Written and Directed by Derek Jarman
Starring Jenny Runacre, Nell Campbell, and Toyah Willcox
Cinematography by Peter Middleton
Jubilee, more so than Jarman’s Caravaggio, Edward II, or Sebastiane, uses the tropes of the period drama so anarchically that the film feels like pure adrenaline, and it has enough emotional weight to keep its post-modern intellectual statements grounded. The film was cast with friends, none of them then known, and the sense of the director’s comfort among this group of rag-tag freaks (which includes the rising post-punk superstar Adam Ant) rubs off on the audience. We feel more sympathy with these punks than we do towards Alex and his crew in A Clockwork Orange not because they are any less nihilistic, but because the camera situates itself among them so that we become part of the gang – a position clearly held by the director himself.
The film begins in 16th century England, where Queen Elizabeth I summons her magician, Arial, an androgynous man dressed in a tight black body suit, with black curly hair and black contact lenses. He holds a glowing crystal orb with time-traveling powers and speaks not only in exalted period language but also with the theatrical flair of an old-fashioned theater show. Right off the bat, Jarman’s revelry in the sensual indulgences of his production design is flaunted for the audience, as is his knack for low-budget camp. Brian Eno’s score music is used most effectively in this sequence, although the sounds themselves aren’t quite as interesting as they are ignorable (Eno’s professed goal in creating ambient music was to create sound that was equally interesting and ignorable, and he succeeded admirably in his later work). In any case, the score is put on the back burner rather quickly once the 1970s punk music kicks in, so this is Eno’s moment of glory, and he effectively evokes the magic of the scene.
Arial shows the Queen the “shadow” of her time, and a light from off-screen bathes the characters as they stare at it, transfixed. Here, the eyeline match is exploited and subverted, so that the Queen’s gaze is intercut with scenes from a violent post-punk future from another time. Not only is the object of her gaze outside her time period, but it is literally outside the castle, drenched in sunlight. It’s an eyeline match that fails to match at all, thus breaking the fourth wall; we know that the two frames are not contextually linked in space but are drawn into the same diegesis by virtue of our own expectations of continuity.
A Hollywood time-travel movie with special effects would have integrated these two scenes with special effects, but Jarman’s approach is more effective; the violent post-punk “future” is jarringly juxtaposed and partially integrated into the scene through the character’s gaze as she witnesses a burning baby carriage and scrawled graffiti that reads, “post-modern” (a gesture which is potentially too clever for Jarman’s own good). She sees a globe with black countries labeled “negative world states” – an object whose location is completely decontextualized. The eyeline matches are supposedly in the same space throughout, because the Queen’s gaze is unidirectional. But the images she sees off-screen, the ones intercut with the shot of her looking, are scattered throughout space, as though she is watching a film. Jarman, by extension, occupies the role of the magician, presenting images that transport us from our own place and time.
When we make a transition to the “future” dystopia in which the vast majority of the film takes place, Jarman holds a long still shot of one of his punk rock characters reading aloud from a book. Then, after she has read a kind of manifesto of the film’s anarchist philosophy (or at least the one it seeks to portray), Peter Middleton’s handheld camera captures rough clips of a bizarre dance sequence with a bellerina surrounded by men wearing masks of greek statues, one of whom is otherwise nude. The dance is sped up like a silent movie (there is no diegetic sound, only the brief entrance of a classical music score), and later slowed down. This tampering with the film speed (which feels somewhat more abstracted in the digital age), again acts as a self-referential clue into the film’s creation.
In this case, however, our own awareness of the viewing experience only seems to enhance the visual pleasure. The imagery is often unabashedly surreal and devoid of narrative function. At one point, a dwarf from the 16th century approaches a young boy from the “present”, who sits on a black rubber tire next to a fire formed perfectly into the shape of a grid. Other, more story-driven moments are equally striking, such as when the punk girls throw a body wrapped in a translucent red plastic sheet into a river only to watch it float on a sea of brown mud. One of the interior designs features a single white mattress on the ground of a completely black room, with characters standing motionless in artificial spotlights.
What makes this film unique among what I’ve seen from Jarman is its overt sense of dark humor. Lines like “Mad’s so crazy” (referring to a character named Mad) give these violent egotists a certain charm that never threatens to come off as cute. After suffocating a man she slept with, one girl bemoans – with complete sincerity – that “just for a moment I thought he was the one”. Later, a man waters a collection of garden gnomes, with not a plant in sight. The Adam Ant character’s narcissistic obsession with his televised image is exaggerated to the point of farce when he literally licks the TV screen. Characters at the laundromat decide to take off their clothes in order to put them in the washing machine (an absurdist gesture that would not seem entirely out of place in one of Buñuel’s skits). A megalomaniacal businessman/politician/media executive who simply embodies power itself hysterically boasts, “BBC, TUC, ITV, ABC, ATV, MGM, KBG, C of E, you name it I bought them all. And I rearranged the alphabet!”
None of this humor is particularly innocent or lighthearted, and it perfectly suits the punk rock and fashions of the time. The documentation of a subculture is an incidental function of many cult films (it only serves this purpose in retrospect), but I was particularly reminded of Liquid Sky, which possibly derived some influence from this piece in its use of fashion, as well as Todd Hayne’s Velvet Goldmine, which substitutes early glam rock for the post-punk style that developed only a few years later. What’s surprising is that the characters manage to hold the viewer’s attention despite all the focus on farce and fashion. When a war with the police results in a number of deaths among the punk rock clan at the end of the film, I was actually rather distressed. Although the filmmaking appears to shun any Hollywood-style identification or suspension of disbelief, lacking as it does any kind of protagonist, Jarman’s camera places us so fully in this world that we revel in the illusion of our own insider status.