Out of all of Derek Jarman’s pre-feature length film work, his short capture of a 1971 walking trip, A Journey To Avebury, is perhaps his most interesting and subtly complex piece of short film work. These were the early days of Jarman’s experimentation when his work as a painter and even a set designer still seemed to dominate over his purely cinematic interests. This was of course the same year that saw him design the sets for Ken Russell’s The Devils; a film that wallowed in the historical urbane of human presence and depravity. Coupling the films together, one appears to be the heady syndrome of a realist whilst the other seems a cathartic escape from populated zones and into the very heart of the green and pleasant hills.
Yet A Journey To Avebury is not a simple home movie. Its format belies such readings as it was, after all, the format most popular for home recordings and documenting holiday trips in the 1970s. But in the hands of Jarman, the film becomes something else; it is a document of landscape and a critique of its perception with the potential of its weird past to bleach through into the chemicals of the celluloid.
Jarman’s early work had very deliberately played with the potential behind the perception of an image. Though frame rates seem to be of little interest to modern filmmakers, Jarman saw the intellectual baggage that came with tying reality down to a collection of moving photographs. In A Journey To Avebury this manifests in a number of ways. The first is the breakdown of the very rate of the footage itself. Though the scenery could have been shot at 18 or even 24 frames per second, watching it today, the film is clearly played at a much slower rate. The reality of the countryside almost blurs and becomes disconnected from a simple capture or recreation; it moves outside of the typical “sculpting of time” as Tarkovsky often suggested and into the realms of something other.
The journey that Jarman undertook would never be able to be replicated and in this sense he seems keenly aware that the only person who could really experience the exact perception of the trip was his consciousness within his own mind’s eye. A Journey To Avebury therefore becomes an impression that wryly cuts the journey down into segments, to the point where the perception of the journey recalls a type of dream where fragments are perceivable but the overall picture is not. This is the second factor that breaks the journey down into a set of visual phrases: the very choice of the footage itself.
Now that the separation between representation and recreation is complete, Jarman seems to fully interpret the landscape to his own needs. The footage has aged but the colours seem to be derived of their own accord. Avebury is transformed into a hyper-reality of green with a burnished yellow sky; perhaps these are the colours of the countryside but through the filter of Jarman’s own perception of memory. The fact that this is no ordinary landscape also suggests an otherness that is beyond the simple capture of Jarman’s walk.
Avebury is famed for its standing stones, their presence being a key reminder of the geographical past as well as a nod to the sheer weirdness of practices by the tribesmen who erected them. Several of the stones lie unbroken in their formation, this being one of their key features in their worship and their supposed power. This presents an interesting contradiction to Jarman’s capture of them. While the stones remain unbroken in their patterns, the footage of them is almost the complete opposite. These stones, dated from roughly 1800 BC, and their use is mysterious though some have argued them to be an open temple where fertility rites were practiced. Their presence is an unnerving one as they seem to almost deter the passing of time, as if manipulating it in the same way that Jarman has the power to do but in the opposite direction. The stones are ageless.
In the volume, Folklore, Myths and Legends of Great Britain, published only two years after Jarman made A Journey To Avebury, it states the following on the stones:
“In the Middle Ages, the Church became alarmed by the revival of pagan rites, and gave orders for the megaliths to be buried. Under one of them, in 1938, a man’s skeleton was found along with several coins and surgical tools that identified him as a surgeon barber who died in about 1320. He was probably killed when the stone he was helping to bury fell on him.” (p.171, 1973).
The stones not only appear to resist movement but also appear to give rise to a psychical power upon the people surrounding them. This was an aspect also used in the series, Children Of The Stones (1977), which goes so far as to even mention the story of the crushed barber and insert him into the narrative. It could be said that the stones possess some form of “inner” which also explains why the music of Coil works so well in the film. The soundtrack is electronic and almost ritual like its repetition but also contrasts the natural with the human. By using such music (recorded at a later date), the film taps into this potential “inner” of the stones Jarman is capturing which are already defying reality thanks to the director and their own special physical form. The rites of A Journey To Avebury are not so much of fertility or traded sacrifice but of the simple act of walking. Jarman captures a sense of great place (and therefore its history) through the measured use of a subjectivist perception of the landscape. The ritual isn’t a pulp tie to the function of the stones and the fields around them but of turning the imagery of them into a captured, fragmented memory; the sacrifice, if any, being the slaughter of adherence to reality and the worship of the mind’s eye and its will over all.