MOVIES | Derek Jarman’s luminous “Sebastiane”

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British filmmaker Derek Jarman was a rebel with a cause: illuminating the censored gay subtext of historical figures while embracing cinema’s wide visual vocabulary.

hear dean otto’s interview on the february 5th edition of art matters, archived at kfai.org.

The Walker Art Center’s tribute to Jarman at this year’s Expanding the Frame Film Festival is a wonderful opportunity to discover this queer cinema trailblazer. Jarman studyed painting and drawing in a London torn between the puritanical 1950s and the swinging ’60s, and his films range from underground Super 8 to 1980s music videos that financed his feature films. He also mentored many young filmmakers who continue to shape queer cinema; among them was Isaac Julien, whose documentary Derek provides more insights into Jarman’s life and art.

An underground hit that made money in 1975, Jarman’s first full length film Sebastiane re-imagines the story of the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian, who is usually depicted during his execution: bound to a post, pierced by arrows.

”Jarman was very rooted in the classics from his entire education and art training,” said Walker film curator Dean Otto in a KFAI interview. “Sebastian was an incredibly popular story to realize in paintings of the Italian Renaissance. Because of the way that Sebastian is posed while he’s being shot with arrows, it’s considered homoerotic.”

Sebastiane is a soldier in the Roman army, who falls from the Emperor’s favor when he converts to Christianity. Homosexuality appears to be an acceptable part of the milieu: the film opens with a zany opening scene depiciting a masculine “fertility rite,” and casual same-sex trysts raise no eyebrows. Yet, Jarman seems to suggest that what is acceptable as “sport” or sexual release when away from women, becomes not so acceptable when attached to love. Jarman creates a new myth from the Saint Sebastian story, where Christianity and real love between men are conflated as crimes against the state. Sebastiane becomes a holy resister to an authoritarian order that attempts to crush the soul along with the body.

“A lot of [Jarman’s] work has to do with religion, with taking down figures of power,” observes Otto. “That has to do with his personal history: going to religious boarding school and reacting to the punishment and pain he experienced there—and as a gay man.”

Raised most bluntly in his 1977 punk-dystopia film Jubilee, which is rife with the cynical attitude of the late 1970s and raw with gratuitous violence, Jarman’s theme of confronting authority is delivered with a gentler, though still willful, hand in Sebastiane. Sebastiane’s quiet, unwavering faith and his refusal to fight as a soldier may be a far bigger threat to brutal hierarchy than the firebombs of punk guerrillas.

Jarman’s painterly approach to filmmaking is present from the beginning of Sebastiane. Shots of Sebastiane being tortured are framed with high-contrast light and shadow, an approach no doubt inspired by the paintings of Michelangelo Caravaggio (to whom Jarman paid tribute with a poetic biopic).

With Sebastiane, Jarman created a luminous film centered on the beauty of the male body. This is a film for adults. Not at all “pornographic,” Jarman presents an ultimately innocent freedom simply expressed by nudity. Thirty years after it was made, Sebastiane remains a breakthrough film that depicts an exultant triumph of love over repression.

“His life and subject matter converge in his films,” says Otto. “His lasting legacy is how adventuresome he was visually and in his subject matter. It’s unlike any other film being made in Britain right now—which is mostly focused on Hollywood and box office. They don’t look at how a film will hold up in ten or twenty years. Jarman’s films definitely do!”

Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis writer, winner of the 2007 Premack Award for Public Interest Journalism. She hosts Catalyst: politics & culture on fridays at 11 a.m. on KFAI radio.

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