Wednesday, November 19, 2008


As a way into Blue, Derek Jarman's densely constructed and aesthetically daring cinematic tone poem, we might take as a point of reference a quotation from the film's soundtrack. Well into the advanced stages of AIDS, and struck with a form of blindness (his vision reduced to a field of blue with occasional bursts of red and black) due to lesions in his retinas, the director, who narrates the film, describes the sensation in the following terms: "Awareness is heightened by this, but something else is lost. A sense of reality drowned in theater."

And so the film sets out to recreate the odd confluence of hypersensation and lack of grounding experienced by the suddenly blind. Stripping the visual plane down to a single image of light/medium blue - although necessarily flecked with splotches from the film emulsion - which continues unchanged for the entire film, Jarman whips up a dense aural collage whose sounds, by turns assaultive and comforting, mirror the heightened awareness of the non-visual senses that characterize the filmmaker's condition. The sophisticated density of the sound design reaches an early high as Jarman describes the noises made by several of his household appliances and immediately follows by concocting a nightmare soundscape compounded of the whirr of domestic machinery: the spin cycles of a washing machine, the buzzing of a refrigerator.

Then Blue is nothing if not a good show. Betraying a taste for the theatrical, Jarman's voice-overs - part matter-of-fact detailing of the day-to-day miseries of sickness, part lyrical reverie on friends lost in the past, the nature of image, the various associations of the color blue - reverberate with the authority of a resounding articulation and the film's sophisticated aural collage, set front-and-center in the audio mix, sounds like it's being broadcast over the soundsystem of a first-rate theater. Singing dirty songs with the help of a chorus of long-time collaborators (Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry) or intercutting his reading of a horrifying list of medication side-effects with a round of obscene circus music, dropping bits of Blake and Shakespeare into his discourse or spitting off happy formulations like "cum-splattered nuclear breeders," Jarman is every bit the showman. Though Blue may approach levels of intimacy rare even in the context of confessional first-person filmmaking, the impression remains of an alternately amusing and heartrending (mostly) one-man stage production.

Of course the stage in question is restricted to the film's audio track. The blue screen may exercise a form of hypnotic draw, but its essential function is to force us to focus attention on the movie's sound design. "Pray to be released from the image," Jarman intones, "the image is a prison of the soul." And so in his film as in his life, the primacy of seeing is undercut. Blue makes apparent how much we tend to rely on the visual as our primary means of orientation in the cinema, but it also shows us that this need not necessarily be the case. And yet, as Jarman notes of his condition,"something is lost" in the exchange. For all the film's brilliantly conceived aural montage - and Jarman's appealing showmanship - it's a very difficult work to find one's grounding in. And that, quite clearly, is the point. Blue defies critical judgement as much as it does rigorous analysis; as a final testament, it confirms for all time the joys of artistic invention; as a work of cinema, it is thrillingly, maddeningly sui generis.


Ed Howard said...

If feels odd and perverse to call this a great film, but it undeniably is. As much as it intentionally confounds and stretches any reasonable definitions of cinema to their breaking points, there's no doubt that it was conceived in every sense as a film, despite the lack of image. There's something intrinsically cinematic about its soundtrack -- maybe its tendency to use imagistic language and a very visual vocabulary. The film gives the impression that you are seeing things even when you really aren't, such is the vividness of its words.

If you haven't already, you should read Jarman's phenomenal book Chroma. It consists of a series of essays about different colors, exploring the sensory, aesthetic, mythological, and historical resonances of each color. The essay on blue formed the basis for much of Jarman's voiceover in Blue, and many of the other essays are equally enthralling.

andrew schenker said...

Yes, the soundtrack indeed feels cinematic, if by cinematic we mean the ability to conjure up exact visual images. The specificity of the language and the density of the aural collage means that we never feel image deprived even though almost all the information is presented non-visually. At any rate, it forces us to completely rethink our approach to engaging with a film and for that, and much else, it's fascinating.

I'm not familiar with Jarman's book, but it sounds well worth checking out. Thanks for the heads up.