Much has been written about the life and work of the late, great Derek Jarman, not least in the mounds of notes, books, scripts and essays by the man himself. It is refreshing then that The Films of Derek Jarman approaches his works from a different perspective. Rather than placing Jarman’s films in the context of underground, avant-garde or art cinema, rather than contrasting this with his work as a designer and artist, and rather than overly associating the films with Derek’s life, this book examines his oeuvre in relation to the study of history.
This is, after all, Pencak’s chosen discipline. It’s an intriguing concept – Jarman’s work thrives on the historical and its relationship with contemporary culture, mixed in with his own political agenda. From his feature debut Sebastiane, Jarman’s juxtaposition of historical fact with post-modern reinterpretation is what makes many of his films so rewarding. Think of the contrasts drawn between the reign of Queen Elizabeth II with the punk anarchy of Jubilee year in Jubilee (1978), or the anachronistic typewriters in Caravaggio (1986).
The book comprises a chapter on each of Jarman’s major films, focussing on the historical basis of the characters or story. There are some interesting elements to these background notes, but coupled with this are some sections in which we are shown where (gasp) Derek got it wrong. In some respects Jarman’s cinema can be seen as the mutability of history, and the way in which contemporary mores taint our views of the past. Look at the way "realist" cinema depicts historical events – the same event filmed "accurately" a quarter a century apart can tell you as much about the time the film was made as it does about the events the film portrays. Often the inaccuracies are the point. To exacerbate matters Pencak chastises Jarman’s inaccuracies regarding certain representations of Egyptology in his films, even though these mistakes are based on new studies that Jarman could not have possibly known about.
Of the many problems the book encounters, one of the worst is the almost total lack of artistic context within which Pencak discusses the films – you’d almost think that Jarman was the only person ever to have directed a film. Apart from Pasolini, that is. Pasolini is seen as Jarman’s only real cinematic precedent (with occasional deviations to include Fellini – despite the fact that Pencak doesn’t seem to be able to differentiate them, as films are frequently attributed to the wrong director). Jarman was never working in an artistic vacuum, and the book completely ignores contemporary directors such as Kenneth Anger or Ken Russell, or the influence of the avant-garde movement on films like TG: Psychic Rally in Heaven or The Angelic Conversation. If the book’s aim is to concentrate on the history behind the films, then why bring in just one other director?
Sadly the concept of The Films of Derek Jarman, enticing as it is, does not live up to the reality. Perhaps it’s the title that’s misleading – it doesn’t provide any information regarding the book’s content. What could have been an unusual perspective on one of the UK’s pioneering filmmakers provides some interesting information, and raises issues for future study, but is missing a good deal of relevant context and is ultimately much less rewarding than the flms themselves.