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The end of days
A UK region 2 DVD review of BLUE and GLITTERBUG by Slarek
 
Blue

If you're a follower of the cinema of Derek Jarman then you'll know all about Blue and probably have experienced it. Others will know it by reputation and may even have formed an opinion from what they've heard or read, one that could just have have seen it crossed off their list of films to see before they die. For the rest of you, a one-sentence summary: To an unchanging plain blue screen, a complex soundtrack unfolds in which music and sound effects are blended with the director's experiences of his medical treatment and failing health following his contraction of AIDS, which is related in a varying mixture of the poetic and the observational.

Now when I say unchanging blue screen I mean it – following the opening credits, the screen turns blue and stays that way until the end of the film. If there were an award for being true to your title, Blue would win it hands down. The criticisms that have been aimed at the film are both predictable and valid. The most commonly heard is that film devoid of specific visuals belongs on the radio rather than in the cinema, and the only reason it was released as a film at all is that a radio play would neither attract as big an audience nor receive the same publicity, especially if the word 'controversial' was in any way attached to it. It's even been suggested that you could issue it as a CD with a fold-out blue sheet for the listener to stare at as they played it. And if the blue screen is designed to fully focus our attention on the soundtrack, would not simply closing your eyes do the same thing?

But the use of a blue screen is anything but arbitrary. A key symptom of Jarman's degenerating health, and the one that had the most significant effect on him as an artist, was the gradual loss of his sight, and the final image he was able to register was the colour blue. In terms of placing you within the director's experience, this proves an effective device, removing any generic associations, whether they be dramatic or documentary, and forcing the viewer to experience a sightless world, stripping a traditionally audio-visual experience of one of its key components.

Of course this plays very differently on a cinema screen than it does on DVD. In the cinema, at least if you're sitting close enough to the screen, the blue fills your field of vision and radiates from the screen to colour everything around you. Unless you're hooked up to a projector, the DVD just isn't going to dominate your vision in the same way, and it would be an unusually determined viewer who was able to stare unwaveringly at the luminous blue of their TV screen for 74 minutes without a break.

This is not necessarily a problem. My second viewing of the film and the first on DVD took place late at night when I was in the throes of a streaming cold and looking at the screen for any length of time would kick off a sneezing fit. Eventually I laid back, closed my eyes and just absorbed the soundtrack, the blue that was bathing the darkened room still just detectable through my eyelids. It may not be true to the film's intentions – then again I'd already experienced that in the cinema on the film's release – but I still became involved and moved by what I heard and still marvelled at the writing, performance and poetic truth of the piece. The soundtrack is remarkable in every respect, a compellingly performed and designed blend of poetry, experience, observation, sound effects and music (by Jarman regular Simon Fisher-Turner) that locks the viewer/listener into the director's experience and thoughts as the symptoms take hold and his relationship with the world around him is changed forever.

It's tricky to recommend Blue unreservedly because for many it will always be a soundtrack in search of a picture, a view that I'd suggest is partly the result of a self-imposed barrier born of a specific idea of the form cinema should take. But for the open minded and those prepared to put that barrier aside, Blue is a unique and affecting experience. And you know what, there are mega-budget Hollywood films out there on which millions upon millions of dollars have been lavished whose visuals are ultimately less meaningful than Jarman's simple blue screen.

Glitterbug

Those who found it easy to take pot shots at Blue should have a field day with Jarman's final film, Glitterbug, which consists of nothing more than a montage of the director's home movie footage set to music. There, I bet a few of you have already used that essentially accurate but nonetheless glib description to form an opinion on the film, or at least the foundations of one.

Compiled from twenty years of Super-8 footage shot by Jarman, the film mixes monochrome with colour, the personal with the professional and the observational with the experimental. Thus shots of a lover shaving or eating breakfast sit happily alongside time-lapse footage of a day's activity in Jarman's studio flat, lighter moments on the shoots of Sebastiane and Jubilee, a playful jaunt around a country garden, a group of female impersonators preparing for a fashion show, glimpses of The Sex Pistols and William Burroughs, and lingering shots of the bodies and faces of well toned young men. And that's just a sample. In rare moments Jarman himself appears before the lens, receiving a new movie camera as a present or having his hair cut to the crop that partly defined his late career look. Continuity is provided to the disparate imagery by Brian Eno's hypnotic, hallucinatory score, which shifts in tone and mood to perfectly compliment and sometimes counterpoint the visuals.

No movie exists in a vacuum and each is inevitably tied to external factors that influence and shape their appreciation and even understanding. Divorced from its associations with the director's life and death, Glitterbug would be an involving though hardly groundbreaking experiment, but as cinematic memorial, a final before-the-eyes flash of a life less ordinary, it is captivating, rich with detail and profoundly moving.

sound and vision

OK, this is a tricky one to write about without sounding as if I'm taking the piss a bit, which I'm not. Blue has received an anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer, designed to fill a widescreen TV's viewing area, but you'll need to make some adjustments to your DVD player to get the full screen experience on a 4:3 set. Artificial Eye have transferred the original print rather than create a digital blue of the same hue to replace it – this is true to the original film, as you would expect of this distributor, but the print is not in absolutely pristine condition and the unbroken blue is thus given occasional movement in the shape of dust spots, particularly at the start. An argument could be made for digital restoration here.

Glitterbug is framed 4:3 and inevitably grainy, with some of the original footage alive with dust, dirt and scratches, but the transfer is nonetheless impressive, with the contrast and detail on the monochrome footage a lot better than the 8mm source might lead you to expect, and there's a pleasing richness to some of the colour shots. There a particular quality to 8mm film that is well captured here that will doubtless leave many modern videographers mourning the format's passing.

Both films have Dolby stereo 2.0 soundtracks and both are very clear and well mixed and display distinct separation, particularly Blue's use of location sound and effects.

extra features

Brief Biographies for Derek Jarman, Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, John Quentin, Simon Fisher-Turner, James Mackay and Brian Eno.

summary

Challenging though the concept may be, Blue is nonetheless an important and affecting work that deserves more than sidelining as an avant-garde experiment, while Glitterbug is an illuminating and moving swan song from one of this country's most distinctive filmmaking talents. Jarman's final two films differ in style and approach but still compliment each other perfectly, and Artificial Eye have done well pairing them together for this release. Recommended, at least for the adventurous.

Blue
UK 1993
76 mins
director
Derek Jarman
starring
John Quentin
Nigel Terry
Derek Jarman
Tilda Swinton

Glitterbug
UK 1994
53 mins
director
Derek Jarman

DVD details
Region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic / 4:3
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
subtitles
none
extras
Brographies
distributor
Artificial Eye
release date
23 July 2007
review posted
7 August 2007

See all of Slarek's reviews