The only image in Blue, Derek Jarman’s elegiac swansong, is an incandescent Klein-like hue. This minimalist approach, far from distancing the viewer, draws them into Jarman’s world, where his ears became his eyes. He enlisted the help of long-term collaborator, Simon Fisher-Turner, to create a soundscape of noises, recordings and music, which drift in and out of the film’s consciousness like an undulating tide. Over this appear the voices of Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton, John Quentin and Jarman himself, expressing his thoughts, desires and memories. His blindness in the years leading up to his death was accepted, at various times angrily or passively, but its inevitability was never called into question. He had already shown us through his many films what he saw in the world; what he valued and despised, what meant most to him. Blue let us see what he finally saw and hear what he felt:
No one will remember our work
Our life will pass
like traces of a cloud
And be scattered like
Mist that is chased by the
Rays of the sun
For our time is the passing
of a shadow
And our lives will be like
Sparks through the stubble.
In 1978, the artist and filmmaker, Hugo de Montalembert, was attacked in his own apartment. While staving off the larger and more aggressive of the two muggers, he failed to notice the other was about to throw a bottle of paint remover into his face. Within twelve hours he would be permanently blind. What might have been the end of a life for some was a re-birth for Montalembert.
Black Sun documents the artist’s will to live a full life, free of fear and impediment. Opening with aerial shots of New York, Montalembert describes the violent events that left him sightless. As he does, identifiable images meld together into a palette of colours, finally becoming little more than a spectrum of lights, slowly dimming, until we are left with the ‘dark honey’ glow that Montalembart tells us he has lived with for the last twenty-eight years. He candidly describes his refusal to go through the motions that doctors told him were the steps to his recovery – nervous breakdown, acceptance of disability, rehabilitation and adapting to a new life full of restrictions – instead setting out his own plan, which would see him travel alone to Indonesia within 18 months of the attack. From there he journeyed to Bali, where he began to write down his experiences. The resulting book became an international bestseller. Since then, Montalembert has continued to travel and write.
Gary Tarn’s film continues in the tradition of Jarman’s Blue (and Chris Marker, whose Sans Soleil is strongly evoked throughout the film), in its balance between document and cine-poem. At its simplest, it offers a lyrical visual accompaniment – through conventional travelogue images, simple computer graphics and optical manipulation – to Montalembert’s voiceover. However, Tarn’s film is no mere translation of the artist’s thoughts into image. It succeeds as a remarkable work in its own right. As composer, Tarn has created textures that carve out an expressionistic treatment of the artist’s life. Like the New York painter and friend of Montalembert’s, for whom "to paint is to see beyond", Tarn’s film transcends the limitations of conventional film practice, and in doing so conveys an awe at the world around us, in both its ferocity and beauty.
Never less than insightful in discussing his experiences over the last three decades, Montalembert also proves to be an entertaining companion. His humour has never left him, nor has his humility. Like the Jarman of Blue, blindness has given Montalembert a clarity of vision that many of us with sight do not have.
In the years following the attack, Montalembert wrestled with the notion of existence – the point of life. At times he found himself alone or treated with unwanted pity, or he has met others whose scars are less evident but no less painful to deal with. His conclusion is simple, ‘The sense of life is life. Once you know that you can relax. There is no eternity. There is now.’
Black Sun is currently showing at the ICA in London.