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You might remember the opening scene of Sebastiane—the first film recorded entirely in Latin—which depicts a score of Roman boys dancing lustfully while wielding barber-pole penises in celebration of the Emperor’s return. How could you forget? The scene only ends with a dozen synchronized orgasms. Derek Jarman’s films are not all quite this explicit, but they have consistently been trailed by controversy, praise, and unconditional devotion from fans.
First published privately as Queerlife in the 1970s, Dancing Ledge is Jarman’s own account of his life and art. The Young Turk tells how he had to negotiate the hostile environment of his time to produce his films. Financing was a persistent problem. At one point the UK’s Channel Four bought Sebastiane but then, surrendering to a homophobic attack by the media, assigned the print to collect dust on a shelf. “It must not be shown on television.”
Born out of the watershed changes taking place in Western gay culture during the 70s and 80s, Jarman’s films were groundbreaking for their positive depictions of homosexuality. The protagonists of his period pieces were pegs from which he hung character exposition: tableaus that would offer insight into evolving notions of gay male bonding throughout history. Of Caravaggio, his film about the Renaissance painter’s life, he said, “The problem is that I’ve written a self-portrait filtered through the Caravaggio story, which is of course not in any way Caravaggio’s life.” He was striving to usher in new ways of seeing the present by connecting them to the past.
Pursuant to this agenda, Jarman, a long-time AIDS activist, was eager to solve the problems of society. Holding a mirror up to the mouth of the art world and noting that it was dying, he observed in a passage that is eerily prescient:
“In those days desires weren’t allowed to become reality. So fantasy was substituted for them—films, books, pictures, they called it art. But when your desires become reality you don’t need fantasy any longer, or art… Only when art is demoted to the ranks again, treated as nothing remarkable, will our culture start to breathe. The spurious individualism of the Renaissance, which both engendered and was born of capital, is dying. An art that began by collaborating with the banks of the Medici ends in bankruptcy on Wall St… Creativity in the future will be measured differently, no longer tied to commodity and worldly success. Then the civilization now vaunted in the media will be no civilization at all, its artifacts as alien as Mayan sculpture.”
Dancing Ledge is brimming with funny, albeit unconnected, anecdotes. If you are looking for a sequence of well-turned stories about an artist’s life in London, this is the place to find it.
by Derek Jarman
University of Minnesota Press