An artist spends his or her existence examining life through their art, so why is it often so hard to use art to examine the artist's life in turn? We've all seen biopics that merely scratch the surface of a creative existence, either spending too much time focusing on the travails of the individual and leaving their creations by the wayside, or flat studies of the work alone that seemingly forget that there was a person behind the words or images.
Isaac Julien's new documentary Derek tries to have the best of everything in its portrait of painter and visionary filmmaker Derek Jarman, and for the most part, it succeeds. As a tribute to the man, Julien and his collaborators, producer Colin MacCabe and actress Tilda Swinton, let the viewer behind the curtain to see who Jarman was and what fueled his inspired works; at the same time, we see pieces of that work, and we learn what it meant to him as a person and to the culture at large.
Jarman made a variety of films through the '70s, '80s, and early '90s that broke the boundaries between the fine arts and cinematic language. He also blazed a trail for new queer cinema, adopting the gaudy style of rebels like Ken Russell (who hired the young artist to build sets for The Devils) and the in-your-face, ramshackle production of the punk rock movement. At the same time, movies like Sebastiane and The Tempest display an understanding of a more classical model, finding subversive elements in the old that spoke to the newness of a more open, contemporary world. As a maverick in art and in life, Jarman always walked it like he talked it, adding his voice to political outcries and openly living with HIV. Even as his health dwindled, leading to his death in 1994, he still challenged conventions, making his final epic, Blue, which asked audiences to stare at a blue screen and listen to various monologues that would conjure images within the blank color. His musings touched so many that, to this day, people still travel to Derek's home in Dungeness to look at the rock garden he sculpted in his private hours.
Julien's film is constructed as a collage, using old super-8 home movies from all the periods of Jarman's life, news footage of his activities, and clips from his films to create a cinematic object that is as interesting to look at as it is informative--something its subject could certainly appreciate. As the running backbone of Derek, the director uses two main sources: a 1991 interview Jarman gave to MacCabe in anticipation of HIV and AIDS sapping his strength and new footage of Swinton, a regular Jarman collaborator, visiting important places in his life while her voiceover reads from a tribute she wrote to her friend. Derek may be a short 76 minutes, but in that time, these devotees get closer to the essence of the man they seek to honor than most bloated puff pieces do in twice the time.
Derek should play just as well to Jarman's fans and the uninitiated alike. I first became aware of his work via his music videos for bands like the Smiths, Pet Shop Boys, and Suede, and I'm ashamed to admit that I've been remiss in seeking out his more personal endeavors. Having now watched Derek and gaining a newfound respect for its hero, it's a situation I'm going to quickly remedy.
Derek comes to DVD in an anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen transfer. For the most part, the image looks quite nice. Some of the newer footage, particularly the Swinton pieces, suffer from some ghosting, but given the many different sources this documentary is compiled from and the style in which those old films were shot, you hardly will notice it amidst the rapidly changing aesthetic.
A very basic stereo mix plays clearly without any obvious flaws.
Producer Colin MacCabe has provided a five-minute video introduction in which he explains how the project came about, how the other participants got involved, and also a little about the interview session he had with Jarman. An extended portion of that interview runs as 12 separate clips, clocking in at 69 minutes. I don't know if it's the full interview or not (gaps between sections makes me think it isn't), but the intimate sitdown with the artist is well worth partaking of.
Recommended. Derek is a fitting tribute to a wonderful man and a wonderful artist. The documentary profiles the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman, exploring the many aspects of his life, from childhood to the early artistic impulses to his activism in favor of gay rights. Using an exclusive interview with the man, coupled by a monologue by his friend and collaborator, the actress Tilda Swinton, director Isaac Julien builds a well-rounded portrait of Jarman that informs us of both the artist and the art. If you know Jarman's films, this will likely just enhance your interaction with them; if you don't know them, Derek will make you want to.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.