Cheek to Cheek

Never having put much stock in the concept of acquired tastes, the films of Derek Jarman, for all their incidental beauties, continue to leave a bad impression on me: too much flash, too little insight is the short of it. Jarman belongs to a generation of British filmmakers who came to cinema by way of art schools and scenic design (among his contemporaries, Peter Greenaway is another example); their work is limited by the very things that propel them - style and panache. Jarman's earliest cinematic dabblings (in particular his set design for Ken Russell's The Devils, but also for Savage Messiah) were undeniably creative and eye-catching, but the combination of tasteful, painterly camera techniques and often-irresponsible narrative devices in his films - added to sometimes laughably inadequate acting - underscore a sense of surface gloss and scant evidence of depth. Like David Lynch, another art student sitting in the director's chair, Jarman can provide images that linger in the mind, but also akin to the creator of Twin Peaks, he is affected by a supreme order of childishness.

And then, of course, there is Jarman's homosexuality. It's a recurring theme that hovers over his films and distracts like a bothersome insect. To be sure, his career as gay chronicler has been more consistent than his progress as a film artist. Jarman's first feature, released in 1976, was Sebastiane, which offered a gay retelling of the story of Saint Sebastian along with a ludicrous screenplay - spoken in Latin - that was read by the British cast like a Monty Python Oxbridge spoof. The film's Mediterranean locations were extremely pretty, though. But even here, the craggy landscapes and Jarman's crew of sweaty male bonders were hardly compelling enough for a music video, let alone a depiction of martyrdom. Homo soft porn, nothing more.

Jubilee, a punk-inspired thrashing of English society directed just in time to coincide with Queen Elizabeth's 25th anniversary (and starring Adam Ant), followed. Then, in 1986, after a hiatus working in 16mm film and writing his autobiography, came his opus maximus, Caravaggio, another gay reworking of a historical figure, this one chock-a-block with anachronisms and revisionist speculations. Once again Jarman's eye for coloristic detail - and his appreciation for Caravaggio's chiaroscuro religious portraits - was thorough, but the film's raison d'etre seemed to be a homoeroticizing of the post-Renaissance artist's life, especially seeing the relationship between the artist and model, and the subsequent murder, as a protracted lovers' quarrel. I did not see Jarman's 1990 film, The Garden, said to be a collage of images (including religious ones) from British gay life in the age of AIDS, and therefore cannot comment.

His latest film is Edward II, and Jarman is up to his old tricks. In this film he attempts an allegorical updating of Christopher Marlowe's play of 1593, set in an ambiguous present and filmed exclusively on soundstages. It is an unmitigated disappointment. The focus is repeatedly on the homosexual love of Edward for his lover, Piers Gaveston, but there is something else: Jarman, in his modernizing of what for all intents and purposes is an intrigue-laden, political-historical drama, sees Edward as a contemporary, totemic figure to fuel current gay activism. In this cavernous adaption, Edward's supporters wear T-shirts signaling their origin and orientation ("Outrage" is an activist group, plus slogans such as "Gay Desire Is Not a Crime" and "Queer as Fuck") as they prance and protest about the drab, subterranean set. After Edward is murdered - popular legend tells us that a red-hot poker was shoved up his behind - the activists fall expectantly silent. The cult-of-the-hero status conveyed, in this instance, is quite ludicrous - idle worship.

Because the actual events are, in and of themselves, so interesting - and because Jarman has chosen either to ignore or pervert them - they bear brief mention here. Edward II was a weak king who nonetheless ruled for twenty years. He came upon the throne of England at the age of 23 in 1307, and married Isabella of France a year later. She bore him a son, also named Edward, in 1312. True, Edward was a homosexual, and his "favor" of Gaveston, a boyhood friend of the king (and a commoner), caused dissent among the barons, who, led by Roger de Mortimer, the First Earl of March, probably had Gaveston killed. (There is no conclusive proof of the latter.)

But the barons' claims extended beyond matters of sexual preference: the loss of Scotland after Bannockburn in 1314 was offered as proof of this king's luxuriant lack of statesmanship. Edward's later favorites, Hugh le Despenser and his son, virtually ruled the kingdom from 1322 to 1326, while Isabella left for France in 1325. One of the icier femmes of English history, Isabella began an adulterous relationship with Mortimer and returned with him to England in 1327, whereupon they deposed Edward and had the Despensers executed. At this point Edward III, all of fifteen years of age, became the titular monarch, while Isabella and Mortimer corruptly held onto the strings of power. But the story contains an ironic coda: Three years later, in 1330, the eighteen-year-old Edward seized power in a coup, sentencing Mortimer to die and confining his mother to a nunnery, where she remained until her death.

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