When is a Film Not a Film?
The Problematic Reception of Sound And Vision in Derek Jarman’s Blue.
“I don’t think of myself as avant-garde. I think avant-garde died in the last revolution before the war.” – Derek Jarman (1994)
For a director whose visual flair and heightened sense of style became a sickly, heady trademark of his work, Derek Jarman knew perfectly well what he was doing when putting together his final feature film, Blue (1993). Blue has taken on many forms since its creation in the early 1990s but is predominantly known to be the director’s final film. The reasons for discrepancies with describing its form come from the film’s creative choices which, on first experience, seem inherently avant-garde.
Blue is perhaps the only feature film in the history of cinema to not have a specific changing visual. Throughout its running time, many different topics, issues and narratives are presented but they are only present through the use of sound. Visually, the film shows a blank, blue screen for the entire duration with any visual changes often being tricks produced by the viewer’s own eyes. This one creative decision opens up an array of problematic questions when discussing the film’s reception. “Blue is a peculiarly difficult film to discuss. This is not entirely because its image is blue throughout, for there is a well-established discourse for the discussion of minimal art and avant-garde cinema from the 60s and 70s has included directors who have subscribed to a minimalist or abstract aesthetic.” states O’Pray which presents one of the two arguments found within this essay (1996, p.206). Both have a dramatic effect on reception.
While Jarman is no doubt the lead creator on the project in many of its forms, for a film that is produced with emphasis on sound rather than vision, the analysis must place equal emphasis on the role of Simon Fisher-Turner as the film’s composer. Chion states that “Surely, our conscious perception can valiantly work at submitting everything to its control, but, in the present cultural state of things, sound more than image has the ability to saturate and short-circuit our perception.” (1990, p.33). Perhaps Jarman had this ideology in mind. Its very inception comes from a performance art background rather than a filmic one, which may explain its more obvious cinematic anomalies but it is something that has made its reception both problematic and malleable.
Can a film really be a film if its sole communicative method is through sound? The relationship between building sound with movement of image and vice versa was around before sound had even entered into popular film, yet Blue, for all its claims towards the director’s typical subverted populism, is unique. The fact that the message conveyed by the film does not require the viewer to perceive the visuals, but instead to almost listen to the film, makes its potential audience reception fascinating. Johnson believes that “This tendency to let sound pass by unnoticed has even affected the criticism we write. Despite many correctives in recent years, we often see images over sounds in ideological critiques of a given cinema.” (Johnson, p.292). In Blue, Jarman has made this relationship of the overlooking of sound and music an impossibility for critics and viewers alike. Through this essay, a number of different aspects will be addressed surrounding Blue; all of which will be looked at in a linear, chronological order. There are several reasons for this but the most poignant one is to highlight the difference that the passage of time has had on an audience’s reception as it will no doubt have had an effect on the main aspect to discussed in this essay; the methods of technology with which Blue can be experienced.
It is a work that has taken on many forms, meaning different potential methods of reception and different interpretations of what is seen and heard. When discussing the basics of reception studies, Staiger argues that:
“In a rather simple dichotomy reception studies might be placed in antithesis to the hermunetics based on the authority of production (authorship). In fact some individuals have gone so far as to claim that reception studies eliminates the need to examine production since, they believe, meaning is produced by the reader. As will become apparent, I find such a proposition dangerous not merely for the reason that any radical historian might…” (1992, p.3)
This summarises why this essay will put equal emphasis on the production of the work and the reception of the work through technology. The malleability of the former greatly affects the possibilities of the latter. These potential forms of reception are something that frequently appear more often as time goes on but because of the ambiguous nature of the film’s form, its reception in its original context is a good starting point in examining the many issues that Blue’s reception raises.