In remembrance of Derek Jarman’s Blue
“What on earth do you mean, ‘a blank blue film’?”
Face to Face
In an interview with Jeremy Isaacs in 1993, Derek Jarman, wittingly nearing the end of his chromatic life, claimed that when he would be gone he’d like to evaporate and take his works with him: “to disappear completely.”1 During that interview on the BBC series Face to Face, Jarman describes his then soon to be final feature film Blue (1993) as a dedication to Yves Klein and a self-portrait of sorts. The film would be void of image and would draw its animation from a monologue performed by himself and others (Nigel Terry, John Quentin, and Tilda Swinton) on his life living with illness; and the screen would be illuminated as a rich and vibrating blue colour field – a proposal to which Isaacs cried out, “What on earth do you mean, ‘a blank blue film’?”
Before he was diagnosed HIV positive in December 1986, Jarman had been working with the colour blue for some time already. And not just any blue, but International Klein Blue (IKB). Klein, remembered for his monochromatic works in ultramarine blue, pink or gold had famously said about life in blue: “At first there is nothing, then there is a profound nothingness, after that a blue profundity.” Like Klein, Jarman was inspired by the paradox of blue:2 the colour of blue horizons and blue lips. Blue, the colour of immateriality, electricity, nuclear warfare – the fear of atomic annihilation that filled Klein’s era with dread – of poison and toxins. Blue, the colour of mysticism, spirituality and transcendence – the colour, vastness and unknowingness of the heavens and seas.
Jarman is said to have first come face to face with Klein’s blue at London’s Tate Gallery in 1974, upon seeing his work IKB 79 (1959).3 Struck by its sublime quality, Jarman wanted to replicate this blue on film, to copy it as an homage to Klein and temporalize the essence of his blue on celluloid – an idea that Jarman hung onto for almost twenty years. Whilst seeking funding for the film, Jarman filled sketch books and note pads with blue sketches and notes. And in order to gain support for his concept, he even created live, spoken word performances – Dadaistic listings of all things blue: “blue helmets, blue movies, blue whales, blue stories, blue poems…”4 But, as Jarman’s health deteriorated, his dance with IKB took a sharp turn. His blue homage to Klein eventually turned into his own blue swan song, and he passed away, aged 52, on 19 February 1994.
Colour is the absence of man
When Blue was released in 1993, after appearing at the Venice and Edinburgh film festivals, it was simulcast on television and radio. In a rare collaboration between BBC and Channel 4, Channel 4 transmitted the blank blue film and BBC Radio 3 transmitted its stereo soundtrack. When Jarman talked about the television release of Blue on Face to Face, he joked about how it would most likely only be screened late at night. However, the film was in fact heavily supported by television. A great deal of the film’s funding was raised by Channel 4 and it was, of course, given a prime-time slot. Remarkably, the then commissioning editor of Channel 4, Alan Fountain, blocked any commercial advertisements appearing during the film.5 It was to be screened in its entirety – uninterrupted for 76 minutes straight.6 The broadcasters had further primed their audiences to expect the blank blue film through announcements and articles published in TV guides and newspapers. And if you didn’t have a television, you could ask Radio 3 to send you an especially made blue card, like a film still in postcard format, so you could meditate on the transmitted performance of words, the grains of voice, whilst holding a soft focus on the lapis blue card.
Dealing with the finite, Jarman chose to work in the colour of the infinite and allow for it to be replicated in various media and (his life and death) relived. As detailed in John Winn's thought-provoking essay, ‘Performing Death: Derek Jarman’s Medial Blues’, on the “transmedial performance” of Blue, Jarman made Blue transmedial from the outset: he transferred celluloid – a metaphoric carrier of death and an embodiment of a body that becomes weakened by disease, as a celluloid filmstrip becomes scratched, damaged and eventually worn out with use – to digital media, for it to be reborn time and again, brought to life by pulsating frequencies and vibrating electrons; he further made it as an autonomous sound piece, performance, and text. Winn states that “[t]his reconsideration of the media-specificity of Blue is essential to understanding how the piece is itself a multivalent mediatized body, doubling not only for Jarman’s body – or for the innumerable lives lost to AIDS – but also generating a collective experience between the other bodies presenced before it.”7 In other words, as an audience bathes, blinded, in blue light, it shares in the collective experience of Blue – and its losses.
Winn precedes his essay with a quote from Giles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: “Colour in the absence of man, man who has passed into colour.” This citation is taken from their reflections on Yves Klein and his monochromes in What is Philosophy? They state that blue “takes on the infinite and turns the precept into ‘cosmic sensibility’”. This sensibility, as it were, is what Jarman tried to grasp on film. Winn points to Deleuze and Guattari’s analysis that “the area of plain uniform colour vibrates, clenches or cracks open because it is the bearer of glimpsed forces” and “mak[es] the invisible forces visible”. This opening of space in a colour mass allows for our wandering within the colour field itself. Blue induces what is known as the Ganzfeld effect, a theory that drew on the notion that by seeing absolutely nothing we begin to see something. As Klein had done away with line and illustration in his paintings, opting for pure abstraction, so too did Jarman. Replacing the canvas with the screen, Jarman’s Blue is alive with our own projections. The purity of colour and its power to evoke true experience allows for the spectator’s presence in the absence of man.
“Everywhere and forever, blue is the horizon! Forever... Forever…”8
Klein stated that he was drawn to blue as the sea and sky, its associations on earth, were the most abstract things in nature itself:9 impossible to grasp and without dimensions. Rebecca Solnit writes in her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost that “[t]he world is blue at its edges and in its depths. This blue is the light that got lost.” She explains that we see blue in transparent matter because of the light that is scattered through it. In 2018, Monokino, an independent cinema co-op active in the Belgian coastal city of Ostend, marked the 25-year jubilee of Blue by transmitting only its soundtrack to an audience that was sat on the beach facing the horizon, with the audience projecting their hallucinations onto the light that got lost in the North Sea and Belgian sky.10 The make-shift cinema (or radio) perched on the water’s edge imagined the seascape as the perfect substitute image for filmed IKB: vast, dazzling, vibrating, unceasing, dynamic, void of detail, full of possibilities. There, released from image and earthly dimensions, Jarman, hooked up on drips, slicked his potions, pills and fate. Invisible, he soared and dived, and soared again in the blue soundscape.
In Blue, Jarman is released by his resignation to his blind fate, but grounded by his hope. As spectators, we surrender to the blue reverie. Our sails puff up and sail through Blue’s poetry as if it were great gusts of wind, travelling so smoothly that one can just close their eyes. But then we crash, from time to time, on the rocks of reality with Jarman’s hospital notes and sounds. His brutal honesty and cutting wit are what bruise us most: his black and blue humour and the hindsight of his own surrender to illness.
The darkness comes in with the tide
The year slips on the calendar
Your kiss flares
A match struck in the night
Flares and dies
My slumber broken
Kiss me again
Kiss me again
Blue’s script is a medley of sounds: music, sound effects, monotone-diary like entries intertwined with excited, subdued or sultry readings of fragments of poetry, philosophy, history and current events observations. It’s a sonic experience that refuses to be saccharine. We hear abrasive noises such as the clattering of metallic hospital pans and the slamming shut of a heavy metal door – like a prison door closing on someone sentenced to life; we hear haunting utterings, whispering and chanting when Jarman describes a waiting room as “hell on earth” or as a dog’s muffled bark is carried on howling winds; and then we hear the soothing caresses of waves on the shore or a fluttering clarinet, like birdsong in the air. Thunder strikes when he talks of the war in Sarajevo; a cyclist shouts abruptly, “Look where the fuck you’re going!” when he’s almost knocked over. The sound effects are perfectly woven into the musical score by the composer Simon Fisher Turner, with fragments of songs, instrumental sounds or vocals by the likes of John Balance, Current 93, Coil, Vini Reilly of The Durutti Column, Brian Eno, Miranda Sex Garden and Kate St. John. And not only do we hear sounds but Jarman also describes them so that we can almost feel them vibrating on our skin, like the intravenous drip of the medicine DHPG12 that “trills like a canary” or his partner’s, H.B.’s,13 choice sounds: “the washing machine is roaring away, and the fridge is defrosting. These are his favourite sounds”.14
In Rimbaud’s poem ‘Vowels’, or ‘Voyelles’ in French, he describes each vowel as pertaining to a colour: “A Black, E white, I red, U green, O blue”. Rimbaud explored synaesthesia by creating dense metaphors that adhered and overlapped multiple sensations (touch, taste, smell, sight, hearing). Furthering Charles Baudelaire’s work on sensorial “correspondences”, Rimbaud draws associations with the imagery of colour and the solitary resonance of each vowel sound; he unites them. He gives to blue the roundness of the vowel o which, as on paper as resounding in the air, draws a full circle, encompassing life and death:
O, sublime Trumpet full of strange piercing sounds,
Silences crossed by Worlds and by Angels:
O the Omega, the violet ray of Her Eyes!15
This symbolist, synesthetic blue drawing bursts with the ‘piercing sounds’ and the ghostly appearances of beings that impregnate Jarman‘s blue rhapsody. Blue begins with the birth of a blue-eyed boy who opens his eyes to life and is immediately pained by sight. The boy cries: “O Blue come forth, O blue arise, O blue ascend, O blue come in.” Blue is both life giving and taking. “O Blue come in” simultaneously calls on life and the O for Omega, the end of the alphabet or episodes of life.
The blank blue screen and Jarman’s composition of voices combine with his clever use of language to create “hallucinations” in our minds, to borrow Roland Barthes’s terminology from his seminal essay ‘The Grain of the Voice’. Blue’s voice brings us a range of tones, for which we are condemned to adjectives in order to recount it. It is compassionate, enraged, authoritative, defeated, amused, mocking, powerful and humiliated; it is complex and entire. Blue is a stream of words and significances which can't be pondered individually but are to be experienced wholly, immediately. Blue’s voice carries Jarman’s experience to the viewer, or listener, as illustrations through the displacement of image, the composition of sounds and music, and the voluptuous and melodic performance of text. To lend from the vocabulary of Barthes once more, one could describe Jarman's script performed by voices as the “sung writing of language”.16
“O Blue come forth, O blue arise, O blue ascend, O blue come in”.17
Blue Bearded Reaper
Jarman’s Blue is as much a literary feat as it is a cinematic or sonic accomplishment. In writing his own sick blues, Jarman swims in a reference-drunk sea of Aqua Vitae; he stirs and wakes ancient Greek myths, biblical characters and masters of literature. In his post-modern use of prose, with a good dash of traditionalist versus modernist vocabulary in his stanzas, he recalls the likes of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in his fragmentary use of literary prose, which he layers on top of shards of sound. He recites the great transcendentalist William Blake’s famous line from ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’, which, too, inspired Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception and, in turn, the music group The Doors: “If the doors of perception were cleansed then everything would be seen as it is”, beckoning us to open our minds and see from other perspectives. How “it is”, according to Blake, is “infinite”, which Jarman omitted here but infers throughout the film, as blue is his symbol of the infinite. He states, “Blue is the universal love in which man bathes – it is the terrestrial paradise.” This universal love of which Jarman writes is a love for all women and men, free of human cruelty and unkindness, prejudice and bigotry. Blue is his metaphor for this infinite, all-encompassing love.
Blue is about humanity as much as it is self-conscious; it is not only about Jarman’s own struggle with illness but about the wretched in his periphery too: people suffering loss and great hardship – Rita’s lost causes,18 referring to Saint Rita of Cascia: Patron Saint of the impossible, abused wives and widows. In his lifetime, Jarman suffered the loss of many of his loved ones, “David. Howard. Graham. Terry. Paul...”, and he observed their succumbing to the disease:
David ran home panicked on the train from Waterloo, brought back exhausted and unconscious to die that night. Terry who mumbled incoherently into his incontinent tears. Others faded like flowers cut by the scythe of the Blue Bearded Reaper, parched as the waters of life receded. Howard turned slowly to stone, petrified day by day, his mind imprisoned in a concrete fortress until all we could hear were his groans on the telephone circling the globe.19
This is but one example of Jarman's powerful use of imagery, which floats freely on screen in the vast blue spectral world of voices. In these portraits of his friends who come to life on screen, out of the blue, and then wilt away ever so quickly, Jarman captures the variety of human response to encroaching death. Watching those you love die around you is a curse of unfathomable pain. Illness alienates its sufferers from the well but, with it, a new community is born: one of compassion for your fellow in or out-patient and their families. Together they become “citizens of that other place”, as Susan Sontag describes in her introduction to Illness as Metaphor. “Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship”, she gives heed.
Metaphor as Illness
In Jarman’s fight with HIV and AIDS, he encountered blue not only on a metaphysical level, preoccupied with existential questions, transcendence and the fathomless heavens, but also on a physical level. His eyesight was heavily impacted by AIDS-related infections and by medicines. Over time his world became dipped in a darkening resin, like a cyanotype, with missing information. He began to see partially blue. Jarman chose then, in Blue, to bravely step out before us and guide us through the unknown of a film without figures or images, a film about his debilitating disease, and share his reflections on his invisible world “through eyes that were closing”.20
During many interviews that inquired as to his choice to blot out any moving images Jarman responded that there were no images for HIV and AIDS – this invisible, silent illness that crept in as the night. But it was important to find a way to represent his sickness in all its facets of response: struggle, courage, despair, hope, anger, humour, pride, humility and, above all, humanity. In Blue, questioning the politics of visibility, he asks, “How are we perceived, if we are to be perceived at all?” and states, “For the most part we are invisible”.21
Jarman, of course, despite what he said in the Face to Face interview, didn’t really want this work to evaporate like mist or steam. He was an outspoken campaigner for gay rights and, as a HIV/AIDS activist, knew the importance of his work. When Jarman was diagnosed, he was living in the Thatcherite-Britain that hindered AIDS awareness campaigns and tried to mute the circulation of knowledge in the fear of disturbing “family values” and promoting “risky sex”,22 creating as a result a culture of apathy towards sufferers of the illness and fostering a climate of shame and stigma amongst the gay community. Throughout his filmic career, Jarman combatted the prejudices towards the gay community by creating positive, unashamed images of homosexuality. He further exposed homophobia in a society that had pronounced his sexuality illegal for the first 25 years of his life. Living with AIDS – or as he would often quip and correct, “Dying with AIDS” – thus bestowed on Jarman a responsibility to put his experience of the illness on record and relate it to others.
AIDS and its devastation called for a radical response in the simplest of forms. On a humanitarian level, what was needed was simply compassion: basic empathy with the suffering of a fellow human, which in the height of neoliberalism, whose growth coincided with the AIDS epidemic, was scarce and seen as reactionary. When attempting a film on AIDS, Jarman knew he had to turn the camera inward in order to come out. For the personal to become universal, the colour blue then became his metaphor for illness, a metaphor for transcending it:
In the pandemonium of image
I present you with the universal Blue
Blue an open door to soul
An infinite possibility
In Blue, Jarman essentially registers us, his audience, blind in order to heighten our senses and open our doors of perception.
Jarman forecast: “In time, no one will remember our work. Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud. […] For our time is the passing of a shadow”.24 However, in contrast to his solemn prediction, and proving his self-deprecation unjustified, Blue has made a lasting mark upon cinema, and cinema-goers, and can be remembered as an exceptional television and radio event. With Blue’s release, Jarman fantasised about walking through the streets of London and seeing a blue glow emanating from people's television sets. He didn’t really want Blue to only be screened late at night to a niche audience; he wanted to hijack the screens of every Tom, Dick and Harry’s home! He wanted Blue to be seen outside of the art crowds, the arthouse cinemas, and outside of his own community. He wanted his blue eyed-boy’s story to be an everyday story: to be heard, to be seen, and to be unapologetic.
In the posthumous introduction to the uncut BBC interview with Jarman, Isaacs proclaimed about Jarman: “No one else did so much with such little resource.” Jarman was triumphant in his DIY-filmmaking. His films dared to colour, expose, criticise, make fun of and celebrate life. Through Jarman’s own testaments, we can deduce that making films drove him and making films with friends empowered him. Without worrying about belonging to one style or another, but while denying definitions such as avant-garde, experimental or underground, he set out to make films that expressed his politics, sexuality, national heritage, love of language and often pompous and theatrical imagery and to screen them on television, transmit their audio through the radio, and bring them into the cinema. He made his films with low budgets and high ambitions, in regards to dissemination. Blue was made to disperse in the air, as widely as possible, and never to be buried in the underground-scene.
Before Blue draws to a black end, Jarman leaves a blue delphinium upon a grave. Deep blue delphinium meadow flowers, kin to the yellow buttercup, are often given in remembrance of loved ones. In remembrance of Jarman, and in remembrance of Blue: “I place a delphinium, Blue, upon your grave”.25
- 1. Derek Jarman, interviewed by Jeremy Isaacs on Face to Face, BBC, London, 15 March 1993.
- 2. Carol Mavor writes in depth about the colour blue in her novels Blue Mythologies (London: Reaktion Books, 2013) and Black and Blue (Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2012). In both, she emphasises the paradox of blue, giving numerous examples of blue connotations and hues of blue found in art, film, and literature.
- 3. As detailed in the book Motion(less) Pictures: The Cinema of Stasis by Justin Remes (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).
- 4. Simon Fisher Turner gives an insight into how Blue was developed and produced: Stuart Huggett, ‘Simon Fisher Turner On Derek Jarman's Blue’, The Quietus, 18 February 2014.
- 5. Adam Scovell, ‘The Problematic Reception of Derek Jarman’s Blue – Part 5 (Home Viewings and Conclusions)’, Celluloid Wicker Man, 2 August 2013.
- 6. Although Blue’s official running time is 79 minutes, its television transmission was stated to be 75 or 76 minutes long by multiple sources.
- 7. John Winn, ‘Performing Death: Derek Jarman's Medial Blues’, Four by Three Magazine, 5 May 2017.
- 8. From ‘Der Abschied’ [‘The Farewell’], the 6th and final song in Das Lied von der Erde [Song of the Earth] by Gustav Mahler, 1909. ‘Der Abschied’ combines poems by Tang Dynasty poets Meng Haoran and Wang Wei.
- 9. Yves Klein responded to the question of why he chose to celebrate the colour blue at a lecture he gave at la Sorbonne, Paris, in 1959.
- 10. Monokino (Ostend, 23 June 2018).
- 11. Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993)
- 12. Ganciclovir (or DHPG), a drug used to slow or halt blindness caused by cytomegalovirus retinitis in AIDS patients.
- 13. ‘Hinny Beast’, a nickname Jarman gave to Keith Collins. Hinny is a term of endearment in Geordie dialect.
- 14. Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993)
- 15. Arthur Rimbaud, ‘Voyelles’ (1871-72), as translated by Oliver Bernard in Arthur Rimbaud: Collected Poems (London: Penguin Classics, 1962), 171.
- 16. Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text (London: Fontana Press, 1977), 185.
- 17. Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993)
- 18. “Over the mountains is the shrine to Rita, where all at the end of the line call. Rita is the Saint of the Lost Cause. The saint of all who are at their wit's end, who are hedged in and trapped by the facts of the world” (Blue).
- 19. Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993)
- 20. Isaacs explains Derek Jarman’s book Chroma as a book about colour: “recording through eyes that were closing the colours of the world that he had enjoyed.” (Derek Jarman. Interviewed by Jeremy Isaacs, Face to Face, BBC, London, 15 March 1993.)
- 21. Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993)
- 22. Owen Bowcott, ‘Thatcher tried to block 'bad taste' public health warnings about Aids’, the Guardian, 30 December 2015.
- 23. Blue (Derek Jarman, 1993)
- 24. Ibidem.
- 25. Ibidem.
With thanks to Norman Arthur, Gerard-Jan Claes, and Hannes Verhoustraete