by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday August 27, 2019

A movie in which the visual component is nothing more than a steady, unwavering, featureless blue screen? Who would want to — indeed, who could — watch such a thing? What would it mean to call it a film?

In the case of Darek Jarman's final cinematic project, "Blue,", it's a chance to allow the inner movie screen to take over. Much like the filmmaker's tool of the blue screen — which enables movies to blend live action with special effects work, or enables actors on a soundstage to appear to be in wide open spaces — Jarman's blue fades away and allows the imagination free reign.

Not that there's no stimulus at all. Jarman's script contains jokes and suspense and a dramatic arc, as the narration (voiced by John Quentin, along with other voice talents including Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, and Jarman himself) revisits the central storyline of Jarman seeking medial attention for his deteriorating eyesight. The color choice comes down to a matter of phisosophy as much as symbolism or aesthetics; "In the pandemonium of images," the narrator intones, "I present to you with the universal blue — blue, an open door to soul, an infinite possibility becoming tangible."

The issue of color aside, forsaking picture frees Jarman's voice as a writer and poet. His words paint vivid visions, even as Jarman meditates on the Zen of stepping away from something as necessary — in normal cinematic projects — as the moving picture. "From the bottom of your heart, pray to be released from image." It seems that image, at some level, is just another way of saying identity, and as some of the world's oldest religions would tell us, it is the liberation from identity that defines divine attainment. Or, as Swinton's voice asks, in an ethereal swirl of process vocals, "But what are you seeking?" To which the answer comes: "The fathomless blue of bliss."

The story of Jarman's sight is entwined with his status as a person living with AIDS in a time when AIDS meant certain death, often with terrible physical afflictions resulting not only from the virus but from the medications at the time. (In one harrowing section, Quinn enunciates a long and horrifying list of possible side effects.)

Jarman details, with cool frankness and an occasionally bitter edge, his feelings about living with, and dying from, the disease. He also takes ruthless aim at the delusions and denials around AIDS to which much of the dominantly heterosexual world has long clung, with the LGBTQ community, from time to time, doing not much better. "In the paper today," Jarman's text drily catalogues: "Three-quarters of the AIDS organizations are not providing safer sex information. One district said they had no queers in their community, but you might try District X — they have a theater."

At other times, Jarman's humor, as black and sharp as obsidian, slices toward himself as much as at anyone else. "I caught myself looking at shoes in a shop window," the narrator reads. "I thought of going in and buying a pair, but stopped myself. The shoes I'm wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life."

The film's sound design, by Marvin Black, is crisp and creative. An array of sound effects accompanies passages that sound like they came from Jarman's diary. Simon Fisher-Turner's music creates an immersive, sometimes hypnotic environment that hold on to its tranquillity even when raucous songs occasionally burst into the film's stream-of-consciousness stylings. (Joining the composer's work are selections by Brian Eno, Erik Satie, and something called "Disco Hospital" by Coil and Danny Hyde, among other tidbits.)

Jarman whisks us by the ears from one conceptual environment to another in much the way the imagery of his other films does. Meantime, "Blue" carries a surprisingly — but obvious, in hindsight — charge of familiarity. This is not at all so very strange to us now; what we call a podcast today could very well be thought of as tracing early roots back to this very project.

Of all Jarman's funny, cranky, idiosyncratic, and profound musings, perhaps this one gets at the nub most effectually:

"If I lose half my sight," the filmmaker asks himself, and us, "will my vision be harmed?"

Not at all.

This Blu-ray release, from Kino Lorber, comes with a healthy host of extras:

  • "Bliss," described as "a concert recording of the project that would become "Blue"

  • Assistant director David Lewis talks about his recollections of the film

  • "Glitterbug," described as "a compilation of Derek Jarman's home movies, scored by Brian Eno"

  • "Hard to Imagine," in which "John Maybury recalls Jarman's journey towards 'Blue' "

  • Featurettes in which producer James Mackay and composer Simon Fisher Turner offer their memories of the movie's production

  • A video of the "Derek Jarman Blue Plaque" being unveiled in London


    Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.