There Is a Light That Never Goes Out

Isaac Julien, Derek, 2008, stills from a color film in 35 mm and digital video, 76 minutes. Left and right: Images of Derek Jarman's experiments with Super-8 film.

THE LATE ARTIST Derek Jarman’s warm, unhesitating voice, offering personal reminiscences and pointed opinions throughout a previously unaired 1990 interview, threads through Derek, an idiosyncratic portrait directed by his friend Isaac Julien. Scenes from Jarman’s film experiments, art-house features, and pop-music videos are interspersed with Julien’s own footage of Tilda Swinton, Jarman’s longtime muse, passing ghostlike through today’s tidy London. The contrast is palpable—Julien’s composed icy blues, framing the glass facades of so many corporate towers, make Jarman’s freewheeling cardinal reds and sensuous expanses of skin seem of another era. In a voice-over, Swinton reads her wistful 2002 “Letter to an Angel.” “I think that the reason that you count for so much, so uniquely, to some people, particularly in this hidebound little place we call home, is that you lived so clearly the life that an artist lives,” she says.

Military-brat uprootedness, early exposure to The Wizard of Oz and La Dolce Vita, and a formative sojourn in the United States marked the early phase of that life. On his return to England in the mid-’60s, Jarman desultorily attended the Slade School of Art and was galvanized by his friendship with David Hockney. He moved into an unconverted corset factory and made Super-8 shorts starring visitors. Then came the first films we know him for. In his words: “Sebastiane was sex; Jubilee was violence.” Libidinal antiauthoritarism, in the form of punk rock and gay dance clubs, gave way to the straitening era of Thatcherism, with Jarman scattering painterly films like blossoms all the while.

HIV/AIDS scythed through his community, and Jarman grounded the political essence of his exuberant filmmaking by coming out publicly as a victim of the virus. His remaining seven years, poignant and resilient, brought minor masterpieces, from his 1993 film Blue to the garden at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, his retreat. Julien’s film, more homage than full biographical study, is an affected yet affecting collage, sure to help stave off, if only for a short while, the narrator’s assertion near the end of Blue: “In time, / No one will remember our work / Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud.”

Derek screens at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from June 9 to June 16. For more information, click here. To read the text of Tilda Swinton's “Letter to an Angel,” originally published in The Guardian, click here. To see Julien and Swinton discuss the film, click here.