Judge Brett Cullum takes on the latest box set to feature a midget martian and over an hour of blue screen.
Painter, poet, activist, and queer cinema maverick, Derek Jarman (1942-1994) gets his due in a four disc collection.
Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4 gathers four important but lesser known films of the hopelessly artistic and often gleefully enigmatic filmmaker. It's not a set many mainstream movie fans will find accessible. But if you're here to read a critique of Jarman's movies you're probably not one of the masses who finds themselves pondering the depths of the Rambo films. Not that there is anything wrong with being on either side of the fence, but this one is squarely in the "independent art house film" camp.
Derek Jarman entered the film world as a designer who executed the production work on Ken Russel's notorious 1970 feature The Devils. Jarman was an out and proud gay man, and had an arcane sense of intellectualism mixed with camp. His first foray in to feature film making solo was a 1976 project called Sebastiane which was a homosexual love story spoken entirely in Latin. Following that film came one of his masterpieces (which Criterion has released on an excellent DVD) called Jubilee, in which Queen Elizabeth I travels forward in time to a wasteland of punk rockers and post apocalyptic rubble. It starred such notable punk icons as Wayne County, Jordan, Toyah Wilcox, and Adam Ant. He followed that up with an adaptation of The Tempest, and then entered a phase where he exclusively cranked out super 8 mm short films that were more artistic than accessible. Jarman was determined to mess with the sense of narrative, often blurring beautiful images with poetry and music merely for the aesthetic value of the combinations. One of Jarman's more popular films was a very gay version of Edward II complete with a sequence where Annie Lennox appears to sing a song which stops the narrative cold. Not surprisingly the Pet Shop Boys drafted Jarman to direct a handful of their music videos including "Rent" and "It's a Sin."
Glitterbox: Derek Jarman x 4 is a beautiful set containing four discs which span his output from 1986 until 1993. In these films he played with narrative form and color; they represent the most artsy of his widely released projects.
From 1985 / 78 minutes / Color and B&W / Fullscreen 1.33:1
Basically The Angelic Conversation is Dame Judi Dench reading a dozen sonnets as a narrator while a guy tries to purify himself for love. We get lots of shots of rocks, boulders, caves, and a man bathing another one to "cleanse his soul" in preparation. The suggestion is he cleans an angel while a Shakespearian actor recites great love poems. Hardly an action packed affair, but beautiful in its own right. The photography is often stop motion which gives it a unique flair, and the compositions of the scenes are quite painterly. The transfer is fine for what it is: a Super 8 blown up in to 35 millimeter. The overall effect is haunting and hypnotic, but firmly avant garde. Of particular note is the use of music by the alternative music group Coil on the soundtrack, which provides a mysterious layer quite effectively.
From 1986 / 90 minutes / Color / Widescreen 1.66:1
Caravaggio is a nonlinear look back at the famous painter's life from the perspective of his deathbed. It gave Jarman a chance to mix sexuality, crime, and art in to a narratively obtuse film without much purpose other than to "stun with beauty." Though historically inaccurate, it is well-constructed and haunting. Jarman was commissioned to make this film by an art dealer, and he was fascinated by the idea of a "bad boy" artist of epic proportions. Nigel Terry (Excalibur) plays the lead role while Sean Bean makes an early turn in his career. Tilda Swinton appears in her first film role, and the movie marked the first of her many collaborations with Derek Jarman. The main thrust of the film is that "art and life are interchangeable"—there are many tableaus that bring to life famous paintings. Anachronistic moments abound with sounds such as telephones, motorcycles, and traffic noise. The transfer is a bit bright and sometimes flickers, but I assume this may be from the source material. The stereo sound mix works fine, although you will find some dialogue a little muddy. Extras include a great commentary by Gabriel Beristan, who claims this was the greatest experience of his life. This somewhat accessible film is probably the easiest for neophytes, and should be the first viewed by those who are coming in to the Derek Jarman experience with no prior knowledge of his work.
From 1993 / 69 Minutes / Color / Widescreen 1.66:1
This is a theatrical biography of a famous Austrian philosopher, much in the same vein as the earlier work of Jarman on Caravaggio. Wittgenstein was noted for his takes on nature and the limits of language, so he seems the perfect muse for Jarman. The film provides sketches from all phases of his life, and serves as a somewhat surreal portrait of a moody homosexual genius. It's surprisingly chaste with hardly a kiss on screen, and somewhat different for the filmmaker. Seems this one is an allegory about a teacher infecting his young pupils with radical ideas. There's a puzzling appearance by a Martian dwarf, so the avant garde elements are still in full force.
From 1993 / 76 Minutes / Blue / Widescreen 1.66:1
Blue was a very personal project for Jarman, who was ravaged at the time with complications from AIDS. It is quite simply a blue screen with different narrators reading his journals as accompaniment, meant to duplicate for the viewer the experience of going blind and seeing nothing. Again we get Nigel Terry and Tilda Swinton providing voice work with other actors in the mix. The screen never changes, and it is like watching a very deep audio book come to life on the screen.
All of the films get fine transfers on this set, and it's an amazing conglomeration of art and the avant garde. Each of these titles had been previously released by the British Film Institute for DVD, but here Zeitgeist Films provides us with a comprehensive collection. Perhaps most important are the video inclusions of interviews with collaborators, vintage interviews with Jarman himself, and the hour-long addition of Glitterbug, which provides the perfect grace note. That feature is comprised of many clips from personal collections, and the music is by Brian Eno. It's a wonderful production, and taken in altogether these four films plus the extras paint a remarkable portrait of Derek Jarman. Zeitgeist Films provides the set with a handsome package which includes a fold out cardboard pack in electric blue, and a booklet which includes written essays on the artist and his work. Glitterbox is designed for fans, and it does a great job of presenting the films with tons of extras that will fascinate those familiar with Jarman's work. I could see it somewhat confusing to someone who wanders in by mistake, but that's the joy of avant garde cinema.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
• Video Interviews with Producer James Mackay and Production Designer Christopher Hobbs
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