Sep 11, 2012

The Angelic Conversation



Undoubtedly one of the more interesting (aborted) projects of his filmmaking career, British auteur Derek Jarman described his unrealized film The Angelic Conversation of John Dee, as a “dialogue between Queen Elizabeth I and Dr. John Dee in which Dr. Dee unfolds the mechanics of the universe with the aid of his scrying mirror and the intervention of the Angel Ariel.” While Jarman began working on pre-production for the project in the late 1975/early 1976 while still in the process of editing his first feature-length effort Sebastiane (1976) – the first cinematic work recorded entirely and meticulously in Latin and arguably the first 'pro-gay' British film – he failed to get funding for The Angelic Conversation of John Dee and instead began obsessing over an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s eponymous play The Tempest, of which he described as the famous playwright's, “most personal and internalized comment on his condition” that was used to, “liberate himself from the known limits of man and to attempt a reconciliation.” Although inevitably abandoning The Angelic Conversation of John Dee and later directing The Tempest (1979), Jarman would eventually assemble a similarly titled work The Angelic Conversation (1985) that drew crucial inspirational from both of the previous projects, but composed of a new 'conversation' entirely. Originally entitled Psychic Billy’s Angelic Conversation during its embryonic stages, Jarman described the film in his reflective cinematic poem The Last of England (1988) as, “a series of slow-moving sequences through a landscape seen from the windows of an Elizabethan house. Two young men find and lose each other. The Film ends in a garden.” Featuring 14 Shakespeare sonnets narrated by Shakespearean actress Judi Dench (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, A Room with a View) and an original score by English experimental industrial group Coil set to languidly-moving footage of often obfuscated landscapes and handsome young men in sometimes homoerotic, but mostly companion-less, situations, The Angelic Conversation is a scrupulously nuanced non-narrative work that demands active yet reposed contemplation and meditation from the viewer. In an early outline of the film, Jarman himself described his intent with The Angelic Conversation as, “The cinema of noise, a film which does not dictate to the audience, allows the mind to wander and draws its own conclusions," thus it is a decidedly avant-garde work that is probably only accessible to dedicated cinephiles, post-industrial/neofolk fans, and individuals who enjoy getting lost in European museums.



 Aesthetically, The Angelic Conversation resembles what alpha-neofolk group Death In June would have probably envisioned had they had someone direct a feature-length film for their classic album Nada! (1985) as testified by the settings, poses, and outfits used by the band for promo photographs. Of course, Derek Jarman did not find his most vital influence for The Angelic Conversation from the neofolk scene, but in the seemingly unlikely subculture of psychobilly music. After hopelessly swooning over a suave 26-year-old PhD student named Paul Reynolds (Beastmaster, Press Gang) – a man who the director felt epitomized everything that was seductive and amorous about psychobilly – Jarman found one of his most personal influences for The Angelic Conversation. During the filming of The Angelic Conversation, Jarman was also able to capture the subtle romantic gestures of Reynolds and his short-lived lover Philip Williamson as their relationship blossomed and eventually withered away quite organically through the production of the work, hence the title the 'The Angelic Conversation' and the film’s opening quote: “Love is too young to know what conscience is. Yet who knows not conscience is born of love.” Although a cinematic work about two individuals discoursing through gesture, The Angelic Conversation, like much of Jarman’s work, is a film that romanticizes over a forgotten and more cultivated past; juxtaposing images of contemporary post-industrial world via images of burning cars and cold concrete buildings with footage of elegant, aristocratic-like young men adorned with flowers and Elizabethan jewelry. Often described as Jarman’s most intimate effort and a work embodying his distinct homophile weltanschauung, The Angelic Conversation is an undeniable auteur-piece about penetrating passions and paralyzing personal obsession, thereupon making the film's 'conversation,' like Jarman's final work Blue (1993), a mostly self-reflective one. Although an innately ‘gay’ arthouse work, The Angelic Conversation must not be pigeonholed into the marginal realm of queer cinema as it features nil of its more typical (and someone would say terrible) trappings, most specifically nihilistic self-loathing and debauched sexual grotesquery, that are prevalent in works by fellow homo-auteur filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Gregg Araki, and Bruce LaBruce. Akin to the cinematic works of German New Wave auteur Werner Schroeter (Der Tod der Maria Malibran, Der Rosenkönig), who was also know for his 'auteur excess', The Angelic Conversation is a virtual painting-in-motion that takes more aesthetic influence from a classic artistic medium (not unlike the pioneering films of F.W. Murnau) than one it was created within, but then again, Derek Jarman – who got his start in cinema as stage-designer (most notably working on Ken Russell’s The Devils) – always considered himself more of a painter than a filmmaker's filmmaker.



Although technically a feature-length film, The Angelic Conversation is essentially a short film that was stretched out to 78-minutes. Out of curiosity, I personally reedited the film at about ten times the speed just to see the result and I must say that sped up, The Angelic Conversation loses a lot of its artistic resonance and soothing properties as Jarman assembled the film so as to give the sensibility of a perpetual dream of ecstasy with a looming tinge of postmodern doom, as validated in his description of the film: "a dream world, a world of magic and ritual, yet there are images there of the burning cars and radar systems, which remind you there is a price to be paid in order to gain this dream in the face of a world of violence." Indeed, The Angelic Conversation is a welcome piece of poetic escapism for those dissatisfied with modernity and the mechanical, uncouth Hollywood movies that are symbiotic of it. Although not Jarman’s greatest cinematic work (I would go with War Requiem), The Angelic Conversation is quite possibly his purest and most uncompromisingly effort as an auteur filmmaker and as an artist. 


-Ty E

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