New York

Isaac Julien

Bohen Foundation

Beginning in the Caribbean, in tropical color and light, Isaac Julien’s Paradise Omeros, 2002, soon moves to London, where it turns concrete gray. Kicking off from Derek Walcott’s book-length poem Omeros, itself inspired by Homer, Julien’s film might take as its slogan the name of Walcott’s stand-in for the Greek blind singer: Seven Seas, which are widespread over the world and nowhere at rest.

Julien is a Londoner whose family comes from Saint Lucia, Walcott’s home. Embedded in Paradise Omeros is a history of migration and dislocation—the stuff of postcolonial studies, here immersed in a proudly aestheticized artwork. The film runs on three screens—a kind of triptych in motion—and the outer two screens angle slightly forward, amplifying the echo of the Renaissance altarpiece with its central panel and folding doors to the sides. Julien’s use of this segmented format is virtuosic, constantly slipping between continuity and rupture of images and actions across screens, and subjecting the geometries of architecture to kaleidoscopic fragmentation and repetition. At one point all three screens show the hero in an elevator, the door closing between us and him, but the door’s sideways glide is smoothly staggered from screen to screen, appearing as one continuous wipe. Through moves like this—formally inventive, based in current filming and editing technologies, yet rooted in film history—Julien continually frames his work as an aesthetic construct, and so as a vessel of fantasy. The migrations in mind here are not only physical and geographic but imaginative, conceptual, and sensory.

Julien, like Walcott, understands the economics of the so-called margins. On the one hand his Saint Lucia is a place of vibrant heat and air, the loveliness of foliage and sea, and the fluid, liminal, floating potentials evoked by underwater sequences; on the other the work it offers is waiting tables, while a cruise ship “preening with privilege” sails by: “The immaculate hull insulted the tin roofs beneath it,” Walcott writes, while “its humming engines spewed expensive garbage.” And so the move to Britain, where, however, as a voice on the sound track tells us, “Once we start living in London, in Manchester, in Birmingham, we start to pay, as if we were in England to pay for our sins.” Scenes here are mostly set in either the concrete arcades of a housing project or an immigrant flat with a party going on, marred only—only?—by an episode of father-on-son violence. Here again Julien shifts colors, from the brutalist grays outdoors to a
dim palette of brown, fawn, and turquoise lightened by the women’s clothes and jewelry—lamé, leopard skin, gilt. (The men’s clothes, too, are wonderfully stylish.) In the final images, a black boy and a white boy creep toward each other on either side of a wall: This might be the prelude to a mugging, but the scene more likely charts the blocked beginnings of desire.

In relation to Walcott’s poem, Paradise Omeros is strikingly spacious: Julien’s Saint Lucia is all open water, sand, and distance, and even his London housing-project flat is big enough to make New Yorkers pine. Walcott, on the other hand, like Homer, is a writer of adjectives and lists, who fixes the world’s appearances by encrusting them with words. Despite the global territory his poem roams, it is almost claustrophobic in effect: Like epic poetry generally, it finds power in encyclopedic function, as if the poet, challenged by the visible world’s vastness, fought back through taxonomic observation. Treating related subject matter visually rather than verbally, Julien aims for something different: the sense of a dense, confined, limited experience opening out into the infinite room of dream.

David Frankel