The Problematic Reception of Derek Jarman’s Blue – Part 5 (Home Viewings and Conclusions)

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

Home Viewing of Blue and New Reception Possibilities.

Say you were struck down tomorrow, what would your monument be?” – Dr Mathew Herbert.

“Oh nothing, because film disappears, thank God.” – Derek Jarman (1993, p.117)

There is an unstated irony within this essay in the fact that this writer has never been able to experience Blue in its original contexts or format.  It is even greater to consider that most of the public’s viewing of the film took place, not in the cinema, but on the Television.  Even if it were to be screened now, the digital revolution would mean that even its original celluloid format would be a rarity to be seen and experienced.  O’Pray states that “The event was transformed in 1993 into a 70-minute film and radio piece called Blue for Channel 4 and BBC Radio 3.  The sound was broadcast in stereo and the television screen was filled with a blue colour field produced by film processing techniques.”  (1996, p.201).  This shows that the visual was always meant to be imperfect.  Though technology means a far greater ease of consumption and distribution, this very clearly has had an effect on all of cinema’s reception, not just Blue’s.

With its release on VHS almost simultaneously with the cinema release, the new methods of reception were already being explored but it begs the question, are they really new?  In 1993, Channel 4 aired the film in collaboration with Radio 3, playing a simultaneous broadcast, allowing the audio to be heard as an audio play as well as the normal screening of the film.  This means that actually, the most widely used method of consumption would have been through television and therefore emphasis on the cinematic receptions should perhaps not be given a higher status.

If Jarman really was trying to recreate his illness, would he have really allowed for his vision to be put onto medium that openly allows the blindness to be witnessed third hand?  The presence of the television format affects the reception of the work in such a way that it actually questions a number of the academic readings.  The bulky format would mean experiencing Blue on a television at home, surrounded by personal objects and visual distractions.  This could produce similar, serendipic new readings though it is somewhat doubtful that the visual of a plotted plant in a moment of laxed concentration will shine new light on the audio work or the poetry and issues presented in Blue.

Yet most of people’s screenings of the film outside of festival circuits and limited cinema screenings will have been through this form, whether on the broadcast or through home-entertainment methods.  Its funding body being largely through Channel 4 means that the work was always bound for the television either way.  In The Daily Mail’s typically offended piece on Blue, commissioning editor of Channel 4 at the time, Alan Fountain, is quoted with some interesting statements in terms of reception.  “’It is a very personal piece that doesn’t so much go into the gory details of AIDS but is more about his thoughts and experiences,’ Mr Fountain said yesterday. ‘I think if people turn on, they won’t be able to switch off.  ‘Many will watch it because they are interested in Derek Jarman’s work, as will a lot of people from the gay community. Then there will be those who will switch on because it’s such an outrageous idea and they want to see what this crazy thing is all about.’” (Middlehurst, 1993, The Daily Mail).  Pure aesthetic curiosity is an aspect that hasn’t been considered as a potential signifier in Blue’s reception.  Fountain’s list of factors could equally be talking about factors that affect the individual viewer’s reception; knowledge of Jarman, knowledge of LGBT issues and simply conservative outrage/curiosity.   The latter feeds into Staiger’s argument that “Indeed one consequence of eliminating the criterion of truth for an interperatation is opening up reading to a polysemy and pluralism that even the most radical scholar might fear.” (1992, p.34) as the newpaper’s piece at the time clearly shows with a misrepresentational reading.

Internet, YouTube and the Disregard for Context.

The final step in this technological evolution can be seen in the rise of the internet and Blue’s transmutations onto it in various forms and guises.  With its availability now not even doctrined by price thanks to download culture, Blue can be experienced for free in either form, the most interesting of which is on the video sharing website, YouTube.  This is perhaps one of the few methods of reception that Jarman may have been potentially against, not because of the piracy aspect (judging from his past rebellious streaks, he probably would have found much delight in ease of consumption of his work) but because of the effect it actually has on the work.

The YouTube version of Blue has several factors that greatly affect the reception of the work, some of which corrupt the original image as well as the sound.  For a film that is more reliant on its audio, this may not seem like a problem but the corruption comes from a presence of a potential escape for the viewer rather than an obviously lower quality image.  O’Pray even argues that Jarman didn’t want a pristine blue for his film in the first place:

“Interestingly for this project, Jarman rejected the a use of film that stressed its inevitable patina – the scratches, the slight flicker – in favour of a blue akin to the electronic video field, unadulterated by the human hand and sheer in the way only a pixel can attain (in this it is like Yves Klein’s own use of vertiginous blue).” (1996, p.206). 

From the lights on the stairs of the cinema to this most visual of platforms, Blue is now in a box surrounded by advertising both in video and out.  These are eventually escapable if the film is put on full-screen mode but even then, the quality of the transfer is so poor as to provide some form of visual distraction within its digital corruption detracting greatly from the work.

Of course this may again be a straw-man argument if the readings of why Blue actually lacks a visual are contradicted.  It is best then to look at the change in format that affects the audio too and this can be seen to happen by looking at the length of the video.  Blue is too big to be put onto the user’s channel in its full form.  Longer videos are allowed for users with higher viewer figures but the user in question who has uploaded Blue does not have this luxury.  Instead, Blue has had to be cut up into sizable ten minute chunks meaning that there will be large gaps in between the film that simply weren’t there in the original.  Could this episodic new format affect its reception?

Whereas the cinema was rigid in its relationship with the audience, the freedom that the online versions allow contradicts several of the main themes of Blue.  O’Pray even described this argument when comparing cinematic viewings to television viewings stating “The experience of Blue in the cinema with the scale of the screen and the concentration cinema demands is much more intense an evocation than its televisual rendering.  Just listening to the sound with one’s eyes closed achieves a similar intensity.” (1996, p.202).  The most dramatic way of disrupting the original was to physically get up and walk out.  Blue can now be left at the simple click of a button and ignored in perfect comfort and without the overwhelming annoyance of walking out of something that has been paid for.  Even on its television broadcast, Channel 4 reportedly scrapped having any advert break while the film was on, thus showing the importance and emphasis on having the experience through a complete, uninterrupted viewing.  Middlehurst’s article confirmed this;

“And, because Channel 4 chiefs are convinced it will be compelling stuff, there will be no commercial breaks during its 75-minute showing.  Commissioning editor Alan Fountain paid around £200,000 to movie-maker Derek Jarman to come up with the film, unsurprisingly entitled Blue. Being screened in September, it will have a musical soundtrack and a spoken account of how homosexual Jarman came to terms with having AIDS.”  (Middlehurst, 1993, The Daily Mail).

The claustrophobia of Blue and the isolation it was so clearly meant to cause seems logically almost impossible to recreate when allowing a visual and audible escape from the film for minutes at a time at a mere click away.  Is it even conceivable that an internet viewing of the film will be in its entirety anyway and not in bite-sized chunks with other videos of cats, music and other typical YouTube content stuck in between?  It seems that Blue’s place on the internet is an ironic one; one that has the potential to break up the rhythm and aims of the piece both visually and audibly.  Though its political messages will not be changed by the new format, the thematically motivated aesthetic choices will, potentially affecting and changing the readings and receptions of the piece in a dramatic, perhaps even negative way.  Chion states that:

 “There exists another basic difference between the visual shot and what might be considered its audio equivalent: the visual shot is a container, a container of time and space with definite spatial and temporal boarders, whereas with sound it is just opposite.  Sound is first of all content or “containable,” with no actual frame.  What is designated by the word image in cinema is not the contained but the container: the frame.” (2003,p. 226)

The blue of the film is indeed the container and the frame while the audio is content without the frame.  Both container and content are destabilised in the internet form, making it the least desirable way to experience Jarman’s work.


“The effect of film is neither absolutely two-dimensional nor absolutely three-dimensional, but something in between.”  (Arnheim, 1933/2006, p.282)

The reception of Blue is clearly a difficult aspect to define.  As the chronological evolution of its forms and methods of consumption have shown, the difficulty in defining any sort of reception of it stems from its initial ambiguity as to what exactly it is.  No matter what the creator of the work has stated, it is clear that personal reception of the work has the potential to vary greatly.  This ambiguity in its form may also explain why the piece has taken on so many different media and evolved into a work that seems to transcend the boundaries that artistic forms often deliberately set themselves.

The question of whether Blue is a film or an audio-work has plagued this essay, chiefly because its effect on reception can be so great if it is actually defined as one of the other.  Like the work itself, the analysis has tried to venture into both territories in order to account for as many different types of reception as possible.  This may have seemed generalised in some sense yet to define would also have meant to ignore.  This would also mean contradiction though it would seem apt for such an inherently contradictory work.  While discussing the lack of emphasis put on film music in analysis, Flinn states the following: “The claims we have just covered regarding music’s alleged lack, in other words, disguise a concern over lacks of other kinds.  Music works to dispel those lacks in a variety of ways, specifically, by granting an illusion of fullness and unity to the cinema, one that is engaged at the level of apparatus, the film text, and within the viewing and listening situation.” (1992, p.40).  This can be applied somewhat ironically to Blue as the music is the sole granter of the illusion of fullness while also engaging the viewer with an obvious nod to their viewing or listening situation.

Though this essay has focussed more on the reception of the work, by examining them in relation to technology and its effect on the actual geography of reception, it appears to have defined Blue in a certain sense.  It is of course still ambiguous as a definitive work but through its fluidity within mediums it is far easier to now see Blue as a set of ideas that are powerful enough to transpose themselves onto whatever form is available.

Instead of simply being a rigid narrative-driven piece of cinema, it can be seen as the meme of Jarman’s creative ideas, morphing and evolving all sorts of mediums to suit it.  Dawkins describes the meme as follows:

“Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.  Just as genes propogate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm and eggs, so memes propogate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” (1976/2006, p.191).

The parallels between Dawkins’ meme and Jarman’s ideas for Blue are strong.  The reception of it is therefore even more difficult to define than for a typical piece of film music simply because the cinematic version can be seen as only one of the cells that the meme has brought into existence.  These memes take control of whatever form they need to transplant their necessary message and it is only in the very recent digital/internet revolution that a form has threatened to disrupt them and therefore disrupt its endlessly complex range of potential audience receptions.


Arnheim, R., 1933/2006. Film as Art. California, (University of California).

Chion, M., 1990. Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen. New York, (Columbia University Press).

Chion, M., 2003. Film, A Sound Art. New York, (Columbia University Press).

Cousins, M., 2004. The Story of Film. London, (Pavilion Books).

Cumming, L., 2008. Jarman’s Rhapsody in Blue for The Observer, 2nd of March Issue. London, (The Observer).

Dawkins, R., 1976/2006. The Selfish Gene. Oxford, (Oxford University Press).

Flinn, C., 1992. Strains Of Utopia: Gender, Nostalgia and Hollywood Film Music. New Jersey, (Princeton University Press).

Freud, S., 1952/1980. The Interpretation of Dreams featured in Great Books of the Western World No 54: Freud. London, (The University of Chicago).

Gorbman, C., 1987. Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music. London, BFI Publishing (Indiana University Press).

Jarman, D., 1992. Modern Nature: The Journals of Derek Jarman. London, (Vintage).

Jarman, D., 1993. At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament. London, (Vintage).

Jarman, D., 1994. There We Are John – a Portrait of Derek Jarman. Interviewed by John Cartwright.  Looseyard Productions Film, (The British Film Council).

Johnson, D, T., 2008. Critical Hearing and the Lessons of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up from Lowering The Boom: Critical Studies in Film Sound. Urbana and Chicago, (University of Illinois Press).

Lawrence, T., 1997. AIDS, the Problem of Representation, and Plurality in Derek Jarman’s Blue from Queer Transexions of Race, Nation, and Gender. Durham, (Duke University Press).

Metz, C., 1977. The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema. Bloomington and Indianapolis, (Indiana University Press).

Middlehurst, L., 1993. Channel 4 Presents Blankety Blank from The Daily Mail, 24th of June Issue. London, (The Daily Mail).

O’Pray, M., 1996. Derek Jarman: Dreams of England. London, (British Film Institute).

Staiger, J., 1992. Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema. Princeton, (Princeton University Press).

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