Jarman Retrospective Ends in Poignant ‘Blue’ at BAM/PFA

Blue

Pity the child who grows up experiencing loneliness alone. Who listens to Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” in earbuds instead of the full theater while Cohen performs. Who reads W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” alone in a library instead of hearing it amongst others at the graveside service.

Pity the child, too, who watches Derek Jarman’s Blue, chopped into 10-minute increments, on a three-and-a-half inch screen.

Berkeley’s BAM/PFA closes out its retrospective of the filmmaker Derek Jarman this week, and appropriately, organizers have chosen Jarman’s final, heartbreaking film, Blue. The film is an immersive experience of solitude that begs to be shared with others, and whether one has seen the film or not, the rare screening offers that very fruit of communion.

Visually, Blue is solely a blue screen, for 79 minutes. But the film’s discordant score and evocative narration—by Tilda Swinton, Nigel Terry, John Quinton and Jarman himself—create lasting, intimate images of the British filmmaker’s final days wrestling with complications from AIDS. The disease had rendered him blind, blue was all he saw, and thus blue is all the audience sees.

Short, sharp vignettes of frustrating visits to the hospital, to the optometerist, to the café—these are interwoven with Jarman’s commentary on the disease and the uselessness of AIDS-awareness campaigns. “I shall not win the battle against the virus, in spite of the slogans like ‘Living With AIDS,’” he intones at one point. “The virus was appropriated by the well, so we have to live with AIDS while they spread The Quilt for the moths of Ithaca across the wine dark sea.”

Aside from the intimacy of the film itself, the reason to specifically see it with others is akin to that of a book club. As the crowd of strangers leaves the theater after Blue, they’ve all technically seen the same thing, yet they’ve reflected their own differing personal resources of emotion and imagination. Jarman himself put it best in a BBC interview about Blue, right before his death:

“They see all sorts of things, of course, that they’re not seeing on the screen. And they’re really surprised by themselves. And they go on to this quite euphoric state.”

Let euphoria reign. On Thursday, let Blue in.

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Gabe Meline

Gabe Meline is an award-winning writer and editor who lives with his wife, his daughter, a 1964 Volvo and too many records in his hometown of Santa Rosa, CA. Find him on Twitter at @gmeline.

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