February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment


Forgot to advertise it, but I wrote a piece on Derek Jarman’s soundtracks for the latest issue of Sight & Sound.

My usual combination of laziness, indecision & perfectionism meant that there are several bits or angles I didn’t include in the piece or didn’t clock were important to the argument till afterwards, wh/ may make it a bit confusing. Primarily: I think the “casual” attitude to the music in Jarman’s early shorts is, in one sense, the legacy of pop itself – pop as image, genre & mode of energy/production. The influence of pop art was spread throughout London art schools when Jarman was at the Slade in 1963-67. There was already an established form & tempo of the pop film – The Girl Can’t Help It, Jailhouse RockPlay It Cool (starring Billy Fury), Summer Holiday – & a strong sense of exchange between pop, film & fine art during this period: think of the energy of Richard Lester’s Hard Day’s Night & his influence on the campy tone of various ‘Swinging London’ films, Ken Russell’s Pop Goes The Easel (mentioned in this piece on Pauline Boty’s current Pallant House show), the Yardbirds’ appearance in Blow Up, the film stars interpolated into Peter Blake’s Sergeant Pepper sleeve, Nicholas Roeg & RA alumnus Donald Cammell’s casting of Jagger & Anita Pallenberg in Performance, Kenneth Anger’s early Magick Lantern Cycle films (wh/ Jarman certainly saw)… It was certainly part of the aesthetic make-up of the Chelsea crowd Jarman hung out w/ (on the edges of wh/ moved, eventually, McLaren & Westwood) & his post-Pop Bankside & Bermondsey circles: Lindsay Kemp (who appeared in Sebastiane, Jubilee Savage Messiah, for wh/ Jarman designed the sets, & who taught Bowie mime), Jack Birkett & Richard O’Brien (who appeared in Jubilee), and particularly Andrew Logan, whose Butler’s Wharf studio was next to Jarman’s & held the Valentine’s Day Sex Pistols show where John Lydon undressed Jordan. (It’s relatively well-known that Jarman filmed a number of early Pistols performances, but all the sources I know are rather vague about wh/ ones or where the footage is available. This is apparently from the Butler’s Wharf gig, sans sound.) So the flippant attitude of “putting a record on” in his early films* is the continuation of a certain aesthetic of conscious novelty, wh/ was also an aesthetic of disposability: a pop record wasn’t yet something you had to treat w/ the ‘respect’ that decades of archival reification have bestowed on it. This continued, I suspect, into his classier BFI/Channel 4/ZDF-backed productions in the 80s: it was mostly something for other people, the people he trusted to make parts of a picture w/ him, to worry about**. There are moments when this mistrust clears, when music or sound enters the heart of the picture w/out slipping into the language of parody that rules the ‘Britannia’ number in Jubilee, for instance: Elizabeth Welch’s ‘Stormy Weather’ at the end of The Tempest, Annie Lennox’s parting words in Edward II. The effect is actually closest to that of Dennis Potter’s ventriloquisms: emotion commuted to the artefact w/out being diminished or disowned. Anyway, this attitude towards perhaps explains Jarman’s ambivalence about punk, wh/ was itself so ambivalent about ‘seriousness’: suddenly (I’m kinda channelling Mark Sinker here) every interaction w/ the aesthetic codes that freighted pop culture, its taboos & secret affirmations, was deadly important; at the same time, McLaren & Jamie Reid wanted the debut Pistols album to look like nothing more than cheap, ugly soap packaging, to go w/ the sudden cheapness & ugliness of life. “Ambivalence” isn’t the right word: there’s a stronger & more visceral sense in wh/ the one-sidedness*** of the pop artefact as Jarman encountered it, an encounter dependent on his class position, was disrupted by punk, wh/ suddenly coursed w/ contradictory energies, wh/ his films couldn’t incorporate except through their own formal fractures, dramatised shock-tensions & temporal unevenness (the time-travel plot in Jubilee). What happens when a particular option of detachment is no longer so possible, when the pieces of the collage have a different shape & power from what you expected, when they won’t play nice? Enter the ruined manor-house fantasies. Enter classy scores from Simon Turner & critics forever saying how much they prefer them, you successor to Blake/Cecil Collins/Paul Nash, you.

*Incidentally, one of the most shameful failures of the British film industry is the continued unavailability of Jarman’s early Super-8 films: if they don’t already have them, I can’t imagine it would take too much for the BFI to get them – including Psychic Rally in Heaven In the Shadow of the Sun – & do something like their Jeff Keen package from a few years ago. If anyone from the BFI’s reading, let me assure you it’d fly off the shelves! Until then the Jarman industry, in his 20th-anniversary year, can’t really justify its existence. Even Glitterbug is out of print on DVD!

**Almost the only thing one takes away from the KCL exhibition on Jarman is just how great the Last of England soundtrack actually is: the film is shown simultaneously in different fragments on several different screens in the final room, w/ the soundtrack played on a very nice soundsystem. Another request for Jarman 2014: proper reissues of Simon Fisher Turner’s scores.

***Of course pre-punk pop was far from one-sided, but I’m not saying Jarman, or all of the Pop artists who came before him, was always a good reader of pop, at least not at a conscious thematic level.


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