19.05.05 Mills, Derek Jarman's Medieval Modern

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Derrick Higginbotham

The Medieval Review 19.05.05

Mills, Robert. Derek Jarman's Medieval Modern. Medievalism. Woodbridge, UK: D.S.Brewer, 2018. pp. xvii, 249. ISBN: 978-1-84384-493-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Derrick Higginbotham
University of Hawai'i at Manoa
deh2@hawaii.edu

Robert Mills' Derek Jarman's Medieval Modern is a lively read, filled both with detail and insight, especially for anyone interested in contemporary expressions of medievalism as well as theories of historicism and queer temporalities. Most known as a filmmaker and painter, Jarman willfully engaged with the past and the politics of its representation, notably in his films Edward II, an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's 1594 history play, and Caravaggio, a biography of the early modern Italian painter. Mills takes this well-known element of Jarman's work, expanding it appreciably in order to explore the intricate ways that Jarman made medieval culture especially central to his creative process for most, if not all, of his films. To illustrate his arguments, Mills draws upon a deep archive of Jarman's works and life, including his films, his paintings, his published journals, his notebooks in which he sketched out film scenes and narratives, and his personal library at Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, where Jarman lived the latter part of his life until his death from HIV/AIDS in 1994. The book itself has sixteen color plates, with numerous stills from Jarman's movies as well as photographs of artworks that inspired him, so that it contains ample visual and textual evidence to back-up the claims that Mills makes about Jarman's investment in the Middle Ages as "the paradise of my imagination," to cite Jarman's own phrasing in his 1991 book, Modern Nature (1).

Broken into four chapters, Derek Jarman's Medieval Modern starts in chapter one by establishing the ways that Jarman interacted with medieval culture in order to disrupt the notion of a linear chronology that presents time uniformly and often locks phenomena into its immediate historical environment (35). Instead, Jarman sought out materials from earlier historical periods, promiscuously moving things and ideas across time periods traditionally classified as distinct to create an asynchrony that challenges audience's expectations about the past and present. That asynchrony, Mills observes, already inheres in medieval culture; to make this point he uses the example of an image from the fifteenth-century Rohan Hours in which varied parts of an individual's timeline--the last words on the deathbed, the transportation to the grave, the judgement of the soul--all appear pictorially in one image, blurring together these supposedly sequenced events to generate its own kind of moving image (33-4). With this in mind, Mills contends that other Jarman films besides Edward II and Caravaggio can be considered 'medieval' since they imagine "alternatives to linear or sequential concepts of time," alternatives inspired by Jarman's contact with medieval culture (37).

Having established that broad framework, Mills, in the second chapter, concentrates on specific strategies that Jarman employed in his films to create odd temporal effects like his use of anachronism. When discussing Edward II, Mills observes that Jarman includes, in different scenes, props like a Christmas tree and a toy robot, along with the tableaux of the gay rights group Outrage! staging a protest, which is a part of the film's finale, to depict his historical vision of King Edward II's downfall and demise. These objects and events from the present "generate a congested sense of 'now-time' in which different histories jarringly collide," and this collision is a palimpsest of sorts, with multiple time frames superimposed on one another (73). Mills convincingly asserts that these deliberate uses of anachronism stress that various pasts continue to resonate with the present, making its temporal richness visible. While he persuasively makes this claim, he does not theorize as much about why Jarman sought to link modern forms of homophobia--the object of Outrage!'s protest--to medieval expressions of fear of same-sex desire or bonds. In other words, Mills does not offer readers in-depth readings of individual films. Rather, Mills makes broader connections across Jarman's oeuvre, zigzagging between different pieces of medieval literature and art and various pieces of Jarman's work so as to illustrate the frequency with which Jarman was inspired by the culture of the Middle Ages.

Chapter three displays the powerfulness of Mills' method in its exploration of Jarman's encounters with space, reading, and memory. Mills begins by looking at Jarman's 1972 painting The Pleasure of Ruins in conjunction with his film, Studio Bankside, from the same year, which documents the building and streets around his studio in Bankside, London, in the last days before its scheduled demolition. Jarman's interest in documenting this space just before its destruction becomes, for Mills, an example of the pleasure that Jarman took in ruins. Using Jarman's notebooks, Mills connects this pleasure to Jarman's reading, especially his interest in the Old English poem The Ruin, which, as Mills demonstrates, resonated for Jarman because of its portrayal of a crumbing mead hall after sickness and slaughter decimated those who inhabited it. This ruin reminded Jarman of his own fate as someone with HIV, caught up in a pestilence that was destroying him and others. Inspired by this association, Jarman constructed his own vision of a city and nation laid waste in his 1987 film The Last of England, a poetic meditation on the end of a certain vision of England as Thatcher's homophobic and repressive government policies reshaped the country. Mills, to fortify this argument, delves into Jaman's book Kicking the Pricks in which he contemplates The Last of England, imagining the film as analogous to the mead hall in Beowulf, which Jarman describes as a space opened to, and cleansed by, the elements. The peculiar image Jarman uses of a mead hall with a swallow flying through it, however, does not appear in Beowulf but in Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England. In an episode from Bede, the image of the swallow flying through a hall metaphorically refers to the transience of human life. Mills argues that Jarman's conflation of Beowulf and Bede--whether accidental or not--captures his salvaging spirit, his efforts to recover memories and ideas--fragments from the past--and then rework them into a film like The Last of England. Mills beautifully renders Jarman's associations, highlighting the "temporal thickness" of his artwork, an associative thickness that vividly depicts Jarman's unexpected indebtedness to medieval culture (135).

The fourth and final chapter of Derek Jarman's Medieval Modern continues to explore the meaning of space, shifting from Jarman's interest in ruins to his focus on wandering, on journeying through spaces, physical and psychic. In a pithy example, Mills recalls that Jarman inserts into Edward II a scene in which a poet reads the first lines of Dante's The Divine Comedy to King Edward and his lover, Gaveston; in these lines, the poet-narrator describes how in the middle of life, he loses his way, strays from the 'straight' path, which frames Edward's experience as a certain kind of pilgrimage, a wandering away from the normative. As Mills demonstrates, the "spatiotemporal confusion" that wandering can energize also enabled Jarman to explore the experiences of dreaming, of cruising for sex, and of living with HIV/AIDS in his artworks (146-7). Here, Mills could have linked his analysis to other queer theorists invested in notions of losing one's way, such as J. J. Halberstam in his The Queer Art of Failure or Sara Ahmed's in her Queer Phenomenology, to name two, given their interest in queerness as a deviation from normative pathways.

In this chapter, Mills further uncovers that Jarman draws upon the medieval genre of dream visons in his films. Jarman's 1990 film The Garden intertwines a story about a gay male couple who are arrested, tortured, and murdered with scenes drawn from the Gospels, ending with an elegy to Jarman's friends lost in the epidemic. All three dimensions of the film--the story of the gay male couple, the narrative of Christ's life, and the elegy to lost friends--make socio-political violence and loss central to its vision. He starts this film, though, with a shot of himself as the Dreamer, asleep at his desk, suggesting that what follows is a certain kind of reverie; at the same time, he recalls dreams visions by Chaucer, Langland, and other medieval writers that start with an image of the dreamer falling asleep. It is that moment of sleeping that gives license to the subsequent vision. Not only does this illuminate Jarman's reliance upon medieval modes of representation, but it also, via the stress on dreaming, shows his investment in "rambling as an aesthetic principle," which explains the more poetic cast to his later films like The Last of England, The Garden, and Blue, with their refusal of linear plotlines. Jarman employs such a refusal to inspire audiences' interpretive skills, to invite them in to make meaning with him, via his art (157).

Mills' short conclusion highlights some of the key points he makes over the course of this book, but it is not as richly developed as it could be. He stresses three interrelated points that he learned in his examination of Jarman's use of medieval culture: Mills defends anachronism as an intellectual and pedagogic strategy that does not violate historical reconstruction since it can make perceptible the ways that past and present inform each other; he underscores that sexual categories, especially identity categories, are "necessary errors" (177), inspiring connections across time that simultaneously can be limiting to the diversity of the past; and he critiques historical practice as too invested in disinterested and dispassionate modes of analysis, compared to Jarman's intimate and emotionally inspired connections with the cultural products of earlier historical periods. Throughout, Mills sounds a note about Jarman's dislike of the ways that governments and institutions like museums create "heritage culture" (131), a culture that freezes objects and ideas in a chronological sequence, unable to move around temporally, so that they are more limited in their signification. More reflection on this critical approach, linking it overtly to the use of anachronism, could have lent the conclusion additional verve, the kind of verve fitting of Jarman's creative spirit. Furthermore, Mills' turn to the problem of terminology when referring to sexual identities and practices over time--a debate that Mills organizes around the terms 'gay' and 'queer'--seems overly casual since he does not develop a complex stand on this problem that has haunted the history of sexuality since its inception, with, for example, John Boswell and Michel Foucault's debates in the 1980s on essentialism versus nominalism in historical practice. In the end, I wanted a more robust meditation on the impact that Jarman's work could have on our understanding of historicism as a scholarly method and the consequences, intellectual and political, of centering asynchrony in our reconstructions of the past.

It is a testament, though, to Mills' accomplishment that Derek Jarman's Medieval Modernstimulates such desires for more. The best of scholarly work not only proffers new insights, which Mills does in his examination of Jarman's artworks and their indebtedness to medieval culture, but it also incites readers to add to the discussion, to enlarge thinking, in this case, about the practice of reconstructing the history of sexuality. Just as Jarman poetically arranged images, particularly in his later films, to put ideas into motion, encouraging audiences to make meaning out of the sensations that words, sounds, and images could excite, Mills puts into motion arguments that inspire readers to turn, and return, to the problems and questions that historicism, as a disciplinary method, raises, all in an effort not to ossify the past, politically and interpretively.

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