mercoledì 19 febbraio 2014

Planet Jarmania. Tilda Swinton on Derek Jarman

di Tilda Swinton (*)

Tilda Swinton in The Last of England

Dear Derek,

Jubilee is out on DVD. I found a copy in Inverness and

watched it last night. It’s as cheeky a bit of

inspired old ham punk spunk nonsense as ever grew out

of your brain and that’s saying something: what a buzz

it gives me to look at it now. And what a joke:

there’s nothing an eighth as mad bad and downright

spiritualized being made down here these days this

side of Beat Takeshi. There’s an interview with you at

the end of the thing: a Face to Face .. very nice to

see that face, I must say.  Jeremy Isaacs asks you,

last of all, how you would like to be remembered and

you say you would like to disappear. That you would

like to take all your works with you and ... evaporate


Tilda Swinton in Caravaggio

It’s a funny thing, because the truth is that, here, 8 years later, in so many ways you never could, but, it

has to be faced, in so many others, you have. It’s snowed since you were here and your tracks are covered. Fortunately you made them on hard ground.

Well, I could tell you that we got some things right,

back then, sitting round the kitchen table in

Dungeness projectile vomiting with the best of them:

you were INDEED the great Thatcherite filmmaker - for

every £200,000 film you made, real profits were seen -

by someone or other -  within at least the first 2

years, all those royal circus brides did indeed end up

cutting themselves out of their wedding dresses and

looking into the camera. Alan ‘ all -film- is-

an-advertisment- for- something’  Parker did end up

running the BFI and dissolving its production arm,

Film 4 WAS just a flash in the pan ..  I DID have

twins of all genders and head for the hills.

Derek Jarman e Tilda Swinton
Do you remember Norman Stone calling to arms about us

all in the Sunday Times? saying ‘The Last of England’

and ‘ Sammy and Rosie get Laid’ and ‘Raining Stones’

and  i can’t remember what else were a damaging and

misleading series of slanders on the British character

and profile? .. those were the days. That strictly for

export word ‘British’ .. reminds me always how on show

it encourages us  to consider ourselves. Surely the

idea of a national identity was always tricky enough:

strikes me any attempt to define a national identity

for film is not unlike trying to get a hairnet on a

jellyfish .. and, by the by, it not unreasonable to

suggest that  those in the definition business -

boardroom table dancers with pension plans and jobs to

lose - might not necessarily be best equipped to blue

sky the blue for the rest of us.

Jubilee di Derek Jarman
They talk about The British Film Industry a lot these days. You remember that   Renaissance they all got moist about in the 80’s after ‘Chariots of Fire’ won

Oscars: the British are Coming? And then that Kenneth Branagh thing with ‘Henry v’ ? Didn’t he even call his company Renaissance Films? Well, the renaissances are rolling themselves out pretty much yearly, now, as director after director makes his or her first film and then graduates to making commercials.

The fact is - you know why - I cannot  ever quite be

serious about the British Film Industry. Its not a

phrase I can use - could ever use - with much of a

straight face. it’s really nothing personal.  It’s

just that  I find I predate it, like I predate the

thinking man’s stocks and shares, and I haven’t quite

got with the groove. Do you remember, we saw them

setting up the stall in the empty field and the tiny

man with the megaphone settling himself into position

behind the imperial velvet curtain? We were there 

watching when the wily colonial entrepeneur circled

the ring at the village fete with hot hands and did

visible dollar sums in his head at the sight of the

handicraft  table and prepared to hand over bead

necklaces to the cottage weavers for their finger

woven items from hand reared indigenous materials ..

It felt like industrial films on these islands in

those eighties were made by people who could not quite

get into television. Or by shameless traitorous ex

patriots who had legged it for the free world in the

colonies. In those days, British Film, when invoked,

meant getting proud about  the Lavender Hill Mob or

Whisky Galore. An American/Indian partnership began to

give Britain an exportable identity : these were the

Crabtree and Evelyn Waugh days of ex- imperial mooning

about, when nostalgic dreams of The Grand Tour meant

film culture to a lot of people. Class obsession,

still, now, the greatest stock in the trade of

industrial cinema here, began to show a profit. Gotcha

became a word in the national anthem. Land of banal

hope, of Past Times glory .. still superior about the

land of the free on the grounds that we managed to

sell London Bridge to the desert .. who’s the colony,

though? Then and now ..

Tilda Swinton
I had run away to join a different circus, myself -

yours: Planet Jarmania -  you were the first person I

met who could gossip about St Thomas Aquinas and hold

a steady camera at the same time you did at our

first meeting ..i thought it would be good to hang

out with you for 6 weeks .. I guess we had things to

say. Our outfit was an internationalist brigade.

Decidedly pre-industrial. A little loud, a lot louche.

Not always in the best possible taste. And not quite

fit, though it saddened and maddened us to recognise

it, for wholesome family entertainment.

Wholesome families were all the rage then. There was a

fashion for a thing called ‘normal’ and there was a

plague abroad called ‘ perversion’. There was no such

thing as society and culture meant something to do

with a yoghurt plant. This was before the Sunday Times

educated us that culture means digested opinions about

marketable  artistic endeavours. Things are a little

different now: People -  at least pretend to - have an

enormous amount of sex and tell everybody else about

it. Not much ‘Butterflies’ on telly, except on the

nostalgia channels. We use the word terrestrial

without a flicker of spacethink. People cook and

decorate their flats and celebrate the Millenium and

the opening of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester

after compatible cajun/Echo Park hacienda/ Alternative

Miss World c. 1978 styles. Straight has started to

mean honest again, getting very drunk is hilariously

funny and smart and newsreaders would refer to today

as July Seventeenth.

Derek Jarman
And there’s a big chat on about film culture now ... that means ... genuinely concerned and frustrated individuals scrupulously trying to drum up and contextualise a cinema that speaks to them ... I tend to have a kind of visual/aural disphasia with that phrase and end up thinking that what is being

championed is a sort of film couture, as distinct from

 the ready to wear or diffusion line cinema that it’s

always easier to find off the peg.. I suppose there’s

some kind of balance to that analogy: although the

fashion world - the business that fashion is - is at

least cynical enough to understand the lossleading

value of the mystique of the handstiched and the Marie

Antionette fantasy about seamstresses losing their

eyesight in exchange for their passionate toil over

the bugle beads. That old garret mythology, .. it

doesn’t half send shivers of glee down the spines of

the uber-rich - it’s a fantasy not only of patronage

but also some sort of sacrificial blooddrinking .. the

secret, if not of eternal youth, then of eternal

spiritual worth .. an artist suffered for me ..

Derek Jarman
We used to be referred to as the arthouse; how it used

to irk us then .. how disparaging it sounded

sickly and high falutin pious. and extra curricular.

For arthouse superstar read jumbo shrimp . yet, then,

as now,  the myth prevailed that there was only ever

one mainstream. We were only too happy to know that

our audience existed and to hoe the row in peace.

Nobody here paid that much attention to us, that’s

true: noone ever thought we might make them any money,

I suppose. What grace that constituted . Not to be

identified as national product.. The intergalactic

BFI. ZDF in Germany. MIKADO in Italy. Uplink in Japan.

This was our nation state: this was continuity. We

snuck under the fence, looked for - and found - our

fellow travellers elsewhere. Here’s the thought: slice

the world longways, along its lines of sensibility,

and not straight up and down, through its geographical

markers, and company will be yours, young filmmaker.

company, continuity, identity. Treason? To what?

The dead hand of Good Taste has commenced its last

great attempt to buy up every soul on the planet, and

from where I’m sitting, it’s going great guns. Art is

now indivisible from the idea of culture: culture from

heritage: heritage from tourism: tourism from what I

saw emblazoned recently on the window of an American

chainstore in Glasgow as ‘the art of leisure’. That

means, incidentally, velour lounging suits by the ton.

The colonial balance has shifted and the long spoons are out. We now stand shoulder to shoulder with something as identifiable as Civilisation itself, or

else.. Security never felt so much like a term of abuse.

I was in Los Angeles earlier this year and was asked by a jeweller’s assistant - in a hypergrand jewellry emporium on Rodeo Drive, if the reason i declined to

wear a stars and stripes jewelled badge on my front at

a public event was because i was, in fact, ‘ an

Afghani bitch’...

You may not need me to tell you about the fight for

civilisation afoot these days. More of the same but

worse than even you could have imagined. Meanwhile, in

a binary world, we on these islands cream on creamily

up a Third Way.

Things have got awfully tidy recently. There is a lot of finish on things. Clingfilm gloss and the neatest of hospital corners. The formula merchants are out in force. They are in the market for guaranteed product.

Financial returns. ... add -water- and -stir

reputations after one appearance over the parapet ...

the elusive second film - the developing body of work - far down that yellow brick road ..

They go out looking for filmmakers with the nous(e?) of one who might consider employing halogen spotlights

in the hopes of attracting wild cats into a suburban

garden. They are missing the point. Don’t the know the

roulette wheel is fixed.? The croupier is a card

sharp.? Do these people not watch old movies? It’s the

spirited that hold the hands in the long run, it

always was, the low key for the long term, the

irreverent, the cheats, the undaunted and inspired

rulebreakers, not the goodygoody industrial types with

their bedside manners and managerial knowhow.

It is all done with smoke and mirrors and it always

will be. Not with memos and corporate steering groups.

Not with statistical evidence or test screening

audience feed back. Don’t they know the basic laws of

being in an audience? That we say we want to know more

about the villain, but we don’t really: that we say we

like happy endings but our souls droop without the

bittersweet touch of something we might recognize - as

we bend in  from our fascinating and complex mortal

world into the virtual dark and back again. That we

say we want famous faces we can recognise, but there’s

a thing a face that we identify as an actor’s - first

and foremost - cannot do for us that the face we might

see as that of a person can do. It’s human beings that

are of use to us in the figurative cinema. human

shapes and gauchenesses and human passions. not drama

and perfect timing and a well tuned charisma round

every bend.

I have always wholeheartedly treasured in your work the whiff of the school play. It tickles me still and I miss it terribly. I forage for it now in the films I make with Lynn Hershman. The antidote it offers to the mirrorball of  the marketable. the artful without the

art, the meaningful devoid of meaning - is meat and drink to so many of us looking for that dodgy wig, that moment of awkward zing, that loose corner: where we might prize up the carpet and uncover the rich slates of something we might recognise as spirit underneath. Something raw and dusty and inarticulate,

for heaven’s sake. This is what Pasolini knew. What

Rosselini knew. What Abbas Kiarostami knows.This is

also what Ken Loach knows. What Andrew Kotting knows.

What Bill Douglas knew. What Michael Powell and Emeric

Pressburger, what William Blake knew. And, for that

matter, what Caravaggio knew, painting prostitues as

madonnas and rent boys as saints; no - madonnas as

prostitutes and saints as rent boys .. there’s the

rub.It’s all about rhythm: it’s all in the knees. Bring

it from home. Bring it out from under your bed. Your

own bed. Your own life. That’s - eventually - what you

did, Derek, and measures your highest contribution as

an artist, in my opinion: that you made your work out

of the soup kitchen that was your life.

Derek Jarman
I think that the reason that people wanted to

inaugerate this event in your name, the reason that

you count for so much, so uniquely, to some people,

particularly in this hidebound little place we call

home, is that you lived so clearly the life that an

artist lives. Your money was where your mouth was

always. Your vocation - and here

maybe it helped a little that you offered that special

combination of utter self obsession with the

appearance of the kindest Jesuit classics master in

the school - was a spiritual one, even more than it

was political, even more than it was artistic. And the

clarity with which you offered up your life and the

living of it, particularly since the epiphany - I can

call it nothing less - of your illness, was a genius

stroke, not only of provocation, but of grace . With

your gesture of public confessional , both within and

without your work- at a time when people talked fairly

openly about setting up ostracised HIV island

communities and others feared, not only for their

lives, but, believe it or not, also for their jobs,

their insurance policies, their  friendships, their

civil rights - was made with such particular, and

characteristically inclusive, generosity that it was

at that point that you made an impact far outspanning

the influence of your work. made your spirit ,

your nature, known to us - and the possibility of an

artist’s fearlessness,a  reality. And the truth of it

is: by defying it, you may have changed the market as


There is a character in ‘La Dolce Vita’ - shall I

leave out that he is the suicide? - who describes

himself: ‘too serious to be a dillatante, too much of

a dabbler to be a professional .’.  I use it in my own

head from time to time to explain to myself, if to

noone else, my peculiar idle ways. Now I look at it

again, I think of you and how it might well describe

you. Your focus on the ball beyond the crowd. Your

amateur’s enthusiasm. Your delight in process. Your

perennial beginner’s mind.

Things you taught me:

The example of Huckleberry Finn getting a fence

painted by having such a visibly good time doing one

post himself that every passerby stops to join in.


never to leave a  place having done all you want to do


You should have been a Catholic, I sometimes think,

Del. All those robes in ‘Caravaggio’, all those

poppies in’ War Requiem’ and again in’ The Last of

England’ and ‘ The Garden’, to say nothing of all that

buggery in the crypt in ‘Jubilee’ ...: you and Michael

Powell have to be the best subscribers to the

passionate use of cardinal red in English cinema. The

secret language of holy blood in the hands of pagans

... longlivethepassion. Why is it that  the English

never mention that Shakespeare was a Catholic? All

those squeaky scrubbed classical columns. The

colourfree reformation. Clean up the sweat and blood,

if not the tears. Here we go again.  Longlivesweat.

Longlive secret blood. There’s more than one way to

organise a clearance.

A lot of people go to Dungeness nowadays. I expect you

know that from Keith. Those  old stones: you said

they’d grow things and they did. When I think of that

nice lady who showed us round Prospect Cottage that

day we found it. How quiet, how pale pink her bedroom

was there. I wonder where she went. Do you remember

that letter we found under the carpet with the old

rubber johnny in it: ...’ my wife is not a cold woman

but ..

you are so lovely ..’ somesuch. Addressed to a woman

in Vauxhall, as I remember.

And never sent. Under the carpet with it before she

comes in .. aah. unsent letters.

Tilda Swionton in The Last of England
I found this again the other day: this is Emeric

Pressburger writing to Wendy Hiller outlining the

Archers MO in the hopes of persuading her to work with

them on The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp:

"one; we owe allegience to nobody except the

financial interests which provide our money and to

them the sole responsibilty of ensuring them a profit

not a loss.

two; every single foot in our films is our own

responsibilty and nobody else’s. we refuse to be

guided or coerced by any influence but our own


three; when we start work on a new idea we must be a

year ahead, not only of our competitors, but also of

the times. a real film, from idea to universal

release, takes a year. or more.

four, no artist believes in escapism. and we secretly

believe that no audience does . we have proved, at any

rate that they will pay to see the truth, for other

reasons than her nakedness.

five; at any time, and particularly at the present,

the self-respect of all collaborators, from star to

prop-man, is sustained, or diminished, by the theme

and purpose of the film  they are working on. they

will fight or intrigue to work on a subject they feel

is  urgent or contemporary, and fight equally hard to

avoid working on a trivial or pointless subject. and

we agree with them and want the best workmen with us;

and get them. these are the main things we believe in.

they have brought us an unbroken record of success and

a unique position. without the one of course we should

not have enjoyed the other very long. we are under no

illusions. we know we are surrounded by hungry sharks.

but you have no idea what fun it is surf-bathing, if

you have only paddled, with a nurse holding onto your

rompers. we hope you will come on in, the water’s


Tilda Swinton, The Last of Englan
Here’s a tradition speaking: and it’s a tradition that

you belong to, Derek: and those of us whose hearts

rise up to the challenge fall in alongside the best

company possible on these islands.. a long established

- and classical  national tradition, some might argue

- of powerful outsider artists .. pioneers .. devoted

to the idea of making things not made before .. shapes

and gestures new to the lexicon ..  people willing to

trust the law that humanity and human made work is

good for humanity .. at least that it’s better for

them to make than not to make .. that society’s shapes

and patterns, at heart, cannot be as profoundly

fascinating as the humans that live within them .. and

that they are not alone.

Tilda Swinton e Derek Jarman
That earlier Jubilee year, you gave us prophesy:

painting extinct in Paranoia Paradise, the generation

who grew up and forgot to lead their lives, the idea

of artists as the world’s blood donors,  history

written on a Mandrax, fear of dandelions.. and yet,


Carnation from Floris , not all the good things have


Maybe it’s as bad as you and I used to say it could

possibly get, now. Maybe it’s worse. But here we are,

the rest of us, tilting at the sameold sameold

windmills and spooking at the same old ghosts. and

keeping company, all the same. It’s a rotten mess of a

shambles, you could say. It’s driving into the curve,

at the very least. Some would say you are well out of

it. I reckon you would say let me attam.

Tilda Swinton in Caravaggio
I say bring it on. Bring on the fisticuffs and let’s

get weaving. And that we could do with you here among

us. And I can’t be the only one, cos look: hey, you’re

a memorial lecture now and look: hey, stranger still:

I’m giving it .. Are they tired of the academic view,

one wonders, tired of the need to listen to lectures

about  funding bodies and cultural diversity? What do

they want to hear about from me? What can I give them?

Given that it’s you who should be the one standing

here giving your own Memorial Lecture - not for the

first time, your closest friends might cry - and you

are presently otherwise engaged, or at least have left

the building, I suppose I might as well read them this

and let them in on the trick - that the conversation

is not done yet .. that the company you keep with us,

when we care to think of it, is just as strong and

empowering as it ever was. That the example you set us

is as simple as a logo to sell a sports shoe; less

chat, more action, less fiscal reports, more films,

less paralysis, more process. Less deference. More

dignity. Less money. More work. Less rules. More

examples. Less dependence. More love.

Tilda Swinton
It has nothing whatever to do with money. Money is the

easier thing in the world for any filmmaker to come

by: next to vision, stamina, vocation,

resourcefulness, comradeship, a sense of the

ridiculous, and the long, long view,  money grows on

trees. Money is the one element that socializes a

filmmaker - that ....ties him to the shore. Easier to

control, easier to scupper. .. who’s for Emeric’s


A suggestion about money:  keepit clean.  Have less.

Need less. Want less. Work with straw, but work.

And the challenges facing a film culture here?

The possibility of filmmakers losing the use of their

own spirits.

The paralysis of isolated original voices

The existence of the student loan in the place of the

student grant

The rarity of distributers with kamikazi vision 

The habit of patronage

Too many  conference tables

Too few cinemas

Too little patience

Pomp and circumstance

The concept of the ‘ successful’ product

The idea that there is not enough to go around

The eye to the main chance

The substitution of codependence for independence

The idea that it has to cost  millions of pounds to

make a feature film

The idea that there is only one way to skin a cat

WH Auden to BBritten: ‘Goodness and beauty result from

a combination of order and chaos, bohemianism and

bourgeois convention ... bohemianism alone leads to a

mad jumble of beautiful scraps ... bourgeois convention

alone to large unfeeling corpses.’

This is what I miss, there being no more Derek Jarman


the mess

the vulgarity

the cant

the poetry

the edge

the pictures

Simon Fisher Turner’s music

the real faces

the intellectualism

the science

the bad temperedness

the good temperedness

the cheek

the standards

the anarchy

the gauchness

the romanticism

the classicism

the optimism

the activism

the challenge

the longeurs

the glee

the playfulness

the bumptiousness,

the resistance

the wit

the fight

the colours

the grace

the passion

the goodness

the beauty






(*) grazie all'intercessione di Luca Guadagnino, Tilda Swinton regalò al manifesto questo suo scritto in memoria di Derek Jarman. L'articolo fu pubblicato sul supplemento culturale alias nel 2002

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