The Garden

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday August 27, 2019

Gay English director Derek Jarman's 1990 film "The Garden" takes on the Gospel and filters it through a lens of emotional turmoil even while challenging commonplace interpretations by broadening his perspective on the material with a tinge of Eastern philosophy and a punkish outlaw aesthetic.

The Biblical riffs are recognizable as such, but daring in their reinvention. From Adam and Eve being exiled from the first "garden" — Eden — to the Nativity fable to the familiar beats of the Christian passion story, Jarman has undertaken to radically recast religious myth and tradition. In the process, he explodes those stories and then reassembles them in a rough approximation of their original order. Some incidents are presented multiple ways — the Last Supper, for instance, recurs in a variety of retellings, from a coven of women playing tones on the moistened rims of crystal glasses to a cabal of strict schoolmasters thwacking the table with wooden switches, seemingly tutoring a schoolboy in the ways of militarism and domination, while a torture session — whips, bloodies backs — plays out to the rhythm of the thwacks. (Superstition, Jarman seems to be saying, comes hand in hand with authoritarianism and punitive aggression.) The most rousing rendition of the revered gathering sees it retooled as a Flamenco performance.

And why not? Jarman's rage was often well-tempered by his humor, and if he never shied away from anachronism, he also knew how to mix and match the historical with the contemporary in order to achieve a timeless effect that reaches from the specifics of any given story into the regrettably changeless — and savage — soul of the human species. Thus we have Mary Magdalene chirping away in an upbeat rendering of the song "Think Pink," and, in one of two representations of the suicide of Judas Iscariot, an advert for a new credit card — evidently likened here to Judas' blood-money payment of thirty pieces of silver.

The entire biography of Jesus receives similar treatment. The Virgin Mary (played by Tilda Swinton, a Jarman muse and collaborator in her early career) shows up, Baby Jesus in har arms, for a photo shoot carried out by what would seem to be a cadre of guerrilla fashion photographers (or, perhaps, terroristic paparazzi); John the Baptist seems to be a gay man with a bathing fetish; there's a brief, but unmistakable, shout-out to the "fishers of men" disciples when they catch sight of Jesus, back from the dead. The apex of Jarman's collage-style sensibility, which leads him to cull textures, wardrobe, and symbols from all over the place, comes when Jesus reconvenes with his disciples while "tongues of flame" — the Holy Spirit — descends. He's depicted here, with both economy and absurdist literalism, as tea candles placed, burning, atop the actors' heads.

But none of this is slavishly beholden to biblical text, and all of it is kept loose and buzzing with a neon energy. Jesus himself is played by three different actors; two of them seem to represent Jesus living an earthly life, even while he is possessed of a dual nature. One actor (calm, consoling, and open-eyed even in death) represented Christ's divine side, while the other (sobbing, fearful, and quite dead for a spell of, we're guessing, three days or so) plays his human aspect. Meantime, a middle-aged, stern fellow represents Jesus in purgatory in the time between his crucifixion and resurrection. (Hell, by the way, is suitably gravel-strewn, decidedly non-verdant, and populated by naked young men armed with flares. Who knew that the Lake of Fire resembled a Fire Island beach during the Fourth of July?)

The crux of the four New Testament gospels is, of course, the crucifixion — the act of human cruelty in which God is murdered and yet, though this unforgivable act of sadism and homicide, the human race as a whole is forgiven for its long legacy of sins. It's a bloody business, represented by red skies (Jarman uses plenty of green screen work in this movie), but more stirring is the aftermath in which Mary Magdalene ruminatively squeezes a sponge (full of vinegar, no doubt) while standing contemplatively at the foot of the now-abandoned cross. (In another touch of Jarman wit, the letters INRI appear on an English license plate that's been affixed to the top of the cross.)

Most pointed — maybe a little too much so — is Jarman's accusation of a capitalist system that celebrate inequality, makes a virtue of economic cannibalism, and places the value of currency over that of human life. Jarman communicates this with a recurring trio of men in Santa Claus suits who first represent the Three Wise Men. Decades before the Godfrey Reggio polemic "Naqoyqatsi" critiqued our carnage-creating financial system, Jarman was having a savage, unapologetic go.

But Jarman also seemed to have been tuned in to a distinctly David Lynchean vibe; this film came out right as the second season of "Twin Peaks" was airing in the States, and a couple of years before "Fire Walk With Me," and yet a character who seems calculated to embody human cruelty is played by an actor who looks strikingly like Lynch's demonic killer, BOB. He has his first moment in a torture scene set in a gay sauna; he's back again in a brutal kitchen-set tableau that revisits the Crown of Thorns episode, turning it into a humiliating adventure involving feathers and something dark and sticky — either molasses or that salty English paste called marmite. This diabolical presence tucks into a jar of the stuff with such gusto that you almost expect him to shout, "I want my garmonbozia!," which, in Lynchean lore, is the nectar of human misery. (Meantime, in a frankly primatological comment on the [sub]human condition in which we dwell when our baser instincts take over, Jarman's substitute for dialogue in this scene is a series of chimp-like hoots and grunts.)

Jarman made many striking, rage-fueled, artistically dense films: "The Last of England," "Caravaggio," and "Edward II" were only a few of his greatest, and strangest, hits. But "The Garden" might be the strongest demonstration of his artistically intersectional, polymathic cinema mastery; while he was paralleling Lynch, he was also showing the world that he could teach Ken Russell a thing or two about how to create images that evoke eerie, precise, and yet essentially pre-conscious religious imagery.

It's been said that human beings are hard-wired for worship of a higher being, real or not; history shows that, while we may be intrinsically given to fearful supplication and placation of invisible gods, we're just as naturally inclined to atrocities when it comes to our fellow man. Jarman finds the point that lies in the midst of the soul's perpetual hurricane, and puts his finger directly on it. His films don't pluck at the heart; they pour in through the eyes and then twist in the gut.

The new Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber presents "The Garden" in a 2K edition that looks as good as this movie can, given that much of it was filmed on video. The sound — classical music by way of atonal chromatic experimentation, narrations that sound sometimes scriptural (and often menacing) — is crisp and fully responsive, avoiding overall muddiness and flattening in the upper and lower registers.

The Blu-ray includes a raft of special features: Film historian Samm Deighan provided a commentary track; Richard Heslop, in a pair of featurettes, talks about Jarman in his last years, before he died of complications of AIDS in early 1994; second assistant director David Lewis offers is recollections of making the film; John Maybury fills us in on Jarman's love of gardening (Jarman's own garden shows up here and there in the film).

As a part of queer cinematic history, just about anything by Jarman is essential; "The Garden" stands among his particular masterworks. Whether you've never heard of him or were taking in his movies back in the day, this is an edition Jarman enthusiast, LGBTQ history buffs, and cineastes of any stripe won't want to miss.

"The Garden"


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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.