When you see a film like Jubilee, it really hammers home how little you think about the movies you watch. You may be entertained, you may be frustrated, you may have to piece together a non-linear narrative on occasion, but when was the last time you actually had to really ponder why a film existed and what could anyone possibly get out of it? Criterion have released this most difficult of art films – an often dreadful viewing experience, but a truly fascinating think-piece – and it is exactly the sort of thing they should be putting out; unconventional, bewildering and neglected works of cinema that demand latter day re-evaluation, especially those with as much social and political content as this.
I’m going to kick off by giving the strongest possible recommendation to view the special features before watching the film itself. There’s no real plot to spoil, but a thorough grounding on the film's background and historical context is essential. At the start, Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) asks her court alchemist John Dee (Richard O’Brien) to show her the future, and they are transported 400 years to a post-apocalyptic Britain where hell on a tiny budget has broken loose, and Bod (again, Jenny Runacre)'s girl gang rules supreme.
Watching the film is something of a chore - the grimy photography, the careless editing, the dialogue that goes in one ear and out the other, the meandering plot (which is more a series of situations and incidents than anything coherent) and the cardboard sets, to say nothing of the acting. No amount of fringe theatre or school plays can prepare you for the general level of the performances (you know when Little Nell and Orlando emerge as standouts that something is very wrong). The film’s politics rarely rise above the juvenile and simplistic - “America is dead, it’s never been alive”, “Progress has taken the place of Heaven; without progress, life would be unbearable” and “This is the generation that grew up and forgot to lead their lives” are a mere three of the delightful bon mots tossed out by the cast at various stages. You’d expect a great deal of energy throughout, but, alas, it’s all very placid and decidedly low-octane for the most part. Most of the film looks as if it was shot in one take with barely any rehearsal or set-up.
And yet it’s hard to simply dismiss the film as a failure. When one learns in the accompanying documentary that Jarman was decidedly not a punk, but rather a middle class conservative, it puts a whole new spin on things. It has the air of a deeply subversive practical joke pulled on the punk scene it was meant to be impetuously promoting, and a systematic critique of the whole lifestyle and philosophy of the safety pin brigade. Believe it or not, the technical and artistic sloppiness actually helps the film's agenda, as such a distanced and Brechtian approach allows the necessary perspective to see Jarman’s view of an empty and nihilistic means of living. The largely “fake” performances are stylistically dead-on, as, according to those interviewed on the disc, the punk scene in London was chiefly made up of middle-class art college rebels, and once can't help but suspect that much of the movie's resemblance to an achingly pretentious student film is a direct reference to these origins.
For the most part, the punks do nothing and achieve nothing. They run from reality or they destroy it; either way they don't face it. Their values and beliefs are trite and embarrassing in the extreme. They take it upon themselves to murder both of gang member Crabs’ boyfriends, refusing her any brief moments of tender happiness. We never truly understand their urge to annihilate – it’s implied that it’s an integral part of their way of life, and would presumably give them an edge of sympathy and humanism most of them don't deserve. For all their rebellious independence, by the end they're all sucked into Borgia Ginz's media monopoly where they will be neatly packaged up and commercialized, to the point of being entered into the Eurovision Song Contest.
I can’t say it always nails its target with precision, and a fair amount of it is just ponderous nonsense that is time-wasting self-indulgence. (Why is there a minute and a half of seagull noises over a black screen after the credits have ended?) Truth be told, I can’t say cutting out the entire Queen Elizabeth subplot would have fatally wounded the film either. At an hour and three-quarters, it’s probably vastly overlong (80 minutes would have been quite enough, thank you), but one suspects whatever the running time, it would still feel the same length. It has a kind of trance-like quality that is numbing in its tedium, yet compelling because there’s something new in store in virtually every scene, not least the promise of more bizarre violence (carving names into people's backs or castrasting policemen for a giggle) or copious nudity (so much so the film could almost be renamed Jubblies). Another strange phenomenon made apparent on DVD is that although much of the photography appears unattractive while watching the film, freeze-frame it at almost any point and you’ll get a truly striking, often gorgeous image.
When all's said and done though, what may look like amateurish, formless slop is – mostly – a potent and sharply intelligent satire on an entire cultural movement. Granted, it doesn’t exactly make it an easy film to sit through or enjoy (although Toyah Willcox and Orlando had me laughing loud and often) and it’s more a work of cinema to appreciate from a distance than to truly hold dear to your heart. However, it’s like practically nothing else you’ve ever encountered and among the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen in quite a while – on that basis alone it gets a definite recommendation.
An excellent transfer of troublesome source material. 16mm elements aged a quarter of a century are never going to look awesome, but it’s a real treat to see them looking this good. Striking a new 35mm color reversal interpositive from the original negative, this anamorphic high-definition transfer looks marvellous. It is grainy and there is still a decent amount of sparkle and dirt on the print (even after digital clean-up), but detail and colour is gorgeous. Supervised by the director of photography, the brightness, contrast, saturation and colour balance is, we can assume, dead-on. I say with some confidence this as good as it’ll ever look.
Unsurprisingly, it sounds a little rough, but there’s nothing disastrously wrong with it. There was no audible damage or distortion to the soundtrack, but it’s hardly a sonic assault-and-battery. It’ll do.
The main extra – a newly-produced documentary entitled Jubilee: A Time Less Golden - is smashing. It’s a fascinating look at the film and Derek Jarman himself. Loads of wonderful anecdotes and reminiscences from a whole host of collaborators and friends, plus rare glimpses of Jarman's experimental super-8 shorts are crammed into 39 delightful minutes. The occasional technical shortcomings (some of the interviewees are barely lit - Jenny Runacre in particular looks like death warmed up – and the aspect ratio keeps changing, despite it being anamorphic) do not subtract from its overall worth, which is substantial. I gained a great deal more insight from this concise, snappily-edited documentary than some of the more bloated and sluggish feature-length documentaries slapped onto DVDs nowadays.
The other extras are wonderfully eccentric. A stills gallery entitled “A New Wave Movie” features tons of memorabilia from the time of the film’s release, from a reprinted punk magazine, posters and pressbook materials to a transcript of Vivienne Westwood’s infamous "open T-shirt to Derek Jarman" after she’d seen the film, at one stage likening it to “watching a gay boy jerk off through the titillation of his masochistic tremblings,” and branching off from there.
“Shooting Script” isn’t actually a copy of the screenplay itself (one or two pages are briefly excerpted, to give you an idea), but all the extra bits’n’bobs that Derek Jarman accumulated and stuck all over his personal copy during production. “Costume Sketches” are some pretty lovely colour illustrations of various elaborate costumes, which bear strikingly little resemblance to what actually ends up on-screen (I daresay due to budgetary constraints). “Continuity Stills” are a collection of polaroids taken during shooting - nothing you haven't really seen before on a DVD, but nevertheless an interesting artifact. The trailer, presented in anamorphic widescreen, is pretty much like the finished film, only 103 minutes shorter - I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether this is an improvement or not.
Finally, we have the silent super-8 short Jordan’s Dance, excerpts from which end up in the movie proper. It’s presented here in much better quality than in the film (unsurprising, since there it was blown up to 16mm, then to 35mm), and features an optional minute-long audio introduction to the film by Derek Jarman himself, available on the second audio track (the first is silence). It runs for 4½ minutes and features Jordan in a tutu dancing round a bonfire in Deptford, with some unclothed gentleman onlookers, attired in Greek theatrical masks. It’s not one of the all-time great short cinema subjects, but hats off to Criterion for such thoroughness.
Finally, there is a liner essay by Jarman biographer Tony Peake that gives a short but thoroughly decent introduction to Jarman and the movie which can be read here, and a touching “website exclusive” tribute to Jarman by Tilda Swinton, available here.
There are 27 chapter stops, color bars for calibration purposes and a delightfully anarchic package design, referencing the punk fanzines of the day. There are also two easter eggs on titles 4 and 5 of the DVD: one is an amusing interview outtake from the documentary with Lee Drysdale, the other what looks like super-8 footage from the set of the actors having moulded casts of their faces made. Lord knows how you access them through the menus though.
It doesn’t exactly give Ernst Lubitsch a run for his money in the charm stakes, but the film is undeniably is a culturally and artistically significant work and Criterion have put together the best possible case for its defence as a key work of a great British artist. Recommended, but be sure you know what you’re getting into.