tilda swinton: in the spirit of derek jarman
Jubilee is out on DVD. I found a copy in Inverness and watched it last night. It’s as cheeky a bit of old inspired ham punk spunk nonsense as ever grew out of your brain and that’s saying something: what a buzz it gives me to look at it now. And what a joke: there’s nothing an eighth as mad bad and downright spiritualized being made down here these days this side of Beat Takashi. There’s an interview with you at the end of the thing: a Face to Face … very nice to see that face, I must say. Jeremy Isaacs asks you, last of all, how you would like to be remembered and you say you would like to disappear. That you would like to take all your works with you and …evaporate …
Well, it’s a funny thing, because the truth is that, here, 8 years later, in so many ways you never could, but, it has to be faced, in so many others, you have. It’s snowed since you were here and your tracks are covered. Fortunately you made them on hard ground.
Well, I could tell you that we got some things right, back then, sitting round the kitchen table in Dungeness projectile vomiting with the best of them: you were INDEED the great Thatcherite filmmaker – for every £200,000 film you made, real profits were seen – by someone or other – within at least the first 2 years, all those royal circus brides did indeed end up cutting themselves out of their wedding dresses and looking into the camera. Alan ‘all-film-is-an-advertisement-for-something’ Parker did end up running the BFI and dissolving its production arm, Film 4 WAS just a flash in the pan … I DID have twins of all genders and head for the hills.
Do you remember Norman Stone calling to arms about us all in the Sunday Times? saying The Last of England and Sammy and Rosie get Laid and Raining Stones and I can’t remember what else were a damaging and misleading series of slanders on the British character and profile? … those were the days. That strictly for export word “British” … reminds me always how on show it encourages us to consider ourselves. Surely the idea of a national identity was always tricky enough: strikes me any attempt to define a national identity for film is not unlike trying to get a hairnet on a jellyfish… and, by the by, it not unreasonable to suggest that those in the definition business – boardroom table dancers with pension plans and jobs to lose – might not necessarily be best equipped to blue sky the blue for the rest of us.
They talk about The British Film Industry a lot these days. You remember that Renaissance they all got moist about in the 80s after Chariots of Fire won Oscars: the British are Coming? And then that Kenneth Branagh thing with Henry V ? Didn’t he even call his company Renaissance Films? Well, the renaissances are rolling themselves out pretty much yearly, now, as director after director makes his or her first film and then graduates to making commercials.
The fact is – you know why – I cannot ever quite be serious about the British Film Industry. It’s not a phrase I can use – could ever use – with much of a straight face. It’s really nothing personal. It’s just that I find I predate it, like I predate the thinking man’s stocks and shares, and I haven’t quite got with the groove. Do you remember, we saw them setting up the stall in the empty field and the tiny man with the megaphone settling himself into position behind the imperial velvet curtain? We were there watching when the wily colonial entrepreneur circled the ring at the village fete with hot hands and did visible dollar sums in his head at the sight of the handicraft table and prepared to hand over bead necklaces to the cottage weavers for their finger woven items from hand reared indigenous materials … It felt like industrial films on these islands in those eighties were made by people who could not quite get into television. Or by shameless traitorous ex-patriots who had legged it for the free world in the colonies. In those days, British Film Inc., when invoked, meant getting proud about the Lavender Hill Mob or Whisky Galore. An American/Indian partnership began to give Britain an exportable identity: those were the Crabtree and Evelyn Waugh days of ex- imperial mooning about, when nostalgic dreams of The Grand Tour meant film culture to a lot of people. Class obsession, still, now, the greatest stock in the trade of industrial cinema here, began to show a profit. Gotcha became a word in the national anthem. Land of banal hope, of Past Times glory… still superior about the land of the free on the grounds that we managed to sell London Bridge to the desert … who’s the colony, though? Then and now …
I had run away to join a different circus, myself – yours: Planet Jarmania - you were the first person I met who could gossip about St Thomas Aquinas and hold a steady camera at the same time …as you did at our first meeting …I thought it would be a good thing to hang out with you for 6 weeks … I guess we had things to say. Our outfit was an internationalist brigade. Decidedly pre-industrial. A little loud, a lot louche. Not always in the best possible taste. And not quite fit, though it saddened and maddened us to recognise it, for wholesome family entertainment.
Wholesome families were all the rage then. There was a fashion for a thing called “normal” and there was a plague abroad called “perversion”. There was no such thing as society and culture meant something to do with yoghurt. This was before the Sunday Times educated us that culture means digested opinions about marketable artistic endeavours. Things are a little different now: People – at least pretend to – have an enormous amount of sex and tell everybody else about it. Not much “Butterflies” on telly, except on the nostalgia channels. We use the word terrestrial without a flicker of spacethink. People cook and decorate their flats and celebrate the Millennium and the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester after compatible Cajun/Echo Park hacienda/Alternative Miss World c. 1978 styles. Straight has started to mean honest again, getting very drunk is hilariously funny and smart and newsreaders would refer to today as July Seventeenth.
And there’s a big chat on about film culture now … that means … genuinely concerned and frustrated individuals scrupulously trying to drum up and contextualise a cinema that speaks to them … I tend to have a kind of visual/aural dysphasia with that phrase and end up thinking that what is being championed is a sort of film couture, as distinct from the ready to wear or diffusion line cinema that it’s always easier to find off the peg… I suppose there’s some kind of balance to that analogy: although the fashion world – the business that fashion is – is at least cynical enough to understand the lossleading value of the mystique of the hand-stitched and the Marie Antoinette fantasy about seamstresses losing their eyesight in exchange for their passionate toil over the bugle beads. That old garret mythology … it doesn’t half send shivers of glee down the spines of the uber-rich – it’s a fantasy not only of patronage but also some sort of sacrificial blood-drinking … the secret, if not of eternal youth, then of eternal spiritual worth … an artist suffered for me …
We used to be referred to as the arthouse; how it used to irk us then … how disparaging it sounded …how sickly and high falutin pious. And extra curricular. For arthouse superstar read jumbo shrimp. Yet, then, as now, the myth prevailed that there was only ever one mainstream. We were only too happy to know that our audience existed and to hoe the row in peace. Nobody here paid that much attention to us, that’s true: no one ever thought we might make them any money, I suppose. What grace that constituted . Not to be identified as national product… The intergalactic BFI. ZDF in Germany. MIKADO in Italy. Uplink in Japan. This was our nation state: this was continuity. We snuck under the fence, looked for – and found – our fellow travellers elsewhere. Here’s the thought: slice the world longways, along the lines of its sensibility, and not straight up and down, through its geographical markers, and company will be yours, young filmmaker. company, continuity, identity. Treason? To what?
The dead hand of Good Taste has commenced its last great attempt to buy up every soul on the planet, and from where I’m sitting, it’s going great guns. Art is now indivisible from the idea of culture: culture from heritage: heritage from tourism: tourism from what I saw emblazoned recently on the window of an American chainstore in Glasgow as “the art of leisure”. That means, incidentally, velour lounging suits by the ton.
The colonial balance has shifted and the long spoons are out. We now stand shoulder to shoulder with something as identifiable as Civilisation itself, or else… Security never felt so much like a term of abuse. I was in Los Angeles earlier this year and was asked by a jeweller’s assistant – in a hypergrand jewellery emporium on Rodeo Drive, if the reason I declined to wear a stars and stripes jewelled badge on my front at a public event was because I was, in fact, “an Afghani bitch”…
You may not need me to tell you about the fight for civilisation afoot these days. More of the same but worse than even you could have imagined. Meanwhile, in a binary world, we on these islands cream on creamily up a Third Way.
Things have got awfully tidy recently. There is a lot of finish on things. Clingfilm gloss and the neatest of hospital corners. The formula merchants are out in force. They are in the market for guaranteed product. Financial returns… add – water–and–stir reputations after one appearance over the parapet… the elusive second film – the developing body of work – far down that yellow brick road …
They go out looking for filmmakers with the nous(e?) of one who might consider employing halogen spotlights in the hopes of attracting wild cats into a suburban garden. They are missing the point. Don’t they know the roulette wheel is fixed? The croupier is a card sharp. Do these people not watch old movies? It’s the spirited that hold the hands in the long run, it always was, the low key for the long term, the irreverent, the cheats, the undaunted and inspired rulebreakers, not the goodygoody industrial types with their bedside manners and managerial knowhow. It is all done with smoke and mirrors and it always will be. Not with memos and corporate steering groups. Not with statistical evidence or test screening audience feed back. Don’t they know the basic laws of being in an audience? That we say we want to know more about the villain, but we don’t really: that we say we like happy endings but our souls droop without the bittersweet touch of something we might recognize – as we bend in from our fascinating and complex mortal world into the virtual dark and back again. That we say we want famous faces we can recognise, but there’s a thing a face that we identify as an actor’s – first and foremost – cannot do for us that the face we might see as that of a person can do. It’s human beings that are of use to us in the figurative cinema. human shapes and gauchenesses and human passions. not drama and perfect timing and a well tuned charisma round every bend.
There is a character in La Dolce Vita – shall I leave out that he is the suicide? – who describes himself: “too serious to be a dilettante, too much of a dabbler to be a professional”. I use it in my own head from time to time to explain to myself, if to no-one else, my particular idle ways. Now I look at it again, I think of you and how it well might describe you. Your focus on the ball beyond the crowd. Your amateur’s enthusiasm. Your delight in process. Your perennial beginner’s mind.
Things you taught me: The example of Huckleberry Finn getting a fence painted by having such a visibly good time doing one post himself that every passerby stops to join in. and never to leave a place having done all you want to do there
You should have been a Catholic, I sometimes think, Del. All those robes in Caravaggio, all those poppies in War Requiem and again in The Last of England and The Garden, to say nothing of all that buggery in the crypt in Jubilee …: you and Michael Powell have to be the best subscribers to the passionate use of cardinal red in English cinema. The secret language of holy blood in the hands of pagans … longlivethepassion. Why is it that the English never mention that Shakespeare was a Catholic? All those squeaky scrubbed classical columns. The colourfree reformation. Clean up the sweat and blood, if not the tears. Here we go again. Longlivesweat. Longlive secret blood. There’s more than one way to organise a clearance.
A lot of people go to Dungeness nowadays. I expect you know that from Keith. Those old stones: you said they’d grow things and they did. When I think of that nice lady who showed us round Prospect Cottage the day we found it. How quiet, how pale pink her bedroom was there. I wonder where she went. Do you remember that letter we found under the carpet with the old rubber johnny in it: …”my wife is not a cold woman but … you are so lovely…” somesuch. Addressed to a woman in Vauxhall, as I remember. And never sent. Under the carpet with it before she comes in … aah. Unsent letters.
I found this again the other day: this is Emeric Pressburger writing to Wendy Hiller outlining the Archers modus operandi in the hopes of persuading her to work with them on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp:
One: we owe allegiance to nobody except the financial interests which provide our money and to them the sole responsibility of ensuring them a profit not a loss.
Two: every single foot in our films is our own responsibility and nobody else’s. we refuse to be guided or coerced by any influence but our own judgement.
Three: when we start work on a new idea we must be a year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of the times. A real film, from idea to universal release, takes a year. Or more.
Four: no artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe no audience does. We have proved, at any rate that they will pay to see the truth, for reasons other than her nakedness.
Five: at any time, and particularly at the present, the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme and purpose of the film they are working on. They will fight or intrigue to work on a subject they feel is urgent or contemporary, and fight equally hard to avoid working on a trivial or pointless subject. And we agree with them and want the best workmen with us; and get them. These are the main things we believe in. They have brought us an unbroken record of success and a unique position. Without the one of course we should not have enjoyed the other very long. We are under no illusions. We know we are surrounded by hungry sharks. But you have no idea what fun it is surf-bathing, if you have only paddled, with a nurse holding onto your rompers. we hope you will come on in, the water’s fine.
Here’s a tradition speaking: and it’s a tradition that you belong to, Derek: and those of us whose hearts rise up to the challenge fall in alongside the best company possible on these islands… a long established – and classical national tradition, some might argue – of powerful outsider artists … pioneers … devoted to the idea of making things not made before … shapes and gestures new to the lexicon … people willing to trust the law that humanity and human-made work is good for humanity … at least that it’s better for them to make than not to make … that society’s shapes and patterns, at heart, cannot be as profoundly fascinating as the humans that live within them … and that they are not alone.
That earlier Jubilee year, you gave us prophesy: painting extinct in Paranoia Paradise, the generation who grew up and forgot to lead their lives, the idea of artists as the world’s blood donors, history written on a Mandrax, fear of dandelions… and yet, like Carnation from Floris, not all the good things have disappeared.
Maybe it’s as bad as you and I used to say it could possibly get, now. Maybe it’s worse. But here we are, the rest of us, tilting at the sameold sameold windmills and spooking at the same old ghosts. and keeping company, all the same. It’s a rotten mess of a shambles, you could say. It’s driving into the curve, at the very least. Some would say you are well out of it. I reckon you would say let me ’at ’em.
Well, given that it’s you who should be the one standing here giving your own Memorial Lecture – not for the first time, your closest friends might cry – and you are presently otherwise engaged, or at least have left the building, I suppose I might as well read them this and let them in on the trick – that the conversation is not done yet … that the company you keep with us, when we care to think of it, is just as strong and empowering as it ever was. That the example you set us is as simple as a logo to sell a sports shoe; less chat, more action, less fiscal report, more films, less paralysis, more process. Less deference. More dignity. Less money. More work. Less rules. More examples. Less dependence. More love.
It has nothing whatever to do with money. Money is the easier thing in the world for any filmmaker to come by: next to vision, stamina, vocation, resourcefulness, comradeship, a sense of the ridiculous, and the long, long view, money grows on trees. Money is the one element that socializes a filmmaker – that …ties him to the shore. Easier to control, easier to scupper. … who’s for Emeric’s surf-bathing?
A suggestion about money: keep it clean. Have less. Need less. Want less. Work with straw, but work.
And the challenges facing a film culture here?
The possibility of filmmakers losing the use of their own spirits. The paralysis of isolated original voices The existence of the student loan in the place of the student grant The rarity of distributors with kamikaze vision
The habit of patronage
Too many conference tables
Too few cinemas
Too little patience
Pomp and circumstance
The concept of the “successful” product
The idea that there is not enough to go around
The eye to the main chance
The substitution of codependence for independence
The idea that it has to cost millions of pounds to make a feature film
The idea that there is only one way to skin a cat
W.H. Auden to Benjamin Britten: “Goodness and beauty result from a combination of order and chaos, bohemianism and bourgeois convention … bohemianism alone leads to a mad jumble of beautiful scraps … bourgeois convention alone to large unfeeling corpses”.
This is what I miss, there being no more Derek Jarman films:
Simon Fisher Turner’s music
the real faces
the bad temperedness
the good temperedness