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To say that the late Derek Jarman employs a cinematic style in his semi-memoir, At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament, would be to broach cliché, yet the comparison is so necessary in this case that one is reminded that clichés become clichés because at some point in their existence they contained a kernel of truth.
At Your Own Risk is not a linear work at all, although it does have structure, in that Jarman divides his reminiscences and well-aimed rants by the decades in which he lived, from the 1940s through the 1990s (Jarman died of AIDS in 1994). Otherwise the work hits one with the swift jump-cuts and quick edits one finds in Jarman’s early, short experimental films of the late sixties and early seventies and in his final film, Glitterbug, released after his death.
The book’s subtitle, A Saint’s Testament, derives from an event late in Jarman’s life, when the U.K. branch of the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, that cloister of rambunctious nuns dedicated to sexual happiness everywhere, bestowed sainthood upon Jarman for “all he does for the lesbian and gay community, and because ‘he has a very sexy nose.’” Truth be told, At Your Own Risk is the story not of just one man’s sexual journey but of an entire generation of gay men who grew up pre-Stonewall and suffered the indignities so easily ladled out by schoolmasters and policemen and hypocritical men of the church who derided sexual “deviancy” while practicing it themselves in private. These were men who could attend gay bars but not touch each other in them. They saw the Wolfenden Report call for the legalization of homosexual relations in 1967, only to see, twenty years later, such decriminalization blunted by passage of Section 28 of the Local Government Act, which said local authority shall not “promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality” or promote “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.” (Section 28 was repealed in the UK in the early 2000’s.)
At Your Own Risk is, finally, the chronicle of the first generation of gay men devastated by onset of The Plague, a time when ignorance and misinformation were rampant and were as culpable in the deaths of so many men as the virus itself. People were led to believe that casual contact, such as hugging or shaking hands, could transmit the virus. Quarantines were called for. Men with HIV positive status were often detained in hospitals against their will. And politicians of varying philosophical stripes used the issue like a sledgehammer to promulgate their odious ideologies.
Borrowing a page from Orwell’s 1984, Jarman terms this general oppression against gays and lesbians Heterosoc, the prevailing notion that only heterosexual love is relevant and that any deviation from such a mode must not only be discouraged by punished; and while his own upbringing in a middle-class British family headed by a career military man was no nightmare of rejection and misunderstanding, and while he went on to attain an international reputation as a visionary film-maker and artist, Jarman was not immune to the shocks of Heterosoc. Later in his life he was excoriated by one film critic who accused Jarman of using his HIV positive status as a means of attaining media martyrdom.
Otherwise little is mentioned of Jarman’s film-making. We do get to see some of his artistic development in the 1960’s, a time when he not only discovered same-sex romantic relations but also friendships with the likes of David Hockney and others. We learn that, as with most artists, work was a refuge for Jarman, not only as he faced the self-imposed abstinence following his HIV positive diagnosis but the general isolation common to anyone who pursues seriously creative endeavor.
Art is secondary in the book. Its main concern is the justice that has so long been absent in the lives of gay men and lesbians and that must be accorded them if we are to live in a truly fair society.
AT YOUR OWN RISK: A SAINT’S TESTAMENT
by Derek Jarman
University of Minnesota Press
Paperback, $18.95, 152p