Apr 7, 2013

The Garden

British arthouse auteur Derek Jarman must have spent a lot of time reflecting on his life and the world he lived in his prized, meticulously cared for personal garden as many gay men seem to do, or at least one would most assume so after watching his celluloid odyssey The Garden (1990) – a highly personal HIV-infected celluloid work that was filmed in the filmmaker’s gloomy yet strangely gorgeous coastal home of Dungeness in Kent, and around his personal garden and the nuclear power plant that surrounded it. Like his previous cinematic experiment in extra-extravagant non-linear filmmaking The Last of England (1988), The Garden would be described by Jarman as “home-movie making really gone sort of slightly grand” and had been a serious project in the filmmaker’s mind since 1987, even if he never bothered with writing a script or any other such bollocks for what would be a particularly personal, if not exceedingly esoteric and metaphysical film. Somewhere between a delightful daydream of the best of what England has to offer in terms of organic scenery and traditional culture, and a nefarious and nauseating nightmare sequence featuring a lynched leather-fag's attempt at advertising credit cards and the voyeuristic whoring out of Mother Mary via the paparazzi, The Garden is indubitably one of the last magical and majestic works of British cinema of the positively poesy sort, not to mention a politically incorrect portrayal of poofters in jolly olde England, even if the film itself is an attack on the powers that persecute bourgeois gays who refrain from dining in the tearooms and maintain monogamous relationships. The last major film Jarman worked on before AIDS became too debilitating of a disease in its destruction of the filmmaker’s body, The Garden was followed by more minimalistic works including Edward II (1991); a pomo homo take on the supposedly bisexual and murdered monarch, Wittgenstein (1993); an aesthetically and thematically Brechtian take on the Austrian Jewish philosopher of temper tantrums and tautology, and rather sad cinematic swansong Blue (1993); a work featuring a mere blue screen where the director discusses his life and Weltanschauung. While making Blue, Jarman was losing his vision and dying from complications of AIDS, thus it acts in stark aesthetic contrast to the ever so keenly kaleidoscopic and virtually wordless piece of hermetic homophile Christ-worship, The Garden, an exceedingly subversive slice of strangely spiritual sanctified sodomy assembled by an auteur when he was at the height of his powers as a cinematic artist, but also in touch with death. Featuring the artist himself, Derek Jarman, as the heavy sleeper in his own little Anglophile oasis and the filmmaker’s muse Tilda Swinton with a messianic child, as well as a soothing score by post-industrial group COIL, Goth/Darkwave group Miranda Sex Garden, and musician/composer Simon Fisher Turner (who, on top of providing scores for Jarman's Caravaggio (1986) and The Last of England (1988), also created music for the David Lynch produced film Nadja (1984)), The Garden is the closest thing to a 'poofter Passion of the Christ.'

 In Derek Jarman’s The Garden, the general atmosphere seems to be somewhere in between paradise and on the eve of the abberosexual apocalypse. Whilst sleeping in a brass bed in a shallow pool of water, he is encircled by topless men and women in white pants who are carrying torches. When not gathering mushrooms in the garden, Mother Madonna (Tilda Swinton at the height of her pulchritude) and her infant son are bombarded by brazen and terrorist-like members of the paparazzi sporting ski masks in balaclavas. Indeed, the thugs of photo journalism even see it fit to physically assault the mother of Christ until she is separated from her forsaken son. Meanwhile, two handsome homo lovers, one with the physical appearance of an Anglo-Saxon Nordic and the other an Atlantic Mediterranean, bask in the beauty of the local beaches and seductive scenery, but things are not so serene as they seem. Among other things, a leather-fag Judas hanging from the rope he committed self-slaughter with and a creepy corporate conman go about promoting credits cards and usury in a sin-saluting fashion. Even more aesthetically abhorrent, a swarthy and Semitic-like broad who seems to have crawled out of a crack in early twentieth century vaudeville hell advertises that one should ‘think pink’ (a song apparently taken from the Audrey Hepburn vehicle Funny Face (1957)) and sports preposterous all-pink clothing, which the two gay men do too, but will ultimately help lead to their downfall at the hands of less handsome members of the Christian church who arrest, tar and feather, torture, and ultimately kill the seemingly happy-go-lucky and kindhearted dudes into Dorian love. In the more rock-ridden areas of the garden, naked men crawl around like enslaved animals as if they are some sort of fallen fags in homo Hades, not to mention the fact a group of hysterical females in colorful dresses brutalize a cross-dressing shemale while pernicious paparazzi terrorists document the whole event. While laying in bed together in the privacy of their own home, the two male lovers are assaulted by a trio of evil men dressed as Santa Claus who document their gayness as evidence. Soon after, the two sacrificial sodomites are in a sauna from a sort of Greco-Roman pandemonium in a scene that includes an appearance from Jarman regular and all-around creepy cocksucker Jack Birkett. With all the torture and death, The Garden still ends on a rather happy note. 

 According to Derek Jarman biographer Tony Peake, regarding The Garden, “as the film’s maker, Jarman himself would dream his film into being. The garden would be the gardens of both Eden and Gethsemane, while the landscape of Dungeness, with its boats and fishermen, would be a Sea of Galilee. There would be an actual Christ, whose appearance and passion would be mirrored and intercut by that of two gay lovers who, at moments, would share his torments. This enabled Jarman to focus more powerfully and bitterly than in previous versions on the attitudes of the Church to gay men and its role in the AIDS crisis. He hoped to show that, thanks to St. Paul’s proscriptions against homosexuality, the Church had lost sight of Christ’s original message of love.” Personally, I have nil interest in the Church’s relationship to gaydom, but Jarman certainly assembled a transcendent cinematic work with The Garden that does not bow down to political correctness; be it of the LGBT police or Christianity variety. In fact, Jarman regarded The Garden as a thoroughly Christian film and apparently likened it to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to Matthew (1964) and, indeed, the film expresses more church learning than the average Pentecostal could take in in two lifetimes. Religious and sociopolitical messages aside, in terms of aesthetics, The Garden stands up with Jarman’s most breathtaking works, including The Angelic Conversation (1985), The Last of England (1988), and War Requiem (1989) as a film that follows in a rich tradition of intricate tableaux, high camp, and subversive kitsch, not unlike the works of Sergei Parajanov, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Werner Schroeter.  Undoubtedly, while the average art antagonistic would probably see Jarman as a cinematic anti-Christ of sorts, Jarman was a Christ of celluloid who waged a virtual one-man revolution against the Hebrew hacks of Hollywood and proved he had a 'passion for Christ' as he could do more with a consumer grade Super-8 camera than they could with all the money and technology in the world, with The Garden being the cinematic Book of Revelation of his oeuvre.

-Ty E

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