‘The Order of Celluloid Nights’ (full text)

Catalogue text commissioned by Grand Union, Birmingham, for Mathew Parkin’s solo exhibition Slope-tend-big

I read somewhere that music videos have a peculiar relationship to choreography. Certainly their particular combination of music, visual imagery and choreographed dance sets them apart from other kinds of encounters with embodied movement on screen. The tightly ordered aesthetic registers that they put into motion are geared toward consumption but not only that. Designed for high affect, music videos show how aural experience might move us and how such bodily pleasures are intimately bound to visual ones. Dance is a medium that returns repeatedly in the films by Derek Jarman that straddle the 1980s, the decade in which the music video genre found its groove. In Jubilee (1977), Jordan performs a ballet amidst the burning debris of a post-apocalyptic industrial site. Tracking Jordan’s passage through licking flames, the scene realises the strange desire of a punk who, as a young girl, dreamed of being a ballerina. In The Last of England (1988), a demonic faun taunts the young soldier played by Spencer Leigh, who, wearing the cone-like hat of the heretic, is eventually executed in Jarman’s ruinous tale of twentieth century British history imagined through the disjointed interplay of sound and image. In Edward II (1991) the characters of Edward and Gaveston appear often as spectators to performance until they carve out their own impossible intimacy imitating a waltz. More than representing instances of dance staged to serve narrative film, Jarman likened filmmaking itself to choreography. Commenting on his early films shot using Super 8, he described how the camera created order amongst the chaotic dance of actors before the lens.

It was the music videos that Jarman made in a similar period that most reminded him of these early experiments with Super 8. During the 1980s, the filmmaker produced videos for The Smiths, Orange Juice and Throbbing Gristle amongst others, favouring the ease and accessibility of video compared to 35mm. Footage retroactively titled Will you dance with me? (1984) closes the distance between the flickering, otherworldly quality of his earliest work and his music videos. Produced in collaboration with director Rob Peck, the precursor for Jarman’s promo for the Pet Shop Boys’ number one single Heart, Will you dance with me? was intended as a test run rather than a polished product. Shot at Benjy’s, a gay club in the East End of London, Jarman wore an Olympus portable video camera strapped to him as he cruised the venue inviting clientele to dance with him. Soundtracked by the resident DJ to hits like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax, Jarman’s lens returns many times to Philip, a beautiful boy who eventually becomes the focus of the piece. Tracking Philip’s body as he moves through the night, the video is not quite like Jarman’s description of working with Super 8 nor the music video genre more generally. Instead of attempting to organise dancers, it keeps in time with them. Here the camera is cast not in the role of choreographer but as a dancer itself.

Jarman loved to dance apparently. His friends Neil Bartlett and Simon Watney said as much during a conversation before an audience in 2014. The occasion was a 24-hour screening of the Angelic Conversation (1985) in which Philip from Benjy’s shows up again soundtracked this time not by blaring pop music but by Shakespeare’s sonnets. During the chapel screening, organised to commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of Jarman’s death from an AIDS-related illness, the film was projected on to a bed sheet, a convenient set up used often by the filmmaker during his lifetime. Seated in a chapel designed by Gothic revivalist Gilbert Scott, with the Angelic Conversation flickering above, Bartlett and Watney commented that had Jarman been alive now, he would most likely have joined us later in a club. Feeling the strange embrace of a queer community woven not only from bodies in the present but those in the past as well, we met Jarman not on the dance floor but on the threshold of a church.

Pilgrimage is a term befitting to Jarman’s cultural legacy. His own canonisation happened in his lifetime. In 1993, on the pebble beach that surrounds Prospect Cottage, the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence named the filmmaker St. Derek of Dungeness, of the Order of Celluloid Knights. The ceremony was committed to film by Peter Fuller and overseen by an officious nun. A stuffed bear (“teddy bear bottom”) served as a sacrificial object. Jarman laughs throughout, reading aloud from a press release that reminds us that canonisation means fuck all. At its worst, consigning artists to sainthood risks re establishing canons that feminist and queer politics have so often sought to disrupt. Raising questions about the queer ancestors we choose to remember and those practices that continue to be marginalised, Jarman’s canonisation irreverently performed the kind of historical work necessary to redress the struggles faced by the lesbian and gay community in the early 1990s. For all he did, his “directing, writing, painting, gardening, demonstrating and rubbing up against lily law”, Jarman’s life was transformed into a destination for those whose “first affirmation of gay life” came through his films.

In Jarman’s films, saints affirm the struggles of homosexual life signalled to above. The Last of England is based on the revelations of St. John; Sebastiane (1976) on the eponymous Christian soldier martyred during Roman emperor Diocletian’s rule; Caravaggio (1986) on the painter who transformed poor boys into saints. The patron saint of dancers, St. Vitus, at least as far as I can remember, never appears in Jarman’s films. St. Vitus, another Diocletian saint, was dedicated after the revellers who danced to honour him on his saint’s day. The craze is said to have spread as a form of medieval lunacy whereupon thousands across Europe apparently erupted into uncontrollable outbreaks of mass dance. Consequently St. Vitus also came to name the seizures associated with chorea. (In the late 1970s ‘St. Vitus Dance’ was conjured by one journalist to comment unfavourably on the head banging he witnessed in punk clubs). For those who danced collectively before statues of St. Vitus, however, it was a means to mark the historic martyr in the present. Similarly, saints dance through Jarman’s films, conjured from the past in order to establish lineages of homosocial desires prohibited in his own time.

In both Christian verse and secular accounts, the martyr is traditionally represented as the one who bears witness. Martyrs needn’t die for the testimony they give but they usually do. Jarman’s book At Your Own Risk (1992) is subtitled “a Saint’s testimony” and concludes with his remark “I had to write of a sad time as a witness”. What does a video like Will you dance with me? testify to? Recording a night at Benjy’s in 1984, sadly bookended by the onset of the AIDS crisis in the U.K. and Jarman’s death in 1994, the footage belongs to a moment that is now difficult to excavate. Read alongside his feature films, something as ephemeral as Will you dance to me? is legible as belonging to a historically necessary, devastatingly prescient critique of the shifting political ground of that decade. To be present in Benjy’s that night, carried along on the moving force of video, is to find oneself dancing amongst the glittering ruins of a moment tragically changed by massive loss of life due to government neglect and rapid urban gentrification taken place partly as a consequence of policy enacted by Thatcher’s government in the first part of the 1980s.

Politically vital as all this is, indeed because it is so, I have no interest in restating Jarman’s saint-like presence here. Prepared as a sketch for another film, Will you dance with me? is adjacent to a narrative surrounding Jarman’s work that it can’t quite be read into. What if we think of this video not as touched by the testimony of the filmmaker but of the dancer? Not generally associated with bearing witness, dancing is nonetheless all about presence. Taking its pleasure from bodies moving in time to music, dancing is as well written through with another kind of temporality: the desire for a future connection. To bear witness as a dancer in a gay club is not to wish to be seen in the eyes of God but to hope for recognition from other bodies on the dancefloor. Jarman’s boys are beautiful but they’re not my type. Still, I know that feeling. To take visual pleasures from this music video is not only to bear witness to a queer past. To witness from the body of the dancer is to fulfil a wish written through Jarman’s films, that the present might dream of a past future too.

Higher higher
Hey Pray.

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