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In Boston, fairly recently, in a basement, [personal profile] sovay and I watched Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, and then wide-eyed and astonished went as quickly as possible to find his Edward II, two films which juggle anachronisms with a bitter beautiful wit, indelible from first to last instant. I'd thought Sally Potter had found Tilda Swinton for Orlando, but I was wrong: it was Jarman. In Caravaggio she doesn't look out of her teens, so skinny and sharp and vulpine I thought she was playing a boy, and then all of a sudden from under her headscarf that glorious copper hair, as violent as her grin. In Edward II she tears a man's throat out with her teeth. Amazingly enough, I am not even sure she is the best thing about these movies; there are so many things to choose from.

So [personal profile] sovay got me this book for Christmas.

Jarman's death is the shadow over this book, far too early, AIDS. In the paragraph he gives here of introduction (my copy is from this book's second edition) he says that after diagnosis his goal was to outlast Thatcher's term of office, which he managed. "Now I have my sights on the millennium," he says, "and a world where we are all equal before the law." He got to 1994. This made bits of the book almost too painful to be readable.

But he's the best writer I've seen on film since Louise Brooks, if not a better, mordant, delighted, never quite having the opinion you'd expect (hates Peter Greenaway, hates Julian Schnabel, the directors I find most like him, though to be fair he only knew Schnabel as a painter-- worships at the feet of Pier Paolo Pasolini, which simply flat-out confuses me). He's erudite and vicious, documenting economically one of those odd lives in which somehow no one he knows ever has any money but they all have priceless antiques in their unheated apartments, continuously either scrabbling with arts boards for inadequate financing or finding themselves on tour with Alice Cooper, no apparent intermediary steps. He appears to have had more than half of what I know as twentieth-century pop culture tromp through his living room at one point or another, sometimes entirely by accident, as when offering a young woman a seat on a train led, in a way that seemed sensible at the time, to his designing two films for Ken Russell. About half the half of pop culture fell through his bedroom, too, I think. There's a bit where he picks a guy up in a bar and is telling him about the film-in-progress, Caravaggio, and the guy says if it's about Italian murder, where is all the Gesualdo on the soundtrack? and all I have to say about this is, some people have better luck than others at bar pickups, seriously.

There are two still photos in this book that taken sequentially illustrate almost everything I find interesting about cinema. The first is a still from Sebastiane, Jarman's first feature, an epic about the life of Saint Sebastian filmed in Latin with a lot of nudity. The picture is Sebastian, on his post, with the arrows, after being shot and before dying. He's naked and bleeding and bloody-but-unbowed, and resembles greatly many, many pieces of religious art and also the artsier type of fetish magazine, though it is genuinely a fairly classy picture. Then in the second still, the camera's swiveled ninety degrees, so we can see the camera which is taking the first shot, and everyone in profile. In this one, Sebastian is, quite firmly, a naked guy tied to a post, and he has been tied to this post for a bit of a while now, thank you, and it is hot out and the arrows look uncomfortable and you can see that his back does not appreciate having been tied to a post for a long time and that he wants to get this over with. And they're the same shot, taken at the same moment; it's all in how you look at it. Because that's what movies, and actors, can do.

Derek Jarman supervised both photos, of course. Knowing them both to be important is part of what made him such a great director. This book (which is, I should mention, funny on top of everything else) is a treasure, because he never settles for a simple look at anything, and has the command of his own voice to go with it. Apparently he started as a painter, then a theatre designer, drifting into cinema accidentally and winding up somehow also a published poet. I only regret he never gave us a novel.
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