The Jarman Award: Derek Jarman: Recollections
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The Jarman Award: Derek Jarman: Recollections
Derek Jarman. Image courtesy of James Mackay

Derek Jarman. Image courtesy of James Mackay

The Jarman Award “gives recognition and support to artists working with the moving image, and whose work, like Jarman’s, resists conventional definition, encompassing innovation and excellence.” The shortlisted artists for 2009 are Anja Kirschner & David Panos, Simon Martin, Lindsay Seers and Stephen Sutcliffe. And the winner – who receives £10,000 and a Channel 4 Three Minute Wonders commission – is announced on 22 September 2009.

To mark the occasion, Engine asked people about the man himself, and his work.

Duncan Petrie
Derek Jarman was a great artist who understood profoundly the power of the cinematic image – from the composed lushness of 35mm to the hand held immediacy of super-8 – to analyse and reveal, provoke and arouse, challenge and stimulate. He was also an intellectual, concerned with the inter-relations between creativity, power and desire which he explored through an engagement with a rich array of historical figures from Saint Sebastiane to Caravaggio, Shakespeare to Marlowe, Eisenstein to Wittgenstein. Culturally he was both traditionalist and radical, which in his version of progressive, cosmopolitan Englishness created no contradiction.  Above all his work was profoundly autobiographical, something that moved centre stage after he was diagnosed HIV positive and which intensified the inextricable link between art, life and ultimately death that motivated his creativity. But Jarman was also a generous and collaborative practitioner and his oeuvre is unimaginable without the input of, among others, the actors Tilda Swinton and Nigel Terry, the designer Christopher Hobbs and the sound designer Simon Fisher Turner. Jarman was one of a handful of true iconoclasts to grace the British cinema. His enduring legacy should be as an inspiration to ambitious filmmakers seeking to challenge the conservative orthodoxies and cultural amnesia of contemporary British cinema.

Duncan Petrie is a professor at the University of York.  He previously established and was director of the Bill Douglas Centre.

Jo Comino
My contact with Derek was through the mid-eighties, over the long haul to get Caravaggio off the ground and during the making of The Angelic Conversation and The Last of England. Often he was talking and I was listening. Mostly in his tiny, austere flat in Phoenix House, Charing Cross Road, mysteriously free of the detritus of everyday life. His conversation was fluent and distinctive, crammed with references and inconsistencies, sweeping to an impassioned crescendo. The smallest trigger could set him going. Once he was furious with somebody or something and rang me to sound off. Because I was out he left a message on my answer machine only to be cut off in full rant after 3 minutes. He rang straight back to resume his flow on a new section of tape. I interviewed him for a piece in City Limits on his painting show at the ICA. When I delivered the copy the deputy editor snorted (quoting Derek) “’Fidel and Mother Theresa; they’re probably better than most!’ Ridiculous, outrageous!” “Good copy though,” he added.

For a whole generation of filmmakers he was both icon and spokesperson, generous and tremendously encouraging. He was bound up with tradition as well as being (as he described Blake) ‘off-key’. His films seem to me to be bound up with his personality: visionary, gestural, bold but doubting too.

Jo Comino is a freelance writer who continues to multi-task on film-related activities, currently for Borderlines Film Festival, Flicks in the Sticks and The Rural Media Company in Herefordshire/Shropshire.

David Curtis
Steve Hawley and I were planning Charting Time (1986),  ‘an exhibition of artists’ drawings, notes and diagrams for film’ at the Serpentine Gallery, a filler to complement a show of avant-garde music scores; (they had a gallery left over, ‘twas ever thus). We rapidly dug out animation drawings by Jayne Parker, scratched 8mm images by Tim Cawkwell, Patrick Keiller’s 40-foot scroll photo-score for The End, Lis Rhodes’ artwork for Lightmusic, many others.

Why don’t you ask Derek if you could borrow one of his books-for-films, said someone, probably Mike O’Pray. This led me to an invitation to tea at the flat in Phoenix House, with muse Tilda in attendance. Suddenly, next to the teacups, there were his exquisite ‘Books’. In them, collaged together, drawings, copied texts, photos, bits of fabric, even little objects; ideas towards a film, sometimes already with sections of dialogue in place, sometimes just prompts; all linked by notes in his sepia, Elizabethan-italic script, (occasional flourishes, included).  I left with the promise of a jewel, his The Art of Mirrors book (now held by the BFI in its Special Collections department).
The collage-method of these books is what structures the best of his films; assemblages of savage and tender reflection.

I think he had ambivalent feelings about ‘drama’ and about actors. I heard him rail against English thespians, yet in his ‘big’ films, he often allows them to do their theatrical worst, awkward alongside the non-performance of more eloquent untrained ‘finds’ (Tilda being the exception). His big budget dramas can seem to preach; his low-budget films, more radically, simply present us with things about which Derek felt passionately.

David Curtis wrote A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain and founded the British Artists’ Film and Video Study Collection at the University of the Arts London.

Daniel Fawcett
It was upon being shown a fuzzy VHS copy of The Garden, one Sunday afternoon in 1998, by my uncle, that I decided I wanted to make films. Never before had I considered that a film could be a personal expression and exploration of ideas. I wasn’t inspired to make films that looked like The Garden, but to make films that are as personal to me as The Garden is to Derek Jarman.

As filmmakers, we are now in a privileged position: it is possible for us to produce ambitious films for very little money and without involving ourselves in a situation of artistic compromise. If there is anything we should learn from Jarman it is that we should be making films we believe in and use whatever means we have available to us.

Filmmakers should be feeling liberated. Now, more than ever before, we should be seeing unique visions. A new language of cinema could emerge. Like Jarman, we need to seek a cinema of questions, exploration and experimentation. I would love to see more theatre and more magic, less business and less money, and just a whole lot more honesty. A film crew should be like a family and film like your child, raised with love, imperfect and beautiful; you must allow it enough freedom to have a life of its own.

Daniel Fawcett is a writer and director, and founder of One  + One, the Brighton Filmmakers Journal

Gary Thomas
I only met him the once. As a teenager, back in Wales, I’d seen Barry Norman reviewing Sebastiane (1976) on Film Night. A film in Latin, with an orgy scene with Lindsay Kemp, and naked soldiers – one of the first things I did on coming to London to study in 1979 was to skip lectures one afternoon for a double bill, with Jubilee (1977), at the Scala, then in Charlotte Street.

Our journalism tutor briefed us to go and interview someone famous. I stalked Kenneth Williams outside the Stage Door of the Fortune Theatre, got invited to his dressing room, and though he spoke for a couple of hours, I’d only managed ask one question. I then tried actress Georgina Hale, who’d been in Ken Russell’s The Devils (set designed by Jarman) and Mahler. In a Play for Today she’d uttered the line “why don’t you go and peddle your arse to the soldiers outside?”, which has left an impression. But she hadn’t as much to say as I’d hoped, and I’d had to ask my questions twice.

Then. Walking down the road one day. Charing Cross Road. I spotted him. Walked up to him and said “You’re Derek Jarman.” And it was back to his Phoenix House flat for tea and an interview. He told his Wizard of Oz/running down the aisle in terror story. Of how he hated Scorsese – “Raging Bull? Raging Bore!” – and his plans to make a sci-fi film that it would be impossible for an audience to bear to watch the whole way through.

I’m not sure some of the features stood up at the time, let alone now. Jubilee confirmed punk as art school, Caravaggio was Querelle-lite. But Imagining October and The Angelic Conversation remain crucial works – vital and assertive, aesthetic and political testimonies that there was a part of culture that belonged to us.

Gary Thomas is editor of APEngine.

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