specifically about the particular colour blue that features in several of the artist's monochrome paintings. The 'blank' film that was eventually made, with its wrenching voiceover account of Jarman's illness, existed first as a series of performances, the earliest of which involved twenty-two musicians performing Klein's Symphonie Monotone before a blue screen at the Lumière Cinema in London. Later, Blue became an avowedly personal and political work: at a subsequent performance, the gay activist group Outrage! provided an orchestra of whistles. The completed film is something closer to both painting and sound art. It owes a little to Weekend, the 1930 sonic city portrait that director Walter Ruttman intended to be heard in front of a blank cinema screen. Blue conjures the sound of a cyclist passing perilously close as Jarman, his sight failing, strikes out across a London street. Time passes in the sound of countless ticking clocks and Jarman catches himself looking at shoes in a shop window: "I thought of going in and buying a pair, but stopped myself. The shoes I am wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life."
What all this work suggests is a sensibility that shuttled constantly between reckless, gleeful experiment and a kind of muted English pastoral, "a politeness, possibly", as SFT puts it. Jarman was "very knowledgeable in terms of classical music", says the composer. His tastes had been formed by a middle-class, mid-century childhood and a profound feeling for the English countryside. Time and again in the Super-8 films you sense an artist for whom the sound and look of art, pleasure and politics was inseparable from his vision of nature, of calm and consoling rhythms as much as the giddy ones of the city and the club. And an artists who, as the actor Karl Johnson recalls in an interview appended to the DVD release of Jarman's Wittgenstein, frequently had one hand on a Dansette record player and the other on a spool of Super-8, "telling you that what you were about to see was the greatest film ever made".