This first volume of controversial and iconoclastic artist, author, filmmaker and gay rights activist Derek Jarman contains some experimental works plus Jarman ‘classics’ such as JUBILEE, THE TEMPEST and CARAVAGGIO, not to mention an exhausting amount of bonus material.

It is obvious from watching any of his films that Jarman was more of a visual artist than he was a ‘straightforward’ filmmaker – plot often secondary in favour of highly stylised sequences of visual interpretations. As a former student of the Slade School of Fine Art this should not come as a surprise. The results are works – often homoerotic -which are highly individual and far removed from the mainstream. Indeed, Jarman’s films are very much an acquired taste which some may struggle to fully embrace while others may marvel at the filmmaker’s unique vision.

IN SHADOW OF THE SUN (1972-1974) is a psychedelic and experimental film shot in Super 8, and with a soundtrack fittingly provided by Genesis P. Orridge/Throbbing Gristle. Industrial/political images are juxtaposed with scenes from art installations and humans walking about trance-like – the picture is never clear but solarized and blurred. At 54 min. running time this is admittedly somewhat hard-going.

SEBASTIANE (1976), with a score by Brian Eno, was a historic Roman drama doubtlessly aimed at a gay audience and portrays chapters of the life of Saint Sebastian (Leonardo Treviglio) culminating in his martyrdom by arrows. The opening scene could hardly be more Jarman: dancers (including Lindsay Kemp) with gigantic penis attachments frolic about during a Bacchanalian-style orgy at the Emperor’s temple, with guests including many regular faces in future Jarman films. It’s the prelude of darker things to come for Sebastiane…. The production values are high though more straight-laced folk will struggle to warm to the amount of naked male bodies and homosexual love at display, it would make Tom of Finland jealous!

JUBILEE (1978) was made in 1977 (to coincide with the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II) but released in 1978. It was Jarman’s attempt at anarchy in the UK via means of incorporating the punk movement of the time, with flawed results. If any proof were needed that Jarman had a broader understanding of art than of filmmaking than JUBILEE is it… a film with almost a complete absence of a plot and patched together like a collage. Beginning with Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) journey into the future thanks to occultist John Dee (Richard O’Brien) and the spirit guide Ariel (David Houghton), the Queen finds herself in a decayed and derelict London of the 1970’s in which the anarchic punk spirit holds reign supreme and Elizabeth II had been killed during a mugging. For the next 103 minutes we are introduced to various characters including Amyl Nitrate (McLaren protégé Jordan) whose rendition of ‘Rule Britannia’ (dressed as a post-Boudica warrior queen) offers one of the few highlights. Other characters include Mad (a chubby Toyah Wilcox in her debut – just don’t call it acting daaahlink!), Crabs (Little Nell), Chaos (Hermine Demoriane), Borgia Ginz/Orlando (Jack Birkett), and Sphinx (Karl Johnson) among many others. The film furthermore features real punk-rock icons such as a very young Adam Ant (as Kid), Wayne County (before he became a she known as Jayne), Siouxsie Sioux and so forth. If there is one message the film succeeds in delivering than it’s that here, women are on top of everything (somewhat strange coming from Jarman) and the various episodes may have made more sense upon the film’s original release date than nowadays.

THE TEMPEST (1979) is Jarman’s adaptation of the famous Shakespeare play and it must be said it is a visual treat while, compared to Jubilee, obviously has a narrative and a plot. Here it is Heathcote Williams in the role of Prospero and a considerably slimmer Toyah is Miranda, while Jarman regular Karl Johnson plays Ariel. Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire provides the fitting interior while scenes of stormy seas and struggling seamen look like stock footage. While Jarman decided to stick to the well-know story he opted to ‘restructure’ Shakespeare’s original text. Towards the film’s finale, Prospero and Ariel demonstrate their magical skills by conjuring up an elaborate ball during which funny looking sailors dance manically in circles around the room – it is quite a hilarious sight to boot! It gets even more inspired and funnier when ‘The Goddess’ – played by American entertainer Elisabeth Welch, appears in an outrageous May West-style yellow gown and sings ‘Stormy Weather’. As usually with The Tempest, the story ends with the words “These revels now have ended” delivered by Prospero while looking directly into the camera.

THE ANGELIC CONVERSATION (1985) is yet another of Jarman’s highly homo-erotic movies, more experimental arthouse than anything else and although the initial idea is appealing the film, at 78 minutes running time, is simply too long. Two young men move in slow motion along surreal landscapes in order to follow their innermost desires, there is a lot of hazy fog, flames, occult images and an Aleister Crowley-like high priest figure of homo-erotica while Dame Judi Dench (we only hear her voice) reads various Shakespeare sonnets. The images are very much on the repetitive side and consequently the film lacks in substance which here would be much needed to hold the viewer’s attention.

Finally CARAVAGGIO (1986) is Jarman’s lush and fictionalised re-telling of the famous Baroque painter’s life, with Nigel Terry in the title role. It can be considered to be Jarman’s commercially most successful film (not that any of his films ever were commercial) and marks the screen debut of Tilda Swinton (as Lena) and Sean Bean (as Ranuccio) – and look how successful and ‘mainstream’ both actors have become!
The film starts with the older Caravaggio (N. Terry) on his deathbed – courtesy of lead poisoning – and aided by his loyal deaf-dumb companion Jerusaleme (Spencer Leigh). Caravaggio’s thoughts than drift back to his youth where he is portrayed by Dexter Fletcher and we see how the adolescent wastrel made it to the famed painter thanks to the nurturing ‘support’ of Cardinal Del Monte (Michael Gough). As an adult Nigel Terry takes over again – the painter becomes embroiled in a dangerous love triangle with Ranuccio and Lena – with deadly consequences for the two. Jarman regular Jack Birkett is aboard again in the role of The Pope, however, the film features a surprising array of ‘mainstream’ actors such as Robbie Coltrane, Jonathan Hyde, Nigel Davenport, British middleweight boxer and occasional actor Terry Downes, Garry Cooper etc. With atmospheric music by Simon Fisher-Turner and a whole legion of British underground legends, Gabriel Beristain’s sumptuous cinematography and Jarman’s impeccable eye for re-creating some of Caravaggio’s masterpieces on screen it’s little wonder the film won the ‘Silver Bear’ at the 36th Berlin International Film Festival.