February 9, 2014

Blue light

“No one will remember our work. Our life will pass like the traces of a cloud and be scattered like mist that is chased by the rays of the sun. For our time is the passing of a shadow and our lives will run like sparks through the stubble.”

I didn’t know when I saw Blue that Derek Jarman adapted those powerful and moving closing lines from the apocryphal Book of Wisdom/Wisdom of Solomon. They are delivered by voice-over against that unchanging blue screen, a blue based on Yves Klein. The sensation of that constant blue is that you are seeing what the artist is seeing, and hearing what he is thinking and remembering, as vision diminishes, and perhaps even consciousness. In those last moments, you disappear into blue memory. Blue sky, blue light, blue sea, blue depths. Blue was shown in European festivals and on British television before Jarman’s death in February 1994 – 20 years ago – but it didn’t reach New Zealand until after his death, acting for the quiet few (as I remember them) at an Auckland Film Festival screening as a requiem rather than an anticipation.

In the absence of much other information, in those years before the internet, I read and re-read the Festival’s programme notes, almost committing the text to memory:
Blue is 76 solid minutes of blue screen. And we don’t mean special effects thrown onto a hi-tech magic surface. We mean B-L-U-E screen. That single colour is projected sans alteration, inflection or interruption. Only the odd blemish on the celluloid or explosion of scratches at end of reel affords variety; those and the volatile perceptions of the viewer, nudged to see subtle visual changes even when there aren’t any by the film’s amazing soundtrack.
This aural cut-up of voices, music, and sound effects could be a career bookend to the imagistic cut-up with which Jarman began. There are musings on art, colour and infinity: ‘Blue transcends the solemn geography of human limits.’ There are dispatches from the AIDS frontline: “The doctor in St Bartholomew’s Hospital thought he could detect lesions in my retina…‘Look up, look down’ …blue flashes in my eyes.” There are fantasy sound-trips to far-off times or places: a café in Bosnia, a scene from Marco Polo’s travels (wind, goat bells, barking dogs, human cries). And there is Simon Fisher Turner’s astounding music: Jarman’s longtime composer pulling out all elemental stops as he places individual effects against an ostinato of chiming eternity (glockenspiel, Aeolian harp, wind chimes). 
The movie doesn’t so much move forward as swell around us. It’s all about an artist’s vision intensifying with failing sight. “In the bottom of your heart,” says the voiceover, “you pray to be released from the image.” And we are: released from it into new-created powers of seeing. -Harlan Kennedy, Film Comment, 11.12.93

Today I looked up the colour “blue” in Tessa Laird’s book A Rainbow Reader (Clouds Publishing, 2013), a guide to colour, and found her summary or perhaps a memory of the same viewing:
Blue is both a requiem the artist composed for himself, and for the entire homosexual holocaust of the 80s and 90s. But it is also a requiem for the human race, and our beautiful blue planet, which is ebbing, fading into irreversible illness, just as he is. In coming to terms with his own encroaching death, he is at least one step ahead of the rest of us.

If I was in London, I would watch it again at the Tate Modern.