(08/02/07) – "Tell me how you’re searching, and I’ll tell you what you’re searching for.. ." Tariq Ali was commissioned by Channel 4 to dramatise the lives of famous philosophers. He proposed that Derek Jarman take on Wittgenstein; Jarman said he was thinking of making a film to be called Mad Ludwig anyway, and so, from various sources, the funding was found, and "all Derek’s sad captains – Sandy Powell, Morag Ross, Michael Gough, and the ever-faithful Tilda Swinton – filled their bowl once more and mocked the midnight bell", as Colin MacCabe puts it in his introductory essay.
True to that original commissioning moment, the film does dramatise Wittgenstein’s biography and development of ideas in a fairly conventional form, but the visual style is innovative, this latter demanded by the conditions of filming entirely on a sound stage, each costume and prop standing in as a bright synecdoche of a milieu or an idea. The original script was written by the philosopher and literary critic Terry Eagleton, then it was revised by Jarman. We get the biographical outline interspersed with various primers on Wittgenstein’s ideas – the result resembles those ‘Introducing…’ books, each one on a philosopher or a topic put across in a series of cartoons with key statements put into speech bubbles, all sugared, as in Jarman’s film, with plenty of humour.
The result is an inspired cinematic invitation to the rhetoric of a philosopher. It is not an in-depth exploration, just as the cartoon books don’t pretend to be, and neither is it, I don’t think, a particularly sustaining film that one would want to return to over time – there are too many over-determinations of character (Wittgenstein’s angst over sexuality, for example, based on a very particular reading of his biography), and stilted moments of humour that don’t work. The over-arching fairy tale form also jars, continually summing up where Jarman’s other works had meant to offer "no sweet conclusion" (The Garden). Here, for example, we have a student going through a sudden philosophical realisation, saying "Yes, I see what you mean" in a smiling reaction shot.
Wittgenstein’s interest in colour – culminating in the Remarks on Colour – are brought into the rag-bag of quotations in Jarman’s book Chroma, and colour – a shared interest between the director and his subject – proves to be the most radical and interesting aspect of the film. Wittgenstein as a boy wears a gold imperial head-dress; Lady Ottoline (Tilda Swinton) is seen in decadent yellow; John Maynard Keynes wears a lilac jacket over an emerald waistcoat; Michael Gough brings a faint print of Hammer horror to Bertrand Russell, dressed in crimson and insisting "There is no rhinoceros in this room!" Adult Wittgenstein (Karl Johnson, who does look like the
philosopher’s animated photograph) wears a white shirt and a jacket. Against the black of the sound stage, the film is an orrery of masked thought as these colours are set on different trajectories, sometimes revolving, inevitably clashing. "I just don’t see how we can be friends!" In one scene Keynes, Wittgenstein and Lydia hold up yellow, green and red globes – celestial bodies – and circle around each other, but Keynes can’t keep up with Wittgenstein’s stern instructions.
The BFI, who partly funded the film, now provide its DVD debut. The transfer is pristine, as one would want, and the extras are also to the point. Short interviews with Tariq Ali, Karl Johnson and Tilda Swinton are well made, Swinton particularly in good humour and reflective mood. There are six pieces of ‘Behind The Scenes’ footage, shot on set, which show how certain shots were constructed, scenes rehearsed, or costumes chosen, with Jarman a bright, collaborative presence. Then there’s a wonderful surprise with the seven-minute Royal College of Art produced short, The Clearing (1994), directed by the Greek film-maker Alexis Bistikas, here on the DVD because
Jarman is featured in a starring role. This is a haunting black and white piece mostly featuring a long shot which roams around a clearing on Hampstead Heath where various static or enigmatic figures are encountered; a saxophone player continually playing gives this exploration a crying, elegiac movement as the leaves of the woodland shimmer close to white. Bistakis directed seven shorts and one feature, The Dawn (1994), and, on the basis of The Clearing I would like to see more of this output on DVD. The booklet provides concise overviews of Jarman’s career and the making of Wittgenstein, supplemented by an interview with Sandy Powell, costume designer, who has more to say about Caravaggio, though she confirms that pure colour characterisation was Jarman’s intent.
Given the same script, one could imagine an awful ‘costume drama’ in which Wittgenstein would be seen at Manchester experimenting with flight; pacing the quad; miserable in a school-room. It’s the theatrical design which lifts Jarman’s project above this. Films about artists – painters, writers – are notorious for running into the quagmire of how to represent ‘inspiration’, avoided here as the theatrical space and abstract design suggest that perhaps Wittgenstein’s own mind is itself the mise en scène. Is the result properly Wittgensteinian? The problem is that rhetoric in one medium cannot be represented in another, only pointed to. "To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life. .."
The Wittgenstein DVD is out on the BFI video label. Please follow the links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.