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.



So I watched as many films as I could get my hands on, back to his early works — the sexy Sebastiane, the satirical punk film Jubilee, the arresting Caravaggio (starring his muse Tilda Swinton, with whom he would collaborate constantly until his death). All of the films are formally innovative, all worth revisiting. Of his later films, the furious, visually decadent retelling of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II uses the persecution of the medieval king’s homosexuality to examine contemporary treatment of queers in the age of AIDS. The film is a series of independent scenes, with period details and anachronistic elements, including Outrage activists clashing with police. The film is angry, sad, funny, and deeply complicated. Edward and his lover are not likeable heroes; while Jarman condemned a conformist, moralistic society (which in his writings he dubbed heterosoc), he did not offer an easy, redemptive moral alternative.

But I found Jarman could not be understood by his films alone, could not be reduced to simply a filmmaker. Like his heroes Cocteau and Wilde, in Jarman’s case the life was also the work. So I read about the man, in the words of others but most especially in his own words. His books are stunningly forthright; not only do they contextualize and inform the films, but they deepen an understanding of his activism as well. In At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, Jarman moves in his characteristic fragmentary style through the decades of his life, documenting societal notions of degeneracy and laying out in poetic rage his renunciation of heterosoc. Yet he also insists on hope. He ends the book with a note to future generations of young queers, who he imagines will not have had to face such struggles: “I had to write of a sad time as a witness — not to cloud your smiles — please read the cares of the world that I have locked in these pages and after, put this book aside and love. May you have a better future, love without a care, and remember we loved too. As the shadows closed in, the stars came out. I am in love.”

Now, 20 years after his death, a future generation is coming into being that has little or no memory of the AIDS crisis. Twenty years after his death, London is in love with Jarman. No longer a controversial, polarizing outsider, 2014 is the year of Jarman. A yearlong commemoration of his life and legacy is underway in prestigious cultural institutions across the city, from Kings College to the British Film Institute to the Tate Modern, with talks on Jarman’s legacy, exhibitions of his sketches and paintings, and screenings of seemingly every one of Jarman’s films. (You can visit to get an idea of the scope of the events.)

I was lucky enough to be in London for the opening ceremony of the exhibition Pandemonium, focusing on Jarman’s time at King’s College. Of course there’s irony in the anti-establishment figure being canonized by the arbiters of high culture, and there’s danger that the raw immediacy of Jarman’s artistic vision, that angry bite, might be defanged. But as I wandered around the gallery, I wondered if something else might be going on with Jarman’s revival. The event was packed, with those who had known Jarman in life, and with that younger generation, college-age, many of whom presumably are able to “love without a care.” I wondered if maybe many of them hadn’t come in search of something beyond the new gay ideals of “marriage, a mortgage, and monogamy.” I wondered if Jarman’s passionate vision, and the example of his life, might offer something refreshingly vivid, alternative, wild, and necessary for our queer future.

Image credit: © Ray Dean