Jubilee (1978)

“If the music’s loud enough, we won’t hear the world falling apart.”

The only Derek Jarman film I had seen until recently was his AIDS-haunted arthouse whatsit The Garden, which was just as depressing as it was confoundingly anarchic. I was prepared, then, for the doom-and-gloom overtones of his late-70s punk epic Jubilee, but I was not at all prepared for the film to have an actual plot – you know, with named characters and a linear progression of events. The Garden trained me to think of Jarman as an experimental artist who worked more in provocative, disjointed tableaus than in anything resembling narrative. By comparison, Jubilee feels like his version of mainstream blockbuster filmmaking. His reverence for potent, abstracted imagery still overpowers his interest in telling a purposeful story, but there’s just enough narrative structure in Jubilee to hang those provocative images off of without ever feeling like the film is treading stagnant water. It’s only well-behaved when considered in juxtaposition with Jarman’s more experimental work, but that slight accommodation was the exact leg up I needed to fully get on his wavelength.

To be fair, Jubilee likely also resonated with me because it thematically overlaps with the femme punk dystopias of some of my all-time favorite films: Desperate Living, Born in Flames, Ladies and Gentlemen … The Fabulous Stains, etc. Jarman warps the grimy, low-fi punk aesthetics of those hall-of-famers into a pure art-house abstraction of his own design. He tells a story here, but it’s a confounding mess of a story at best, and it only exists to prop up the distinctly punk nihilism & stage dressing of his tableaus-in-motion. Like with the 1980s No Wave scene that cleared the way for Born in Flames, it’s the kind of film that could only be made in an already crumbling city – exploiting the leftover infrastructure rubble of WWII to evoke a debaucherous punk futurism, a world with no hope. Its sci-fi vision of London’s cracked concrete future is essentially just a portrait of its present-day moment in punk discontent, snapshotting the female teen degenerates, queer burnouts, and hedonistic vandals who defined the scene at its purest. Crass already declared that “Punk is dead” in 1978, only a year after the scene had broken out of its urban subculture dungeons to reach a wider audience through proper record distribution (and magazine-promoted fashion trends). Jarman seems to be on the same page but finds his own sense of beauty while gazing at the movement’s rotting corpse.

To access this futuristic vision of punk rock rot, Jarman first looks to England’s past. Out of idle boredom, Queen Elizabeth I tasks her royal alchemist to entertain her with a vision of the future. With the help of a goth theatre angel, the black magic ritual is a rousing success, transporting the queen to a near-future London that had been doomed by the prophetic Sex Pistols to have No Future at all. All art & culture has been decimated except for Top of the Pops & The Eurovision Song Contest, which have swapped out traditional Top 40s pop music for first-wave punk acts like The Slits, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Adam Ant. She mostly observes this dystopia through the daily goings on of one core group of female rebels: unrepentant degenerates with social ties to the pop music scene but anarchic personal politics that make them a target for police state oppression. There’s no sense of communal cohesion among these street-punk lowlifes, outside their disdain for wealth & the old-guard. One is a nymphomaniac; another would rather burn the entire world to the ground than ever have sex. One is a self-appointed fascist historian; another is an idealistic leader who believes their punk enclave is the future, etc. Their communal desires & politics are just as obscured as the intent of their pointless daily antics; the only clear message is that there truly is no future (and England’s dreaming).

I can’t pretend that I understand what Jarman was attempting to say with Jubilee any more clearly than what I picked up from The Garden. Both films are extremely difficult to decipher in the moment as they indulge in opaque images & dialogue, but both still communicate a personal & cultural feeling when considered in their entirety. In The Garden, that feeling was one of devastating post-AIDS grief. In Jubilee, it was a punk rock brand of nihilism that could only have been built on cultural foundations as fashionably hedonistic as The Sex Pistols and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which are both quoted in-dialogue with the hushed reverence that straight circles save for Bible verses. John Waters’s own femme punk dystopia, Desperate Living, was released a year earlier than Jubilee and made much more overt strides to turn the abrasive anarchism of punk subculture into populist entertainment (at least in a midnight circuit context); it very well may be my favorite film of all time. Jubilee falls more towards the experimental art end of that academic/populist spectrum, but it’s just as abrasive & (literally) trashy in its own jumbled nightmare interpretation of the time. It hit me right in my femme-punk sweet spot, and I’m more excited than ever to see what other stomach-turning tableaus Jarman’s filmography has to offer.

-Brandon Ledet

Cold Steel (1987)

EPSON MFP image

three star

It’s tempting to think of 1995’s Jade as the bargain bin version of William Friedkin’s masterfully sleazy 80s cop thriller To Live and Die in L.A., but maybe the director wasn’t at all imitating past success with that admittedly dire misfire. By the time Friedkin made Jade, the 80s sleaze market he helped shape with his Wang Chung-scored cop thriller masterpiece had formed into its own solid genre, ranging wildly in both content & quality. The Sharon Stone/Adam Ant cop thriller Cold Steel, delivered by the one-time director Dorothy Ann Puzo, is just as sleazy & cheaply made as Jade and could easily be accused of the same claims of To Live and Die in L.A. counterfeiting (heh, heh), but because it doesn’t feature a filmmaker retreading old ground it gets by as a straightforward genre entry. Cold Steel is undeniably of its time in every possibly way. Its clash of 80s pop ballad cheese with extreme stomach-churning violence is only unremarkable because there was so much other tacky, tonally incongruous violence being produced at the time of its release. Considered in isolation and divorced from its peers & influences, Cold Steel is a fairly entertaining picture (which is more than can be said in Jade’s defense, unfortunately).

Released the same year as Lethal Weapon, Cold Steel attempts to navigate the same balance of light humor and intense violence as that much more enduring work, but can’t manage to match the intelligence of Shane Black’s game-changing screenplay. In this scenario, our down on his luck, perpetually drunk cop mixes pills & booze to show his gritty side, but bangs an automated coffee machine with commands like, “C’mon! Squirt!” only to receive a coffee facial to show that he’s also, in effect, a lighthearted clown. This sloppy cut-up finds himself entangled in a never-ending loop of revenge when a vicious gang (including Adam Ant as a smooth-talking goon) murders his father on Christmas Day for a perceived past wrong. The leader of the gang responsible, known only as the Iceman, is a hard drug-shooting creep with a mechanical voice box that allows him to speak through the wound in his throat. It’s at first unclear if this thieving, murderous crew has any clear motive in their violent robberies or if they’re just generic gangster baddies, but as our boozed-out hero chases them down through a series of explosion-heavy car chases, industrial setting confrontations, and heartless double crossings, a much clearer picture starts to unfold. Somewhere in all this chaos he finds the time to woo a young Sharon Stone through the erotic exoticism of eating sushi and that’s how sleazy 80s cop movies are made.

Cold Steel and Jade are both derivative and narratively unambitious in their post-To Live and Die in L.A. genre sleaze, but Cold Steel is entertaining enough to prove that wasn’t Jade’s only problem. Some of its entertainment is pure novelty, especially in its casting of Adam Ant, Sharon Stone, and (in a brief scene) minor scream queen Heidi Kozak. What really struck me, though, was how shocking the film’s violence felt despite the familiarity of its generic narrative. Stuntmen on fire, vicious stabs to the neck, grotesquely detailed drug abuse (another nod to Friedkin?), and overeager sexual leering all give the film a slimy sheen of 80s sleaze that never quite reach the heights of films like To Live and Die in L.A. or Cruising, but are still affecting in their own right. I’ll even admit that a few of Cold Steel’s stray stabs at humor got a laugh out of me. I guffawed especially hard when the hero cop responds to the warning, “He’ll kill you both!” with a casual, “Yeah, I’m planning on not letting that happen.” Movies like Jade prove that following genre convention and searching for easy thrills doesn’t automatically equal entertainment value success, but Cold Steel somehow survives by playing by the rules and getting dirty in the details. It won’t blow your mind, but you could do much worse if this is the type of action picture you’re looking for and you’ve already seen To Live and Die in L.A. one too many times.

-Brandon Ledet