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England's Dreaming

Thoughts on a film: Jubilee (1978)

Queen Elizabeth I, transported back in time by the spirit-guide Ariel, conjured from the pages of Shakespeare's The Tempest by the oracle, mathematician, astronomer and occult philosopher John Dee, bears witness to an England in decline. Their year of arrival is 1977; that of the later Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee celebrations, and - perhaps as-notably - the year punk broke the mainstream; however, it could just as easily have been later than that. Forty years into the future in fact. In the present day...

Had these characters arrived in the year 2017 - a year, which from the timeline of the film itself would've seemed like the stuff of science-fiction; as divorced from the reality of the everyday as Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey must have seemed to audiences in 1968; or the setting of Blade Runner 2049 (2017) still seems to us - they would've found a landscape even more ravaged by economic hardship, mass unemployment, divides of multiculturalism, class exploitation, uneasy political frustrations, violence and criminality; making the film less a product of its time than a prescient future-shock; a vision of the future from the perspective of this imaginary Queen Elizabeth I that is also a vision of our own present, drifting beyond the brink.

Jubilee [Derek Jarman, 1978]:
Returning to Derek Jarman's second feature-length work in the context of the world as it exists today is revelatory, but also depressing. It's a film that I first saw as a young teenager; caught as part of a late-night screening on the now-defunct UK subscription channel Film Four Extreme. I hated it! I was new to Jarman's work and was yet to be thrilled by his later achievements with Caravaggio (1986), War Requiem (1989) and Edward II (1991); passionate, painterly, poetic films that benefited from their gorgeous cinematography, imaginative production designs, eclectic soundtracks and diverse performances. These were films that mixed the personal with the prophetic; the political with the profane.

Jubilee seemed like none of these things. From the perspective of someone then unversed in the avant-garde or the legacy of Andy Warhol, this was a coarse, vulgar film, both thematically and aesthetically. I was shocked, not just by its content, but by its method of delivery; the unashamed, low-budget nature of the thing. As a child weaned on Hollywood decadence, Jarman's frugal ingenuity, his gleeful borrowing of high and low-brow institutions, the garish, post John Waters' impropriety of the thing, was lost on me. However, looking at the film anew, with a much broader appreciation of Jarman's other achievements, and in the context of recent events, it's now clear that despite the low-budget nature of the film, this is a work of great insight and lasting ideas.

Jubilee [Derek Jarman, 1978]:

In Jubilee, Jarman depicts an alternate 1977 that seems ravaged by a third world war. Hitler is alive and well, and with him the spirit of fascism still reigns supreme. A multimillionaire media tycoon has bought and privatised the press, the entertainment industries, the government and even the church. The character of Amyl Nitrite - one of the nihilist punk protagonists at the centre of the film - rewrites history and presents her findings to her followers. They become like news reports from some imaginary present; the foundation of what we now call alternative facts; or literally 'fake-news.'

Amyl's reports are delivered straight-faced and direct to camera. They appear like conventional news bulletins from the BBC or similar channels, although the modern-day association to this might be closer to the kind of populist vloggers that thrive on social media platforms, such as YouTube and Twitter; presenting to their audience a veneer of officious professionalism, faux-pathos and concern for the state of the nation, while simply distorting the facts to vent their own highly personalised, heavily biased opinion as truth.

Jubilee [Derek Jarman, 1978]:

Latest Atrocities in Modern Art [Paul Joseph Watson/YouTube, 2017]:

In keeping with the narrative of today, the future of Jubilee is a future where women have seemingly taken control; where the men are either brutal enforcers or neutered servants. Homosexuality is freely embraced; there is a sense of collective engagement between the gang; a sense of trying to move towards something greater, even if it's only destruction. These things are wonderful, but in the modern-day context they become the nightmare of the alt-right/alt-left fear-mongering that now exists in relation to things like the rise of fourth-wave feminism, cultural emasculation (a scene of actual castration occurs), identity politics, the disintegration of traditional gender roles, as well as feeding into the more deeply held conservative attitudes about young people being debauched, depraved, lawless and radicalised. Of course Jarman contradicts these things on many levels, creating a much richer satirical commentary.

As with the society as it exists today, the presentation of these things offers only a single narrative that is always worth scrutiny. While the charismatic but brutal punk matriarch Bod seems to run the gangs - commanding a level of respect from her female associates while the men are reduced to the level of sexualised decoration - Jarman shows us that the real power still rests with those that have always wielded it; specifically rich, privately-educated men. His progressive microcosm of the gang and their liberated way of life is contrasted by the way the media, the government, etc is manipulated by the wealthy mogul Borgia Ginz, or by the police who roam the streets carrying out wanton acts of violence against anyone unwilling to pay-up.

It's as if Jarman was able to look into the future and sees how these fears could at first take root before manifesting into something far more insidious. It's an example of Jarman's tremendous insight into the nature of the human condition; his ability recognise that history repeats itself; that movements occur in waves, cyclical, always recurring.

The England that Jarman depicts may have been an exaggeration at the time of the film's production, but it's taken on greater resonance when we see it in the context of the world as it exists today. How organisations and institutions have hijacked issues to further their own (often financial) agenda. How young people betrayed their principles for fame and fortune. How fascism (which the early punk and new wave music often flirted with, in iconography if not ideology) was able to regain popularity, as people out of work and out of hope were coerced by the media into find a new enemy. How the divide and conquer mentality has worked to pit us against our neighbours, against our own communities, through envy, suspicion and distrust. For the media the goal is to have us point the finger of blame at those that are different, rather than to blame the bankers and the economists and the politicians and the media itself. All of this finds a kind of expression in Jarman's film.

This is a world of police brutality, intimidation, corruption; violence for the sake of it; a world where celebrity is the thing to aspire to; the cult of celebrity that builds on the post-Warholian prediction that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, and finding something of a precursor to the reality TV/social media fixation of 'status' through popularity. Now imagine someone from the era of Queen Elizabeth I seeing this landscape for the first time, without having watched our society evolve to this particular point. The sense of shock that is felt by the audience is intended.

Jubilee [Derek Jarman, 1978]:

Hate Crime Surged... [Alan Travis/The Guardian, 2017]:

Jordan's Dance [Derek Jarman, 1977]:

If the polemic here feels like it straying into the realms of the Daily Mail and its tabloid-level outrage, then it's important to add that Jarman's projection of a future England in decline is not intended as a piece of fear-mongering, but merely as a hypothetical. He doesn't point the finger of blame at his violent punks, but merely observes their interactions. As in A Clockwork Orange - both the 1962 novella by Anthony Burgess and the 1971 film adaptation by Stanley Kubrick - which seems something of an influence, it is the system that is the real villain, not the violent individuals caught up in it.

A Clockwork Orange [Stanley Kubrick, 1971]:

Jubilee [Derek Jarman, 1978]:

While the film depicts a level of violence and brutality, there's always a sense of contrast found in Jarman's work; a push/pull between oppression and liberation, between ugliness and beauty, between conservatism and decadence. Politically Jarman appropriates punk because it was current; because it was part of the then-tapestry of modern Britain; but he stands apart from it. His depiction of the record industry is brutal and depressing; his view of pop stars is cynical and perhaps even condescending. And while the filmmaker creates a work that is every bit as provocative, violent and aggressive as his punk subjects, there seems to be an underlining yearning for something of the old England. An ongoing nostalgia for Jarman for the England of his childhood; a romanticising of the Queen, as a figurehead, of the Union Jack, or green fields and the post-war years. The iconography that he returns to again and again, in films such as The Queen is Dead (1986), The Last of England (1987) and the aforementioned War Requiem.

In Jubilee's most beautiful sequence, Jarman takes the footage of a short film he produced a year earlier called Jordan's Dance (1977).  Here, the titular actress (who here portrays the character of Amyl Nitrate) performs a ballet recital among the rubble of the ruined dockyards. Masked spectators, one naked, wearing the head of Michelangelo's David, watch as she performs. The shutter and shake of the 8mm footage flattens the perspective of the artist and the flames that surround her, creating the impression of a graceful white swan - perhaps the swan of Avon; the Shakespearian avatar as eulogised in the opening narration of The Last of England, which died a syncopated death - performing within this raging inferno. It's a moment that feels open to interpretation, and like Jubilee as a whole, seems to burn with sadness and the promise of things that could never be.

Jordan's Dance [Derek Jarman, 1977]:

The Last of England [Derek Jarman, 1987]:

A decade after Jubilee, Jarman would return to the same subject matter with his avant-garde masterwork The Last of England. The first film project that Jarman undertook after being diagnosed as HIV positive, The Last of England would strip away the narrative necessities of the film in question to create a work that subjectively expresses his own feeling of rage, concern and disappointment. Tearing away the mask of cinematic convention, Jarman translates the still relevant themes of Jubilee into a kind of audio-visual onslaught. Creating a mixed-media montage of contrasting sounds and images, which allow the audience to feel something akin to the artist's own perception of the world, as opposed to standing away from it and studying it with an ironic eye.

Taken as a kind of cinematic diptych, Jubilee and The Last of England have remained, in both commentary and artistic approach, significant, necessary and singular creative works.


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