Even towards the end of his life while dying of AIDS, Derek Jarman remained a bold, experimental director, still striving to find a way to express himself cinematically and challenge accepted notions of what cinema should be. Receiving medical treatment for the virus that was slowly destroying him, his eyesight in particular fading into a blue haze from damage to the retina, Jarman would make Blue, one of his last films, trying to find a way to express the thoughts, sensations and emotions engendered by the close proximity of death.
Visually marked by nothing more than a blank, unwavering, unchanging blue screen Blue’s narrator enumerates not only the physical ravages of the disease over the course of his visits to the hospital, but also tries to poetically describe the thoughts and sensations that this situation gives rise to. By turns contemplative and fevered, pragmatic and dreamy, the narrator attempts to deal with the unimaginable - “mind as bright as a button, my body falling apart – a naked lightbulb in a dark and ruined room”. While the body is physically failing, the narrator’s mind is nonetheless highly active and attuned to sensations and emotional resonances. With the senses heightened, the desire is therefore to remain creative, but it is impossible for the focus of the mind to escape from awareness of the illness and the increasing enclosure within oneself.
Flights of imagination are therefore tainted by the perceptions brought about by the virus, the disease – the blue of the failing eyesight leading to thoughts of a blue-eyed boy in a blue-funk, the buzzing of a bluebottle in a cornfield and summer delphinium days. Speculation inevitably turns towards the unknown, the blue yonder, the inner life and the memory. Memories of old lovers and friends however are influenced by the fact that all of them are either dead or dying, some of them having taken their own lives when confronted with HIV – the narrator is assailed by fear, self-loathing, and himself even entertains thoughts of suicide.
Poetically described by the narrator’s voice, with echoing calls and chants from memory, all this is given deeper voice and resonance through the music of Simon Fisher-Turner and Brian Eno, as well as through sounds – the chiming of a gong heard occasionally throughout, the tolling of a bell, the ticking of clocks, marking time, giving solemnity, suggesting mourning. Certainly much of the film has the feel of a radio play - an experimental one certainly – a monologue narration, abstract, elusive and introverted, but it remains nonetheless the work of an experimental director who throughout his career strived to work beyond limitations placed on him either through lack of sufficient funding or just the desire to subvert conventional expectations. In making Blue Derek Jarman had to deal with the most limiting factor in his career - the approach of death and the slow destruction of his body. Often elusive, difficult and experimental, Blue is nonetheless is a remarkable journey, admirably demonstrating the qualities that Jarman is known for – a strong personal vision, a sense of imagination, and particularly here with such a personal and emotive subject, demonstrating a sense of fortitude and calmness and a reluctance to appeal to sentimentality or submit to conventionality.
Blue is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is Region 2 encoded and in PAL format.
With a completely blank, unchanging blue screen visible throughout the entire length of the film, Blue certainly isn’t the most difficult DVD I have ever had to evaluate for picture quality. Edge-enhancement evidently isn’t going to be too much of a problem here and if the image is perhaps a little soft (as indicated by the opening titles), it’s not going to show at all during the film. What is important here is that there are not too many distractions in the way of marks or macroblocking that might lead the viewer to visualise something on the screen that shouldn’t be there. The transfer copes with this well, maintaining the luminous blue screen with perfect stability. There are occasional dustspots visible, only one or two larger marks and thin white ring reel-change marks – but little that significantly affects the impact of a unique viewing experience.
The audio track is in the original Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo. The soundtrack is characterised foremost by the narration, which uses several voices - from John Quentin, Nigel Terry and Derek Jarman himself. The tone is excellent – pitched low, warm and murmuring with adequate but not exceptional clarity. The music score is just as important as are the sound effects, all of them combining to form an audio image rather than a visual one, and here also the sound mix works just fine.
There are no English subtitles for hearing impaired - an unfortunate omission, particular for a film like this.
Other than the blurb on the back of the DVD, there is no contextual information for the film in the DVD extra features. Biographies are included for Derek Jarman, Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, John Quentin, composer Simon Fisher-Turner, producer James Mackay and composer Brian Eno, but these are brief and give little information on Jarman’s career or the circumstances of his making Blue.
Extra value is however present in the form of Glitterbug (53:11), officially Jarman’s last film, made in 1994, but only released posthumously. The film consists of Super 8 home-movie footage shot between 1970 and 1986, set to a score by Brian Eno. As well as acting as a memoir for the director’s life and film career, it also serves as a chronicle of the period from a particular Jarman perspective. It shows parties with friends, the growing gay and punk scenes, as well as behind-the-scenes footage of the making of his films, giving some indication of the legendary wild and carefree atmosphere in which they were made. Certainly not filmed or edited in a straightforward manner, Glitterbug flits around making use of time-lapse, speeded-up photography, stills and grainy Super 8 footage. It is scored by Brian Eno with an appropriate sense of rhythm and ambience.
Still fiercely experimental and controversial, with no visual images other than an unchanging blue screen, Blue is perhaps not the most accessible film from Derek Jarman and it will certainly appeal more to fans of the director who will better appreciate the insight it provides into the director’s mindset during the final years of his life. On the other hand, dealing with notions of mortality and creativity when faced with illness and death, the film also has a much wider interest and poetic resonance in its words, sounds, music and in the impact on the retina of watching a pure blue screen for 75 minutes. Artificial Eye present the film well on DVD, without much contextual information, but including a fine and relevant supplemental documentary feature with Glitterbug.