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

Born in Flames (1983)

Part of the thrill of immersing yourself in a lot of low-fi genre films & amateurish schlock is in watching outsider artists break the rules of traditional filmmaking, whether or not they know those rules exist. There’s a D.I.Y. punk ethos to B-movies & micro-budget productions that allow for wilder & more varied creative choices than professional studio filmmaking permits. Even within that paradigm, Lizzie Borden’s 1983 feminist sci-fi cheapie Born in Flames is a total anomaly. Although it visually recalls the cheap, amateur ugliness of a grindhouse horror film or a Doris Wishman sex romp, Born in Flames is directly opposed to exploitation both as an artform and as a philosophy. It’s an angry, ramshackle work of radical politics that transcends its jumbled narrative & the typical limitations of its micro-budget sci-fi genre to deliver a clear, unmistakable message: “All oppressed people have a right to violence” and revolution can only be achieved through solidarity. I’ve seen more low-fi, rough-around-the-edges 80s genre films in my life than I’ll ever be able to remember, but I doubt I’ve ever seen one half as politically pointed and culturally essential as this feminist punk milestone.

Set ten years after an American Socialist revolution, Born in Flames follows several factions of NYC women at unrest with their country’s supposed political utopia. Adopting the academic distance of a documentary, the film depicts the deficiencies in the nation’s self-congratulatory political “progress” by showing that it most benefits straight, white men. “The World’s First True Socialist Democracy” still ignores intersectional issues of racial injustice, unequal pay, sexual harassment, and queer identity bias that marginalize the women at its fringes. Several unassociated resistance groups rise up in this crisis, all dedicated to the same goals of radicalized feminist politics, but in disagreement on the tactics necessary to achieve them. With the revolutionary broadcasts of two rival pirate radio stations serving as a mouthpiece for the cause and relentless montages set to repetitions of a titular post-punk song by the band Red Krayola providing a visual representation of progress, the movie gradually makes a unified front against systemic oppression out of the chaos of unrest. Its disjointed narrative style mirrors the unorganized radical politics of its subjects until their collective mission & the moral lesson of the central story become clear, focused, and weaponized. Born in Flames is above all else a film about political organization, a topic that’s only enhanced & deepened by the outsider art aesthetic of its means.

What’s even more exciting than the film’s visual & narrative punk energy is how prescient its politics are. On one level, Born in Flames actually functions as a genuine documentary of what NYC women’s lives looked like in the early 1980s, especially in detailing images of what was then considered “women’s work”: cleaning house, feeding babies, working on a factory line, applying condoms to romantic partners– all underpaid, undervalued labor. More astonishingly, the film distinctly predicts what political unrest looks & sounds like in the 2010s. Women on bikes band together to break up public harassment & sexual assault in radical acts of vigilante justice, only to be labeled as “gangs” & “terrorists” by the press (a narrative echoed in last year’s real life documentary Ovarian Psycos). Intersectionality-minded jabs at the shortcomings of “white feminism” mirror much of the political conversation that surrounded this year’s historic Women’s March, including footage that could easily have been captured at that event with just the right Instagram filter. White men buck against the rise of oppressed voices, claiming that they’re the true victims in all this, recalling “Not All Men” & “All Lives Matter” retorts that relentlessly derail recent, legitimate protests. Mysterious deaths in police custody, public shaming of unprosecuted rapists, arguments between peacefully working within the system for progress or violently toppling it: so much of Born in Flames‘s political DNA rings true to the exact, unsettled moment in time we’re struggling through right now. The only real difference is that the soundtrack features “New Town” by The Slits instead of a rallying cry from Kendrick Lamar.

Born in Flames excels as a document of its time in D.I.Y. filmmaking & radical politics and as an eternally fresh call to arms for oppressed women in a Western society that tells them they should be content with whatever slight progress has already been made. Its tactics of radicalized recruitment & resistance feel as current to the times as ever, yet its visual documentation of black lesbian punks running the streets of NYC distinctly belong to an long gone, idealized past. The way this refusal to accept the system as it is bleeds over to the conventions of cinematic storytelling is downright infectious. This is a rare film with form just as authentically punk as its content, a combination that miraculously amounts to a radical politics powder keg instead of incoherent, unfocused anger. Much like the women who populate its not-so-futuristic political dystopia, Born in Flames starts off disorganized in its intent & tactics, but eventually coalesces into a formidable political force that threatens to topple the long-standing systems that serve as its oppressors, whether that be by-the-rules filmmaking or centuries of patriarchy.

-Brandon Ledet