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Filmmaker Portraits: Derek Jarman

Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors. Derek Jarman’s Jubilee opens with a scene set in the mid-1500s—a servant of Queen Elizabeth I in […]

Derek Jarman during his visit to the Walker in 1986

Derek Jarman during his visit to the Walker in 1986

Fully formed in 1973, the Walker Art Center’s Film/Video department has hosted a range of filmmakers, actors, and critics through its extensive programs of screenings, artist talks, and residencies. This blog series showcases some of our favorite visitors.

Derek Jarman’s Jubilee opens with a scene set in the mid-1500s—a servant of Queen Elizabeth I in a flowering garden feeding dogs. She appears calm and languid. The chirping birds accompanying the scene add an indulgent quality to the atmosphere. However, there is a storm brewing in the background. The next shot is Queen Elizabeth pacing while telling an occultist to call on angels to help her pass her time. The occultist decides she will travel to the future through a spirit guide. Suddenly, the scene is transported to England in the 1970s—a baby carriage on fire, car crash victims getting mugged; life is chaotic and confusing. Jubilee accurately depicts one of the themes that run through his films: the clash of the old world and the modern, traditional ideas confronted by new ones. Jarman was never fearful of featuring society’s outcasts: radical thinkers, fantastical people, and punks. His films are daring and unforgettable poetic masterpieces.

The Film/Video department at the Walker has celebrated Jarman in different ways over the years. While Jarman was still alive, he visited the Walker twice. His first visit was in 1986 for a touring retrospective of his work, originally programed by the British Film Institute. Bruce Jenkins, Film/Video curator at the time, coordinated Jarman’s tour across the United States with his films Sebastiane, Jubilee, The Tempest, The Angelic Conversation, Imagining October, Caravaggio and a selection of his “Home Movies” (the screenings of “Home Movies” and Caravaggio were introduced by Jarman himself). His films were not widely recognized in the United States. In response, Jarman told LA Weekly, “Yes, it’s quite strange, because it’s like beginning again. I don’t know whether to play down my controversial angles or not. I am so controversial at home—you know, in that world.”

The controversy surrounding his films caught the attention of the press while he was at the Walker. The Star Tribune reported on his upcoming visit with the headline, “Walker’s Jarman retrospective is gutsy in current moral climate.” As mentioned in the article, the Supreme Court had recently ruled that individual states could now deem certain sexual acts illegal. The Tribune described how Jarman’s film Sebastiane is typically “distributed by specialists in homosexual soft-core pornography.” Jarman was proudly an out gay man and featured LGBTQ characters in his films. His visit shook up the Twin Cities and was vital for the LGBTQ community here. And despite allegations of controversial material, the visit only brought more praise and attention to his films.

Jarman was also at the Walker in September of 1988 to introduce his film The Last of England for the New Brits program. Also screened was Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers and Peter Wollen’s Friendship’s Death. In a letter to the Walker, Jarman wrote how thankful he was for “the hard work and coverage” that the Film/Video department gave him. Just six years later, Jarman died of an AIDS-related illness in February 1994. To commemorate Jarman, the Walker screened his last film Blue on National AIDS Awareness day that year. This film is a single shot of the color International Yves Klein Blue (IKB), while Jarman and his friends narrate the story of his life. After his death, the Walker proudly continues to remember and celebrate Jarman. In February of 2009, the Walker screened a “Films of Derek Jarman Retrospective,” and during October 2014 the Walker will screen a selection of his films in “Commemorating Derek Jarman.”

Jarman wasn’t simply a filmmaker—he was also a gay rights activist, a poet, an artist and a gardener. All of this creative work helped him expand the frame of his films, allowing him to experiment with poetic scripts and visually stunning shots. Blue was awarded the Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature Film at the Edinburgh Film Festival in August 1993, distinguishing him as one of Britain’s top directors. The Walker is lucky to be connected with such a talented artist and his visits paved the way for more radical, free thinkers to be featured in its programs.

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