"As long as the music's loud enough, we won't hear the world falling apart."—Borgia Ginz (Orlando)
It is an Elizabethan England as Fellini—or perhaps Francis Bacon—might have imagined it: smoky, underlit, and populated by necromancers and midgets. Cabalist John Dee (Richard O'Brien) summons the spirit Ariel before his queen. In a flash, Elizabeth (Jenny Runacre) and Dee are transported to a post-apocalyptic urban nightmare. The Thames is so caked in filth that corpses cannot even sink. Cops laugh as street thugs dance a barbed-wire maypole around a murdered partygoer. Everything burns.
Anarchist teens rule the streets. Gun-toting Mad (Toyah Wilcox) announces to her punk amazons, "The world is no longer interested in heroes." Led by Bod (Jenny Runacre again), perhaps the reincarnation of Queen Boadicea, England's rebellious soul, the gang wanders, marking their territory, as England unravels before them…
After the surprise success of his first feature, Sebastiane, Derek Jarman garnered a reputation as a sort of rebel leader in the world of British art. Never mind that Sebastiane was more a paean to gay rebellion than anything overtly political; Jarman was suddenly embraced by the latest rebel movement to sweep England: punk. So Jarman ran with the punks, Super 8 camera in hand. Some of his home movie footage of the Sex Pistols even made it (uncredited) into Julian Temple's The Great Rock and Roll Swindle. According to biographer Tony Peake, however, Jarman did not have the highest opinion of the punk aesthetic. Jarman wrote (as recorded in Peake's book Derek Jarman) that punks were "petit bourgeois art students…[who] are now in the business of reproducing fake street credibility." In other words, the punk movement was a blind that hid media cynicism and reactionary politics. The punks, fascinated by fascism, were one step away from right-wingers like Margaret Thatcher.
So where did punk fit in with British history? This is the conceit behind Jubilee, whose title doubles as both an ironic reference to a celebration more cheerful than the violent outbursts of the punks and to the anniversary (the 25th, or "Silver Jubilee," in this case) of the reign of Elizabeth's latter day namesake, is that punk anarchy is just another British uprising that will eventually be co-opted, that the punks will, as every revolutionary movement does, sell out.
That Jubilee does not have much of a plot, other than Bod's gang bouncing from one crazy sequence to the next, is beside the point. The film is Jarman's attempt to capture the mood of a subculture and the polemics of its chattier members. Random violence and sexual escapades (straight and gay) are punctuated by speeches, but we are never meant to take any of it seriously. Jarman's film is not a documentary, in spite of its occasional use of Super 8 footage and real punk bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees. It is a satire.
If Elizabeth's world is characterized by repression and male power, the apocalypse of Jubilee is hysteria unleashed: female rage. Of course, for a homosexual artist like Jarman, this may be a greater nightmare. Lee Drysdale, in the documentary on the disc, asserts that Jarman, for all his rebellious reputation, was really a closet Tory, horrified by punk anarchy. Indeed, Jarman seems to find himself more drawn to the mysticism of John Dee, a sort of spiritual rebel, than to anything conspicuously political. In his journal (as quoted by Tony Peake in Derek Jarman), the director dedicated the film to "all those who secretly work against the tyranny of Marxists fascists trade unionists maoists capitalists socialists et cetera. [sic]…who have conspired together to destroy the diversity and holiness of each life in the name of materialism…For William Blake."
In this way, one might see the Cabalism of Dee, the semiotic connection between text and world, in Jubilee. The punks scrawl their world together in the form of graffiti (including the word "post-modern," as if that does not give away the whole game) as a living broadside. Amyl Nitrate (Jordan), one of Bod's girls, is writing a history of England: "When I'm not making history, I'm writing it." The performance of music, controlled by the flaming impresario Borgia Ginz (Orlando, looking here like the child of Malcolm McClaren and Count Orlock), becomes the only means to gain power. Ginz plots to take over the Eurovision song contest, then later signs the pouty boy-toy Kid (Adam Ant) and his band Scum. Of course, other performers from Jubilee besides Adam Ant would make it big in the mainstream with the help of real life Borgia Ginz's: Brian Eno (his first soundtrack), Richard O'Brien and Little Nell (stars of the post-punk parody Rocky Horror). And of course, Jarman would move on to craft more strange and theatrical revisions of history with films about Caravaggio, Edward II, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, as well as a version of The Tempest even weirder than that of his cinematic successor Peter Greenaway (Prospero's Books).
But in this early work, Jarman's raw visual style in the film seems fairly intuitive, like the bastard child of Kenneth Anger and Jean Cocteau. The editing is rough, and the mise en scène seems largely improvised. Partly this is due to the anarchic nature of punk itself, as Jarman was forced to grab footage where he could. But mostly this was a calculated move to imitate the supposedly rough feel of punk culture (which was often also meticulously planned). Due to the low-budget aesthetics of the original film, Criterion had a difficult job making Jubilee look good on DVD. In characteristic fashion, they still managed to make this grainy, sometimes slapdash experimental film watchable with a clean digital transfer supervised by the film's original cinematographer Peter Middleton.
Consider the brief (five minute) film "Justin's Dance," included by Criterion on the DVD (along with a minute of Jarman's own commentary on an alternate track). Fragments of this Super 8 film turn up in Jubilee as Amyl Nitrate's dream, in which she asserts that when all desire becomes reality (that is, the anarchic state where no authority binds you), then art is no longer necessary. Watching the complete version of the ballet, in which a dancer circles a flaming wreck while figures in masks stand impassively, one might see either a completely arbitrary attempt to look "artsy," or a sneaky allegory of post-colonial England. Take your pick. Even Jarman's "shooting script" is really a scrapbook of script fragments, sketches, and seemingly random ideas. Is this all the sign of a crazy genius, or just a guy making it up as he goes along?
Jubilee is greater than the sum of its seemingly amateurish parts due to Jarman's clear sense of a consistent aesthetic, fusing the arbitrariness of punk with artistic traditions. In one shot, the gang smothers a man in orange plastic sheeting. His body, hands tied over his head, lays out like the martyred St. Sebastian. In Jarman's world, punk is just another turn in the gyre of history. No wonder the real punks hated this movie.
The real history of punk is just one of the topics covered by cast and crew in the 37-minute documentary "Jubilee: A Time Less Golden." Performers Jenny Runacre and Toyah Wilcox, costume designer Christopher Hobbs, art assistants Lee Drysdale and John Maybury, and critic Tony Rayns all discuss the art scene in early '70s England. While Jarman worked around the fringes of London's gay art crowd, making home movies with friends, the gay fashion scene (popularly known as "glam") fused with anarchic Leftist politics to become the prototype of punk. Lee Maybury confirms that most early punks were disaffected upper middle class kids pretending to be working class Marxist revolutionaries.
Cast and crew chat about how Jarman put Jubilee together, placing professional actors alongside real punks, based on visual look and sense of artistic potential (although everyone agrees he cast Adam Ant mostly out of lust). The documentary is solid, although with so many participants, Criterion could have easily opted for a commentary track and let them talk a bit longer about Derek Jarman's cinema in general (since this disc will likely be an introduction for many viewers to his work, most of which is unavailable on DVD).
Also for this 25th anniversary edition of the film (its own Silver Jubilee!), Criterion includes notes by Jarman on the making of the film, punk fanzines that inspired the art design, cast and publicity photos, and even a notorious T-shirt printed with a negative review of the film in which the critic (a self-proclaimed punk) calls Jubilee "an insult to my virility." Jarman probably relished such criticism as only a real rebel can, the sort of artistic trickster who can not only satirize the mainstream but also mock the movements that claim (usually falsely) to speak for the disenfranchised as well.
While not Derek Jarman's best work, Jubilee is a more honest and sharp appraisal of the highs and lows of the punk aesthetic than most films of its generation. And Jarman was dead on in his predictions that punk would sell out sooner than its fans expected. While I hope Criterion will move quickly to release Jarman's later, more accomplished work on disc, Jubilee is a good place to start, if only to see so many icons of British pop culture (Adam Ant, Brian Eno, Little Nell) assembled in one place.
Bod and her gang are sentenced to front row seats at a Cliff Richard concert for their crimes against the state. Criterion and Derek Jarman are released.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• "Jubilee: A Time Less Golden" Documentary
Review content copyright © 2003 Mike Pinsky; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.