Derek Jarman is probably my favorite film director-- the only serious competition is Ulrike Ottinger-- and in several of his books he speaks about The Last of England (1987) as his masterpiece, which of course means it's the one of his films that is impossible to get for love or money, especially if you live in the U.S..
The Brattle just screened it as part of their currently ongoing Tilda Swinton festival. Tilda Swinton, very young at the time, turned out to play England. (I probably should have expected that, but somehow I didn't.)*
He was quite right about it being a masterpiece, and, again as I should have expected from Jarman, it has had me thinking very hard about the nature and purpose of art ever since.
The Last of England is definitely a movie. It's a post-apocalyptic dystopia shot entirely using the decay of the civil infrastructure present in Thatcher's England, and I could identify a narrative-- a pair of brothers, one of whom is subverted by his attempts to subvert a balaclava-wearing, machine-gun-toting agent of the state, so that their romance causes him to wind up in a mask with a gun himself, and the other of whom winds up shot by said state agents-- and there are a lot of interesting allusions to other works of art (the opening narration at one point quotes Howl and then veers crashingly into T. S. Eliot in what is either complete literary blasphemy or the way that line was always meant to end, possibly both).** There's a year-king thing, kind of, except he doesn't get up again, and the childhood of the brothers is portrayed using home videos from Jarman's own childhood, which is fascinating because his parents were among the latest chronologically of the dyed-in-the-wool servants of the British Raj and it shows. There's a vitriolic intellectual critique of just about everything about the concepts "England" and "British".
But the thing that had me reeling and trying desperately mentally to cope is that above all, and with absolute intentionality, The Last of England is not a movie. It is a curse.
I have spent a lot of time considering evil and its relationship, if any, to art, because I try to create art myself and I feel it is a responsible thing for any artist to consider. I could get into a long digression about what I believe about evil and what I don't, but suffice it to say I do believe in evil, and the principle way I have seen evil interact with art is that subset of art which actively attempts to harm the audience, for no reason other than that it can. That sort of art can do a great deal of damage, if one runs into it at the wrong time. The other major way I have seen evil interact with art is art that is promulgating an ideology of evil, a set of beliefs which make the world decidedly worse, such as the racism of D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.
I had never contemplated what I would think of a piece of art which is definitively opposed to an evil ideology-- Thatcherism, fascism, totalitarianism-- and which is doing everything in its power to harm, to hurt, to wreak havoc on, to destroy, and, if possible, to damn in the Biblical sense-- a set of people who are not the viewer.
When I say curse I mean it in a very old way. I mean that Derek Jarman was a great scholar, and he knew more about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century magic and alchemy than most academics, and he knew more about English witch-lore than any other authority I have ever encountered. And I don't know nearly as much about either as he did, but I know enough that this movie consistently raised the hairs on the back of my neck. I am... not quite sure that there is an attempt in and by this film to summon a specifically demonic presence. They may have been aiming for neutral. Or for angelic, and... missed, but I doubt that. I don't mean summoning in an obvious way, it's not like there are pentagrams on the floor, quite. It's done with light and fire and movement and the visual invocation of archetypes. It's done with dance and cross-dressing and other very careful costume.
And it's the precise kind of anger and pain turned into hatred that would cause a pastor to make serious inquiries as to the state of one's soul, and which might cause less theologically minded persons to mutter things about the abyss gazing back. Which is a concern Jarman eyes, and then discards, because this ideology, this thing that had happened to England under the rule of Thatcher and those around her, was to him worth that kind of hatred. And I think he came out of it all right as a human being and an artist himself, because he was objectively correct about that. But possibly only because he was objectively correct about that. The anger and pain and hatred here were so lacerating, so gorgeously done, so implacable and so beautiful that I kept wanting to hide, and it wasn't even aimed at me, he kept throwing in things to remind the audience that it isn't directed at us and honestly that does not help all that much.
Because with that sort of curse witnessing it is part of what drives it and makes it active.
I spent much of the film with some part of my mind trying to figure out if I thought it was moral to do this, to make this thing. Then I came down firmly and forever on the side that it is, because Tilda Swinton came in and played England.
We initially see Swinton's character in the memories of the one of the brothers who gets executed. She's wearing a sundress, and she's sitting in a field full of so many daffodils that it cannot read as naturalistic, even though, unlike most of the rest of the movie, the scene is shot in natural colors. She's his idealized love, that he won't ever be coming back to, and she's England itself, in both nurturing and colonialist aspects. "Don't be sad," we hear her say matter-of-factly as the bullets strike him: John Barleycorn is, after all, dead. She comes in next in full wedding dress and bridal veil, surrounded by attendants who are large and burly men dressed pretty much as Marie Antoinette, wedding a placeholder of a groom (the camera never focuses on his face) in a burned-out, rubble-strewn wreck of an industrial hangar. No dialogue, just the movements of the wedding, jerky smiles, everyone congratulating everybody else, Swinton eying a pram with an odd mixture of fear and longing. Earlier iconography has made it clear that the pram, though it does, of course, represent a baby, should also be taken to represent not a baby, but a cathexis of other ideas around fear and change and darkness.
And then we cut to Tilda Swinton outside, alone, by the water, by what looks like an industrial canal. There's a fire burning in an oil barrel next to her, a bonfire. She has scissors, and she tries to hack her way out of the wedding dress. It does not want to go. (It's really a lovely dress, by the way, in legitimately good taste, with about sixteen layers of veiling.) She rips at it with her fingers. She claws. She bites off parts of it. And these motions, without ever quite ceasing, turn themselves into a dance.
A line from a short story by Tanith Lee was running through my head during this scene, and it's still the only thing that comes to mind as anything resembling an adequate description: "... when she danced, a gate seemed to open in the world, and bright fire spangled inside it, but she was the fire."***
Have you ever seen something so transcendentally beautiful that you don't know how to think about it?
It's not just that this is the best thing Tilda Swinton has ever done on film, though it is, by such a distance that it's difficult to fathom. It's that I suspect it's one of the best things anyone has ever done on film. I am not exaggerating. Watching it is the kind of experience where you don't come away as exactly the same person.
Which she did, in full knowledge, in the service of Derek Jarman's curse.
All right, then. I consider it a moral action. Those few minutes are, by themselves, sufficient justification, and I don't see how the two of them, Jarman and Swinton, Tilda and Derek, could possibly have produced those few minutes out of hatred unless the hatred itself-- well-- to some degree contained within it all of that. Magical curses are, all the books say, perilous things, liable to come back on the caster unless their motives are completely pure. I have to take that dance as demonstration of impeccably pure motivations. I can't see what else it could be.
There are a lot of interesting things about this movie that I haven't even mentioned, of course. I finally understand why Jarman hated Peter Greenaway so much, because it turns out that for Prospero's Books, years later on, Greenaway swiped the aesthetic of some bits at the beginning of this movie that are set in Jarman's actual house and have Jarman playing himself. In fact, Greenaway even swiped Jarman's handwriting for use in his page overlays on the screen. I can see being upset by that. I would have been, too.
And there's the way almost all of the soundtrack is classical, except when it very much isn't. And the way that Jarman on several occasions intercuts between two separate scenes so quickly that persistence of vision forces you to believe that you are somehow watching both of them at the same time (well, and you get rather nauseated, which I don't think could be helped). And there's a scene with a man eating a cauliflower that totally defies all description; never had I imagined such a thing could be done with an innocent cruciferous vegetable. It's not remotely sexual. I'd almost prefer if it was.
But I've summed up the major things I've been pondering since watching the movie, and also it's five in the morning, so. A masterpiece. You should absolutely see it. But be wary.
* It occurs to me only now, writing this, that Swinton's role as both an allegorical England and a theoretically real young woman is an homage to Anna Magnani's stunning performance as the city of Rome in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Mamma Roma (1962). Somehow, all of the critical writing I have encountered on Mamma Roma fails to realize that she is the entire city incarnate and it gets shoved in with Pasolini's Neo-Realist period, which I am starting to think he never actually had. But I digress.
** I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness starving hysterical naked not with a bang but with a whimper
*** From Tanith Lee's "When The Clock Strikes". Worth noting that the character described has sold herself to Satan, and is also the agent of promulgating a curse.