Derek Jarman's Alternative to The New Gay Credo

In life, the gay filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman was a polarizing figure. In death, he represents an alternative to the new gay credo of marriage, mortgage, and monogamy.



On the morning of December 22, 1986, Derek Jarman was diagnosed as HIV-positive. In addition to being a controversial filmmaker, author, set designer, gardener, and queer activist, Jarman was also an avid diarist. He wrote many things in his diary on the day of his diagnosis, among them this gem:

“We must fight the fears that threaten our garden, for make no mistake, ours is the garden of the poets of Will Shakespeare’s sonnets, of Marlowe, Catullus, of Plato and Wilde, all those who have worked and suffered to keep it watered... Pull yourself together and put on the best of your masks to face the new day.”

That quote perfectly illustrates Jarman’s vision, which looked backward toward rescuing, celebrating, and protecting the queer past from historic erasure, at the same time looking prophetically forward. Jarman understood his responsibility to ensuring a better future.

So it is understandable but no less stunningly courageous that only a month later, Jarman revealed his status to the world. This was the mid-’80s, in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, a time of AIDS paranoia and virulent, violent homophobia, a time when Princess Diana simply shaking hands with an AIDS patient stunned the press. Jarman, already a target of the tabloids for his defiant activism and challenging, dazzlingly queer films, heroically used his high profile to agitate for AIDS education and attention to the crisis. He was terrified that AIDS would censure and retard the progress queers had made toward building an open, loving, sexually liberated alternative to conformist heteronormative society. He knew the only solution was to be as unflinchingly honest as he had always been.

Post-diagnosis, Jarman would go on to make some of the strongest films of his career, concluding with the haunting film Blue, made in the last year of Jarman’s life, when AIDS complications had left him near blind and very near death. Blue is 76 minutes of a blue screen accompanied by bits of narrative voiceover. Seventy-six minutes of the color blue.

I remember seeing a screening years ago at the Museum of Modern Art; I remember how scared and impressed I was. My first reaction was a fit of claustrophobia; the blue seemed to reach out of the screen. I thought, I cannot sit through this, something has to change or happen. But gradually I shifted into acceptance, and even humor. At one point Jarman jokes about considering purchasing a pair of shoes in the window, but realizes that the ones he has on will probably last him the rest of his life. The film, like all of Jarman’s work, infuses anger with hope, humor with sorrow, rage with serenity. And while the sole image is an unremitting blue screen, it is somehow incredibly sensual. “To be sensual,” James Baldwin wrote, “is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” Here was Jarman being sensual, being present, in his own death. Leaving the film, I wanted to know the man who made it, for the man, the life, seemed inseparable from the work of art.

Image credit: Burning The Pyramids (Art Of Mirrors) © Luma Foundation