So Long Ago… Derek Jarman’s The Garden.



Created by sheer force of will in what turned out to be the waning years of legendary British filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman, 1990’s The Garden wields its catch-as-catch-can aesthetic as overtly as possible.  The result is a garish jumble, primarily devoid of plot and almost entirely devoid of dialogue.  The exceptions to the latter are the occasional lulling but direct narration by Michael Gough (Alfred in the 1990’s Batman movies), and the intermittent “bits” that occur throughout the film.  Mostly if not fully, The Garden is the anguished brain dump of a dejected outsider not long for this world.

Jarman by this time had earned his reputation as a bold filmmaker of intense personal vision.  Yet, being an openly gay man in Thatcher’s England, funding for his projects was always a challenge to procure.  Consequently, by this point, the great Derek Jarman was reduced to filming his last film proper (if one doesn’t count 1993’s Blue, which visually consists of one long blue screen with poignant voiceover) in his backyard.  Fortunately, his backyard was quite expansive; meticulously arranged yet hauntingly desolate.  It was simply dubbed “The Garden”.  So too is the film.

In it, we bear witness to strange and even horrific vignettes.  The Garden is at its most effective when it goes full-on deranged, ala David Lynch or late Fellini.  The sight of two innocent gay lovers trapped in various panoplies of madness is hard to watch, as they get tarred, feathered, and pointlessly humiliated again and again.  Far less effective are the handful of short “bits” that Jarman attempts.  For instance, a mugging Judas Iscariot peddling a credit card in a fake ad.  No thanks… With the exception of Gough and a young Tilda Swinton, the film is entirely populated with non-actors; acquaintances of Jarman in his personal life.  All of the experimental film occurs either in a cheap greenscreen video netherworld or in Jarman’s own famed Garden.

Built in the shadow of a looming nuclear power station, Jarman’s chemical and rock garden is no ornate tra-la-la affair.  His is 100% art installation, a physical manifestation of what his state of mind must’ve been.  HIV-positive and thoroughly dejected for several years, Jarman’s plotless expression The Garden is, if nothing else, an honest barrage of anguish.  Whether he’s depicting/implying his garden at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, Kent or the Garden of Eden or the Garden of Gethsemane, the surroundings are never familiar.

Amid The Garden’s continuance of unsettling immersion, Jarman does indeed seize upon Biblical imagery to communicate the systemic hypocrisy all around him.  Though in acknowledgment of his own place of privilege as an artist of some success and renown, the filmmaker goes full-on late ‘80s/early ‘90s queer avant-garde- confrontational, confounding, and counter to any other type of cinema.  In this approach, The Garden joins Todd Haynes’s Poison as, first and foremost, the lashing out of a wounded id.  A movie that desperately wishes it didn’t need to exist.

Kino Lorber has done a fine job of packing the disc with reflective interviews with several of Jarman’s associates.  All the interviews take an understandably somber tone, and each was conducted specifically for this release.  Additionally, film historian Samm Deighan has an excellent audio commentary track, discussing The Garden in the contexts of Jarman’s life and career as well as the AIDS epidemic that was allowed to run rampant in the gay community back then.  The picture quality of the film itself, what with its ostentatious uses of rudimentary superimposition and low-rez feel, is what it is.  And probably as good as it’s ever been.

Deighan points out that Jarman is not attacking Christianity so much as he’s appropriating some of its more powerful tropes in the interest of his feverish symbolism.  Even as the principalities, kingdoms and their rulers have all abandoned him, it’s religious iconography that he’s left with.  That, and horror.  In a time when AIDS and all the death it brought was nothing short of apocalyptic, the illogical grotesque is the final logic remaining.  

In only a few short years, AIDS would claim Jarman.  But already, his Garden was yielding only death.