Thursday, 8 February 2007

The Last Of England (1988) - Derek Jarman

Not having any idea of what Derek Jarman's films are like before diving headfirst into this particular title is as much of a hindrance as an advantage. With no preconceptions (except those garnered from the reviews on IMDB) i didn't know what to expect, having never really seen a truly abstract film save perhaps Un Chien Andalou, but a total absence of a story is all this film has in common with Bunuel's surreal short.

From the outset it becomes abundantly clear that this is Jarman's personal film, an exposé if you will of his bitterness towards late '80s UK culture and society. As we see him working at his Bankside studio there's something tense in the scene, but it's not clear exactly what or why. But before the audience has time to work out where this film is or who the man at the desk is (and where he is) the didactic assault on the senses - aural, visual, emotional, political begins in earnest. A snapped shot of a person holding a flare, a man injecting heroin, masked men with guns. Shots cut together at a rate you might expect from Michael Winterbottom, but far from the contemporary dirctor's haphazrd scattershot approach to editing Jarman's constrcut seems to have far more in comon with soviet nontage cinema. We see the artist, then we see a boy masturbating over a Caravaggio painting, we see a flare illuminating the darkness - there is not one image that is placed at random into the montage; everything is placed together because that's the best way to get across the message. But this then begs the question - what is his message?

The message, the point or focus of Jarman's cinematic barrage appears to me to be a countercultural political polemic. In the 1970s political syndicalims became rife amongst the working classes of a Labour britain; under Thatcher the mines were shut down (amid violent protests) and the army got tough in Northern Ireland (Human rights cases over internment dragged on for years afterwards). Her government, under the 'Iron Lady' was one of solidity, of national strength, in the case of the Falklands conflict a manipulated patriotism. Jarman seeing all this also sees a loss of traditional morality, a loss of heritage and i think, Britishness. Society, in Jarman's eyes emerged at the end of the 1980s fragmented with the working classes wholly out of touch with the middle class - so his film is just as fragmented. Perversly in this dystopic industrial wasteland a man injecting heroin, a man getting shot on a rooftop by masked gunmen and a tramp scavaging for food in a scrapheap does not seem at al out of place. Indeed it's these social pervsersions that seem to define the environment for Jarman, the scariest thought of all however is that none of these nameless characters who fliter in and out of the film are fictional - in 1988 you could probably go to a scrapheap and find the tramp, or go to a part of Belfast where a ritual execution was taking place and in London heroin was soon to make way for the deluge of ecstasy in the yuppy 90s and later cocaine.

There does however seem to be some hope, some light in the darkness, held aloft by a facless person lighting the path if not to righteousness then at least to a possibility of a better future. It's no accident that the final shot is of a man holding a flare in a boat being rowed away by people dressed like KKK members. What came to mind watching this scene was the famous headline in The Sun which read: "Will the last person to leave please turn off the light". Whetehr this a deliberate reference or whether i'm reading too much into it the repeated motif of this person with a flare that crops up amidst all other sorts of chaos is an interesting one that clearly has purpose, even if that purpose is not easily fathomable. The same can be said of the marriage scene, that Jarman pays an awful lot of attention to with his camera. A man and woman get married in a dirty derelict building, falling apart and covered in crap, surrounded by various unusal aspects of society - a crossdresser and a dwarf are the more memorable. Following the ceremony we then see the woman outside with a large fire burning nearbye. I sort of expected her to go into a political speech like Eve in Godard's Sympathy For The Devil but she doesn't - jarman's far more interested on her body language that resmebles, for me, a kind of mournful despair. This should be the happiest day of her live, but under Jarman's subversion it becomes a fascinating bastardisation of classical traditions, the purity of her white dress somehow remaining untainted by the filth and desolation around her like some sort of innocent virginal survivor of a holocaust.

Photographically, the film is just as planned, precise and made to be controversial. In a world where Hollywood spends millions on big budget 35mm movies Jarman works from a small bankside studio shooting on an 8mm camera splicing in 40 year old home video footage his parents shot. The lighting is as bizarrely striking as it is shoddy. The vibrant colours arent fully exploited because of the amateur equipment, but it's also this amateurness in the cinematography that makes everything so much more powerful. Light and colour merge into the environment changing everything onscreen in a way that would never happen in a the highly controlled environment of a Hollywood studio. Then over this we get a soundtrack with as much avriety as anything else in the film. Pomp And Circumstance becomes a symbol of faux nationalism, an insincere facade of pride that hides an underlying disilusion and apathy - a complete contrast to the usual outpouring of zeal it's accompanied by at The Proms. Simon Fisher-Turner's own unique, highly original score is just as effective in evoking the kind of feeling Jarman intended as Philip Glass' score was for Koyanisquatsi (a film that also shares the fragmented narrative structure although with more coherence than this film). In fact, the best way i can describe what watching the film is like is to say it's Koyanisquatsi meets Tarnation with The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Who Dares Wins thrown in for good measure.

An impossible film to get your head round, with an overt style many will label as arty or pretentious, but one that has unrivalled passion at it's core. A smack in the face for British conservatism and modernity that uses the very tools of modenity to evoke a certian nostalgia for the preceeding traditions, morals, society as a whole. Watching this film, then turning on the news almost had me packing my bags and emigrating.



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