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.
To justify his vision of Edward II as a contemporary gay fable, Jarman has said that he hates costume dramas because "they just look appalling." But the Nineties costumes for Edward and Gaveston (blue and green pajamas), Mortimer (khaki British-commando gear) and Isabella (Leona Helmsley haute couture) leads one to wonder which could be worse. Creditably, Jarman tampers only so much with Marlowe (Gaveston does blurt out an extraneous "Fuck 'em" when mentioning the barons), and his actors - all of them trained classical performers - successfully render their sixteenth-century blank verse. But boy, is this production claustrophobic! The entire film has been shot inside dimly lit corridors, hallways, and cubbyholes - a setting more suitable for Adolf Hitler's last days than Edward II's. The dark, deliberate theatricality of this screen treatment has all the expansiveness of a suppository.
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The acting is secure though hardly distinguished. Steven Waddington and Andrew Tiernan, who play Edward and Gaveston, are delicate and believable - bland, even. The more dramatic roles, Mortimer and Isabella, are played for all they're worth by veteran Nigel Terry and the glacial, stylish Tilda Swinton (who won the Best Actress Award at the Venice Film Festival for her performance in this film). But they're encouraged by Jarman to overdo it: Isabella kills Edward's brother by descending on him in vampirical fashion and, in front of Mortimer and the crown prince, biting his neck, sucking his blood, thus killing him.
Jarman's taste takes a nose dive more than once, especially where music is concerned. Toward the end of the film, foreshadowing the fall of Mortimer and Isabella, young Edward sits above a cage bearing his mother and her lover, and Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" from The Nutcracker plays in the background. And in one of the most contrived scenes in recent cinema, Gaveston and Edward share a moment and slow dance romantically before Gaveston flees the realm. And the music is none other than Cole Porter's ballad, "Every Time We Say Goodbye." But there's more yet! In a matchlessly vulgar notion, a clear nod to music-video's intrusion on all visual arts, Annie Lennox, formerly of the Eurythmics, makes an appearance to sing - or rather, to lip-synch - Cole Porter as the two nobles pet heavily and shuffle round the dance floor. Intended, no doubt, as a heart-melting moment, the scene has all the aesthetic refinement of a lubricated prosthetic penis.
And speaking of body parts, Jarman makes sure we get a full dose of wet, male-to-male copulation in Edward II. In an early sequence, Gaveston ponders his return to Edward while a pair of musclemen lying in the same bed next to him sniff, smooch, and devour one another's sweaty orifices like a pair of rottweilers. Neither history nor Marlowe - nor, for that matter, the political interests of the contemporary gay community - is served by this unnecessary erotic display. It tends to lead one to conclude that, in the gay world, the penchant for gratuitous sex - in movies as in life - is as prevalent as it is in the hetero. (Maybe more.) With the flap over Basic Instinct still fresh in mind, and the allegations of "straight Hollywood" pigeonholing of gays still ringing in our ears, it is sobering to witness this film - the product of a gay filmmaker working outside the American mainstream - and the shameless manner in which sex is employed as an easy means of provocation and gratification. Call it T&A or C&B: the difference lies only in the appendages. And it shows Derek Jarman to be no visionary. He is literal-minded in the extreme when it comes to liberating any audience of its supposed prejudices.
But in the end, these assignations are tame when compared to the self-debasing freak shows one hears about in the netherworld of South Beach clubs. Given the regular audience, I predict this Edward II will be a summer hit at the otherwise excellent Alliance Film/Video Project, where Jarman's films have been well received in the past. Alas, only that multitude of club junkies flying high on Ecstasy, weed, and Jaegermeisters, who on regular weekend outings cheer the likes of Lady Henesy Brown (the black female performer who allegedly places a snake inside her distended vagina and presses her mutated breast to lactate over the screaming crowd) could find something diverting, instructional, and inspirational pushing forth from Jarman's tale. I wager very few others would.