The Problematic Reception of Derek Jarman’s Blue – Part 2 (Early Forms of Blue)

Part 1

The Reception of Blue in its Original Forms.

Blue in Written Form and Early Performances.

“The difference between formalist and realist philosophies is not in the possibility of affecting the spectator but in what the cinema ought to do, its prescriptive work.  Cinema either organizes the world or duplicates the experience of perceiving of it for the spectator.” (Staiger, 1992, p.51)

Though Blue is now most famous for being a piece of cinema, its initial creation came from quite a different area of art.  It was no doubt a project born from the raw materials of cinema but its early forms perhaps explain its disregard for cinematic formalism.  While at a screening for Jarman’s 1991 film The Garden, Jarman and actress Tilda Swinton performed the earliest form of Blue to the public, or at least to the press.  O’Pray describes the event;

“At a special AIDS benefit screening of The Garden at the London Lumiere cinema on 6 January, Jarman and Tilda Swinton put on a pre-screening event titled “Symphonie Monotone”.  They sat at a table on stage creating sounds by running their moistened fingers around the rim of wine glasses, as in the Last Supper sequence of The Garden, and recited passages from various writers on the theme of “blue”.  On the cinema screen was projected a 35mm film of a detail from an Yves Klein blue painting shot at the Tate Gallery.”  (1996, p.201)

Before this, the many words of Jarman’s appeared in book form in order for the director to express his full dismay at the treatment of homosexuals and AIDs sufferers in the media at the time.  Jarman’s books are the basis for the ideas found in Blue.  Guardian writer Laura Cumming even describes Blue as being closer to words than anything else stating:

 “For all of Jarman’s gifts as a visual artist, it may be that what one most appreciates are actually his words. The account of going blind in Blue, his mind ‘a naked light bulb in a dark and ruined room’, could hardly be more eloquent if he had filmed it. And Blue is all words after all: the screen, a pure Yves Klein blue for the entire 74 minutes, is no more than a hearth at which the audience gathers to listen.” (The Observer, March, 2008)

Considering that the work took two separate forms before coming into its own as a piece of cinema, it is perhaps telling of why its reception is so problematic; it is a creative collection of ideas that not only work in many mediums but a collection that openly challenges and subverts the accepted norms of those said mediums.  Jarman’s books, which contain many quotes taken and used in Blue, are extremely reactionary and critical.  Briefly glancing over his other past films, it’s surprising that the anger clearly felt doesn’t manifest into a cacophony of visual Technicolor but, for Blue, Jarman is showing dismay rather than the heated fury that is present in many of the sections omitted from his books.  “The blue colour field in Blue is offered as a denial, perhaps a transcending of his enthralment with the real.  It is such an extreme negation of his imagistic sensibility that is perhaps an instance of Freud’s notion that a feeling can be so intense that its only outlet is through opposite.” summarises O’Pray which questions the film in relation to the director’s previous, visually flamboyant work which even his writing seems polar too (1996, p.203).

Perhaps an avid reader of them would see the performance of Blue by Jarman and Swinton and even the film as too tame for the issues it is dealing with. “If an audience member believe Hitchcock directed The Birds or Bela Lugosi died during the filming of Plan 9 from Outer Space, the interpretative frame may be part of the pleasure of the film’s meaning for that viewer.”  argues Staiger and this same logic can be applied to Blue in all of its forms (1996, p.22).   Even at its most volatile, the film’s lack of visuals bring a sense of calm to the chaos that is going on within the film’s sound world.  Whether this calmness is apt or intended is debatable but its previous form seemed to hint at a similar melancholic calm.

The argument of induced blindness (which will be returned to several times) begins to rear its head, at least in regards to the piece’s initial creation.  Much has been said of the film’s desire to re-create Jarman’s encroaching blindness, yet these early germinations of the piece are in forms that actively deny a lack of visual stimulus (the written word, the dramatic stage recitals).  Perhaps this weakens the piece in its written and early performed versions and logically its audience receptions will greatly differ depending on which form they initially experienced first if any at all.   The “blindness” argument has been one often repeated but rarely deconstructed.  A good example is Cousins’ assessment of Jarman’s work summarising that “His themes were Englishness, Shakespeare, homosexuality, the barbarity of contemporary life and, eventually – in the revolutionairy Blue (UK, 1993), one of the most abstract films ever made, in which the screen remained a single colour throughout – the director’s own blindness and AIDS-related illness.” (2004, p.360).  There is an argument for this and sides of it will be used to show potential differences in reception thought it is ultimately a vague reading of the work.

Part 3.

Adam Scovell.

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