There’s a hazy aura of the unknown surrrounding Derek Jarman’s Super 8 films from the seventies and eighties. Even for the more diligent of his students and devotees, the footage is hard to find. Not distributed like his feature films, they’re glimpsed through his writing, in books about his work or maybe at the odd screening if you happen to hear about it. Some of them have never really been available at all. Now, thanks to longtime champion of Jarman’s experimental work James Mackay, that’s hopefully about to change.
When Jarman died, Mackay – a friend and collaborator – was left with a brown suitcase of film reels. JARMAN read the letters stencilled on its lid. Inside were about eighty titles, and Mackay set about trying to preserve every one. Twenty years on from Jarman’s death, and with the help of the LUMA Foundation, the long restoration process is finished. Along with the films, Mackay has also compiled a book, “Derek Jarman: Super 8”.
Jarman was given a Super 8 camera as a gift and made his first film with it, “Studio Bankside”, at the very start of the seventies. Until then, making ‘home movies’, as Jarman referred to them, was something his father did, a suburban pastime laden with all the normative associations such pastimes bring. For Jarman, though, this was fertile ground for him to get to work. During the years he worked with Super 8, he wrested the home movie from its conventional roots and made it his own.
The Super 8’s, like much of Jarman’s work, can be frustrating. They often evade any clear message, are sometimes entirely impregnable, and hand you montage wherever you look for meaning. As Peter Fillingham observes in his essay in the book, its bound up with language – the films’ repeated refusal of words and speech unmoors us.
What “Derek Jarman Super 8” does best is embrace this awkward aspect of the filmmaker’s work. The collections of striking stills, chosen by the contributors to the book, most of whom knew or worked closely with Jarman, don’t try to explain anything away. As with any viewing of his work, comprehension sometimes hovers, then slips away. As Fillingham puts it, “I am bereft. Just at the point of understanding, of grasping the image… [it] disappears and I want it back.” The stills let you pause at least, setting each frame side by side with its successor.
Super 8 film turns fifty this year. When Kodak launched it on the market, it was a democratic step forward for filmmaking. Not only easy to use, it was inexpensive, and the book recounts just how crucial this was to Jarman. It liberated him, setting him free from the watchful gaze of funders. With Super 8, he could be at his most experimental.
Once Jarman started making his own home movies, he began to capture countercultural London with an astute but casual eye. The wastelands by his home in Butler’s Wharf became a makeshift studio, his friends his cast. When you watch them, or study the stills, you’re immersed in a London now long gone, before AIDS and aggressive regeneration joined forces to change the city forever.
There’s an immediacy to the Super 8 footage, and a frequent intimacy too. Mackay’s commentaries are valuable here, and his insights shed precious, often unexpected light on the films. He mentions, for instance, that Jarman first started using a handheld camera when he filmed “Ken Hicks”. Nine minutes of slow footage, it studies Ken as he strips off his clothes, rubs oil into his skin then ritualistically removes it. Knowing it’s the first film Jarman made without the steadying presence of the tripod inflects it, sensuously inserting Jarman’s own body into the portrait.
At the end of his life, when Jarman’s refusal of narrative film came full circle with “Blue” (1993), he wanted to make a rich compilation of his Super 8 films, revisiting his most personal medium in the final stages of the illness that would kill him. The result, “Glitterbug”, which Mackay helped him make, was, in many ways, the start of a process that ends with this book. It required Jarman, now almost blind, to trawl through hours of his own archive and he never saw the finished film. What it showed, however, was the significance the reels held for the filmmaker, and how much he loved what contributor Sarah Turner calls their “alchemy of mistakes”. It’s not that Jarman chose montage over meaning as a matter of preference, but that in the end it offered him a pathway to it. As he once said of his approach to film, “there are no big plans which have to be fulfilled”. Standing back and looking at his entire oeuvre, it’s the Super 8’s that finally prove this to be true.
Text by Imogen Greenhaigh
“Derek Jarman Super 8” by James Mackay is published by Thames & Hudson at £19.95
MORE: Cyprien Gaillard’s New Film “Nightlife” at Sprüth Magers
MORE: London’s Printed Image Pioneers