Serving as bookends to his filmmaking career, these two titles offer a fascinating insight into Jarman’s themes, obsessions, and aesthetics, as well as representing the powerful trajectory of one artist’s life/work. From painter to set designer (most famously on Ken Russell’s The Devils) to filmmaker, even if he claimed to never seeing himself as one. The starkly vivid imagery of his first film gave way, in his last, to a single color: a screen showing no movement but for the slight and subtle shade shifts of that single color.
Sebastiane (1976), co-directed with Paul Humfress, consists of a series set-pieces, composed and framed with a painter’s eye: the Bacchanalian dance led by Lindsey Kemp; Sebastian washing naked; the barracks; the bath-house; the pigsty; the ocean love-scene; the execution by arrows. As directorial debut’s go, it has to be one of the boldest mission statements from a filmmaker ever: unapologetically homoerotic, scripted in Latin with English subtitles, with a recondite subject matter usually reserved for the Great Masters and rendered in oil on canvas. But Jarman, who trained as a painter, here paints with his camera.
Despite being, in his own words, “a huge muddle”, the film was nevertheless a success, holding the house record for years at The Gate Cinema (Notting Hill). It offered solidarity, a rallying point, for countless gay men, who saw themselves represented, affirmed, seen. Jarman’s father – an officer in the RAF – told him that the film was an accurate depiction of Forces’ life. Its hothouse atmosphere of a tight-knit all-male environment is achieved with an artistry and candor, not unlike the novels of Jean Genet, the grime, and the glory of the male form. Also like Genet, its mixing of the high-blown and poetic with the rough corporeality of man-on-man action creates a gorgeously evangelistic vision of homosexuality. Captain Severus’ (Barney James) obsession with Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio) recalls not only the one Lieutenant Seblon has for Querelle in Genet’s Querelle of Brest but also the one depicted in Herman Melville’s novel, Billy Budd.
The script is playful and knowing – a subtitle that reads “Come on, motherfucker” accompanies the Latin phrase “Okay, Oedipus”, and in the beetle fight one of the beetles is named Mary Whitehouse (“Maria Domus”).
The film opens with a close-up of the face of Lindsey Kemp – I like to think we’re related somewhere along the line – heavily made up in white pan-stick with red glittered eyes and mouth, his tongue protrudes and quivers like a snake’s. He leads an orgiastic dance that climaxes (literally) in a Roman bukkake with Kemp’s heavily painted and glittering face splattered with fake-jizz. This orgiastic performance was for the benefit of the Roman emperor and various guests and VIPs at what Jarman himself described as “a cruel cocktail party where the glitterati met Oriental Rome”. Punk style icon and shop girl at Westwood and McClaren’s SEX, Jordan, can be spotted with her signature bleach-blonde beehive, reclining in suspenders as Mammea Morgana who, we are told, slept her way from Bath to Rome.
The £30K it cost to make was raised by donations from rich and elderly gay men including anonymous donations in Italian lire arriving in suitcases, but its cultural impact and importance for queer culture are immeasurable. This queering of the Christian Saint, drawing on and recognizing his other role as a gay icon, is a classic example of putting new wine in old bottles till the pressure makes them explode.
Unlike his canvases, which were mostly monochrome and stark, Jarman’s films are rich and lush, each one a visual feast, at once both baroque and anarchic, classical and modern, until the last one, his swan song (he died a year later, in 1994). In a very real sense, Jarman’s films map his vision, so it seems entirely appropriate that his last film Blue (1993) is about the loss of sight and consists of the single color blue with a voiceover spoken by Jarman alongside long-term collaborators Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, and John Quentin. There’s also music and sound by Jarman’s regular composer Simon Fisher-Turner, as well as Coil, Momus, Karol Szymanowski and Eric Satie. The text is diaristic, mostly concerned with documenting his experience of living with AIDS (he was diagnosed HIV+ in 1986), especially the physical disintegration (“My mind bright as a button, my body falling apart, a naked light bulb in a dark and ruined room”) and more specifically his loss of sight. Perhaps of all the senses, sight is the most precious to a visual artist such as Jarman. However, he turns losing it into a powerful artistic statement, a calm, considered engagement with how, perhaps more than any other color, blue appeals to the human eye, taking on a complex, sometimes contradictory freight of connotations. As the voiceover states, “Blue transcends the solemn geography of human loneliness” whilst also representing a low mood, an essential sadness, both cold and warm, both weighty and light. “Time is what keeps the light from reaching us”. In many ways so far removed from the brazen sensuality of his debut, it’s a fitting end, nevertheless, to what he started with Sebastiane seventeen years earlier.
Jonathan Kemp viewed both these films on OVID TV that screens films from an independent World
Review by Jonathan Kemp
Queerguru London Contributing Editor Jonathan Kemp writes fiction and non-fiction and teaches creative writing at Middlesex University. He is the author of two novels – London Triptych (2010), which won the 2011 Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, and Ghosting (2015) – and the short-story collection Twentysix. (2011, all published by Myriad Editions). Non-fiction works include The Penetrated Male (2012) and Homotopia?: Gay Identity, Sameness and the Politics of Desire (2015, both Punctum Books).