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

The Garden (1990)

Derek Jarman’s process for creating the look of his 1990 experimental feature The Garden was to put the film through an exhausting gauntlet of format transfers. Shot on super-8, then recorded to video, before finally being printed on 35mm film, the physical shape of The Garden had been put through the ringer to achieve its deliberately scuzzy, highly color-saturated patina. The general effect of the film on the audience is much the same. Non-narrative, mostly dialogue-free, and constantly shifting in both mood & technique, the film feels more like a process meant to break its audience down than it does a piece of creative entertainment. It opens as a vibrant, playful experiment in overlapping visions of homoromantic tableaus & Biblical Christian iconography, but its titular Edenic tone is gradually soured into a somber, morbidly violent affair that loses all of its initial energy to disorganized doom & gloom. It’s exhausting, purposefully so, and it’s easy to leave the film feeling just as worn out as its imagery was by the time it reached its final form.

My assumption is that Jarman intended The Garden’s soul-deep exhaustion to be a kind of diary of his own emotional state in the early 90s. Suffering from a series of AIDS-related health crises at the time of production (a sign of declining health that would eventually end his life just a few years later), Jarman filmed this disjointed series of Biblical tableaus & scenes of homophobic violence around the bleak exteriors of his coastal home in Dungeness, England. Self-described early in the proceedings as a tour though a “wilderness of failure,” the film’s backslide from paradisiac peace into morbid atonement serves as a kind of eulogy to the loss of an entire queer generation to a single virus, one which would eventually claim the filmmaker himself. We open with James Bidgood-esque visions of queer love & harmony (similar to Todd Haynes’s contemporary work in Poison), but the onscreen couple being depicted is eventually arrested, beaten, and shamed into disorder & dissolution. Religious imagery like a lynched Judas dressed as a leather-clad punk shilling credit cards, a young Tilda Swinton appearing as a Madonna figure hounded by paparazzi, and old women playing wine glass tones as the twelve apostles at the Last Supper interrupt this reverie, until it finally sours into an official funeral for the real-life dead in Jarman’s familial circle. The film can be occasionally beautiful, but it’s pretty fucking grim on the whole.

As an aesthetic object, The Garden is wonderfully exciting in its stabs of surreal shot-on-video era imagery. Its experiments in Ken Russellian green screen fuckery in which the entire sky is supplanted with flowers & other poetic, Polaroid-grade images are especially wondrous. The film also clearly has a sense of humor, despite its overall descent into despair, often breaking for absurdist musical numbers – such as a bargain bin music video for the showtune “Think Pink” from Funny Face. I don’t know if it’s the kind of film I’d recommend watching at home, though, where smartphones & other distractions are readily available. Even seeing it digitally restored in a proper theatrical environment (thanks to Zeitgeist’s summer-long queer cinema series Wildfire), I struggled to stay awake for the final 20-minute stretch. Not only is the film deliberately draining its trajectory from Eden to funeral service, it also suffers from the same attention-level difficulty that many feature-length works from directors who mostly work in short films suffer, the same exhaustion that tanks a lot of Guy Maddin’s films. As interesting as each homoerotic image, Biblical tableau, or outbreak of bigoted violence may be in isolation, they never really congeal as a cohesive, unified collection.

Jarman was at least aware of how miserable & patience-testing The Garden would be for his audience. The opening introduction in his woefully sparse narration includes the invitation, “I want to share this emptiness with you.” By the closing sequence wherein Tilda Swinton’s Madonna figure conducts a memorial for the homoromantic Eden lost over the course of the picture (a quiet ceremony involving cheap paper lanterns), I definitely felt that emptiness to some extent. It wasn’t the most pleasant or even the most clearly decipherable feeling to leave a movie theater with, but it was effective nonetheless. If you ever find yourself braving this “wilderness of failure” to “share this emptiness” with Jarman, just go into the journey armed with patience & a willingness to feel hopelessly miserable by the end credits. An experimental art film dispatch from the grimmest days of the AIDS crisis will apparently do that to you.

-Brandon Ledet