And so time marches on, stopping only to produce ironies. Derek Jarman’s Jubilee, its very title a sarcastic reference to Queen Elizabeth II’s twenty-five years in office, is reissued by the BFI on dual format for its own ruby anniversary. The disc is released a week or so after the 92nd official birthday of the monarch it depicts being killed in a botched mugging. It now resembles a time capsule of punk culture, a subculture whose rallying cry was “No future!” and which wasn’t that keen on the past either.
Given all this, it’s no surprise that the most common response to Jubilee is that it’s dated. Common and misguided. Jubilee has plenty to offer for anyone looking for punk-era style tips, and it features acting and musical performances from the likes of Toyah Wilcox, Ari Up, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Jayne County and a pre-superstardom Adam Ant. All of this is enjoyable, but it’s not the point. Jarman, as ever, was drawn towards the mystical and archaic. He wanted to use this scene to make a statement about the strain of anarchy in British culture, pitting the pop paganism of the punks against a more authoritarian, reactionary kind of Britishness he located in the monarchy. The irresistible historical irony of the Sex Pistols’ brief moment in the sun happening during the Queen’s Silver Jubilee was his jumping-off point – but it is only a jumping-off point.
The film begins in the court of Jenny Runacre’s Queen Elizabeth I. The Virgin Queen is depicted as she was seen by Edmumd Spenser and Virginia Woolf, as a figure around whom strange, esoteric, queer-in-every-sense phenomena swirl. She is accompanied by Ariel, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and a strange real-life historical figure – the alchemist and sorcerer Dr. John Dee, who was one of Elizabeth’s most trusted advisors. Jarman was a great fan of Dee’s, to the extent that, when David Bowie met the director to discuss a role in his unmade film Neutron, the singer took flight on seeing Jarman’s collection of Dee memorabilia.
Bowie had, after all, fought his way out of a cocaine-aggravated occult obsession in the late ’70s, and was unwilling to go back to the days when he claimed to have seen a strange mystical sigil burned on the bottom of his LA swimming pool. That incident is referenced when Elizabeth I and her entourage turn up on a modern wasteland, leaving a huge glyph scorched into the ground. Elsewhere, the occult references are less visually spectacular, but just as pointed. Ariel first appears in a flash of light caused by the sun reflecting off a mirror he’s holding, which is undoubtedly an affordable way to achieve this effect but it also resembles scrying, the technique historical mystics like Dee used to induce a trance, which was rediscovered in the 1960s by Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs.
Your tolerance for Jubilee will be determined by whether you found that last sentence fascinating or an impossibly pretentious analysis of a cheap special effect. It’s always very tempting to call Jarman pretentious, but Jubilee isn’t, on two counts. Firstly, there is no pretence – Jarman really knows this stuff. Secondly, it’s funny. Jarman’s way into the punk scene was not Malcolm McLaren or Greil Marcus, it was Jordan, the punk scenester and sometime manager of Adam and the Ants who he’d already made a super 8 short with. (Strangely, this short – Jordan’s Dance – is not included in the BFI’s extras, although a half-hour chat with Jordan is) Her character, “Amyl Nitrate”, is introduced in a pink librarian’s cardigan and pearls, giving a polite cough before reading from her self-penned anarchist history book. She praises serial killers and denounces all leaders as equally tyrannical, before getting very upset when someone breaks her Winston Churchill mug.
This satirical attitude towards punk ethos earned Jarman the wrath of Vivienne Westwood, who produced a t-shirt emblazoned with a hilariously pompous ‘open letter’ to the director, accusing him of getting anarchism and liberty wrong. But is it so far from the truth? Even before punk broke into the mainstream, Jordan had complained tourists would often stop her so they could take a photograph with an authentic English punk. It’s the sort of anecdote that could have come straight out of Jarman’s script, which considers the commodification of punk as being completely inevitable. Amyl and her friends are preyed upon by Borgia Ginz, an outrageously camp property tycoon and record company manager, who hails his new signing as “like pornography – better than the real thing!”
The script is full of quotable lines – I love Adam Ant’s response to being asked what he does (“Er, nothing, I’m a musician”). But there is also a deep sense of concern about the way the country is headed, and Jarman isn’t sure the punks are part of the solution. Toyah Wilcox’s Mad briefly exposes the dark side of punk disaffection, only half-sarcastically telling her friend Bod “if you’re so bored, you should join the National Front!” But Bod (a second role for Runacre) has anxieties too deep to be soothed by racist violence. She worries that the country lacks electricity, that “maybe it’s fused”. She loses interest in sex, often wandering around naked in a manner that suggests she’s forgotten other people might find it provocative. For all his venality, Ginz appears to have hit the nail on the head when he describes the punks as “the generation who grew up and forgot to lead their lives”.
Does that sound like a dated idea to you? For all the distancing effects of the fashion and music, there’s a lot in Jubilee that feels fiercely contemporary. The 21st century reassessment of Jarman has included his work as a nature writer; Modern Nature, his book about his garden, was recently republished by Vintage Classics. There’s a playful prefiguring of this in the character of Max, an ex-soldier who lovingly tends to his collection of garden gnomes, but also a serious visual engagement with the strange beauty of the British edgelands. Bod’s murder of Elizabeth II is shot from a distance, the foreground overrun by weeds. It’s one of many haunting, poetic moments in a film too often dismissed as a state-of-the-nation rant. Not that it isn’t a state-of-the-nation rant – but it’s also a haunting visual poem, a sociological study, a camp black comedy, and probably a thousand other things I’m forgetting. And all of it is pure Jarman.