Watching The Last of England for the first time felt something like being caught in a lightning storm. The film moved in bursts, surges and jolts, leaping from one inspiration to the next. At least half the scenes featured bonfires and flares, and the whole picture unspooled with a continuous flickering, flashing and hissing quality.
As a portrait of a ruined empire, an anguished political cartoon, a howl of conscience and rage, the film invited its viewers to feel fairly grim, but you couldn't doubt that the director was furiously in love with the world, and Jarman's ecstatic formal energy outshouted the declaration of doom. I was amazed to see such momentum, emotion and life sustained in a film that turned its back on conventional story-telling. I left the theatre feeling exhilarated.
Someone from the New York Film Festival supplied me with Jarman's number and I called him a few days later. I was back in Los Angeles, in post-production on my first feature, fighting with the producer and editor, men fifteen years older than me who found my intentions incomprehensible. I could see I was in for a rough ride, I was looking for guidance, and I wanted to make another movie, fast and cheap. Jarman, of course, was the same age as my unhappy collaborators, but I sensed a kindred spirit. His work had opened a window in my head.
He called back without having any idea who I was. I told him I liked The Last of England - that seemed to be enough to warrant his goodwill, and we talked for more than twenty minutes. He explained he'd made the film with three or four Nizo 8 mm cameras, venturing out on weekends with friends for improvised shooting sprees. He was patient and specific, detailing his technical processes and decisions, and at the end of this he invited me to London to visit and possibly work on his impending War Requiem. I got the impression, later, that such off-hand openness and generosity were characteristic of him; and I came to (eel a lingering regret that I wasn't quite foolhardy enough to leap at his invitation. But I did buy two 8 mm cameras - a handsome old Nizo (a product of West Germany, as sturdy as a Volkswagen Beetle and just as defunct) and an expensive Beaulieu with multiple lenses - though it shouldn't have taken much thought to recognize the simple differences between Jarman's situation and my own. He was shooting without scripts, without dialogue, without sync sound, using slow, rich Kodachrome film in natural sunlight. The movies I wanted to make involved scripted stories with night scenes and torrents of talk.
All the same, in the ensuing year, working with friends in New York, I shot a series of Super 8 test before someone, late one winter night, broke into my apartment and made off with every camera I owned. It took a while for me to get back to work, but Jarman's voice was still in my ear when I took up a Fisher-Price Pixelvision camera and managed more completely to follow his lead.
Jarman was original and willful enough to make films that were intrinsically uneven, unclassifiable, imperfect. He had his overbearing obsessions, and could be counted on to toss in at least one stridently kitschy dance number per picture. But you didn't have to share his passionate interest in flowers, crucifixes or half-dressed young men to feel shaken and moved by his work, to receive these images as gifts. And all his films reliably lift off the ground for long stretches, usually when Tilda Swinton shows up and when Jarman flings in footage of water and sky, his specialty being Turneresque red and yellow sunsets, radioactive clouds rushing in reverse at high speed.
As his health became more embattled, the emotions in his films, it seems to me, became sharper, increasingly pressurized, and his description of the world became both more convincing and more private, moving from the apocalyptic commotion of The Last of England and War Requiem to a quieter, more piercing turmoil in The Garden. In that film, as in the others depictions of innocence and wholeness jostle against scenes of humiliation and horror, but Jarman was now literally bringing it all home, filming in and around his cottage on the coast of Kent, peeling back his sense of allegory to a diaristic core.
What he conjured there, in his own back yard, was often blazingly simple. Tilda Swinton, looking like a ghost haunting her own life, lights a candle, watches the flame, and abruptly screams. Jarman himself lies curled naked in bed. The bed's on the beach, ringed by men and women carrying flares. By the film's end, all panic and rage seem to have burned away. Swinton and a young boy and a pair of apotheosized young men sit together at a table and raptly watch burning paper lift and float in the air like disembodied spirits.
Clearly enough these images are about AIDS, mortality, mourning and loss. Also about yearning, acceptance, transcendence. But this doesn't say enough; or rather, it says too much. You just have to experience them.
I met him once, four months before he died. Sat through a meal in a New York coffee shop. He was in town for Blue, riding the last festival wave. He had an impressive, oracular voice. He was unguarded, theatrical in a dry, dapper way, advising me to take a walking tour of the British countryside, then discussing, with the same fervor, the virtues of home fries versus French fries. The ravages of his illness registered on his face like a sort of irrelevant horror movie make-up, but I thought I could recognize, outside my own feelings of sentimental awe, that he was at peace and unafraid.
Back at his room in the Chelsea Hotel, amidst an entourage of old friends, he took off his shoes - revealing bright blue socks! - and sat on the edge of the bed, ignoring a sitcom on TV. 'I've become an invalid,' he said calmly. 'Old before my time.'
'At least you can get round on your own,' somebody said.
'That's true. At least I'm not like,' He named a friend's mother. 'She calls his Doris. Her mind's gone and as far as I can tell mine's not.'
He lay on his back, fully dressed, knees up, hands on his chest. We variously said goodnight, goodbye, but hovered another half-hour, mostly listening as Derek held forth, focused and funny, his voice creating a slow aural whirlpool of declamation and gossip.
Earlier, like a dutiful acolyte, I had presented him with a handful of gifts gathered from my apartment before I rushed out the door. Postcards of paintings, and a box of Chinese sparklers. 'These,' I said of the sparklers, 'are for the plane ride back.'
He took them solemnly and looked at me, it seemed, for the first time.
'I love sparklers,' Derek Jarman said.
His films remain, among other things, anthems for freedom of all kinds. They refuse to settle down in my mind. As a routinely impoverished film-maker, watching Jarman's work, glimpsing his life, I read an immensely basic message, sharp as a shout: the world is open. Don't let your life escape you, or allow your work to detach itself from your deepest feelings. Get on with it. Hurry. Now.