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January 25 – February 11, 2019

Poets of Pandaemonium:
The Cinema of Humphrey Jennings and Derek Jarman

The films of Humphrey Jennings and Derek Jarman are separated by a gulf of decades, decades in which their native Britain metamorphosed from a world power into a melancholy little island. They were both radical in their employment of audiovisual montage, non-professional actors, and their frequent use of recited poetry, though Jennings utilized these techniques in the espousal of his signature brand of optimistic patriotism, while Jarman was preoccupied by the psychological strife of late-twentieth-century queer life. The two artists shared a detached skepticism of the cinematic medium; as dually accomplished abstract painters, skilled theatrical designers, and acclaimed authors, they saw the cinema as only one facet of their voluminous oeuvres. Such a detachment may have been the secret ingredient to the success of their distinctive, and at times shockingly parallel, film experiments.

Derek Jarman is known to have encountered the work of Jennings during his time as a student at The Slade in the mid-sixties, notably during the lectures of Jennings’ former friend and colleague Thorold Dickinson. There is no telling that cinematic monuments like Listen to Britain (1942) and Fires Were Started (1943) made lasting impressions on the developing artist, but Jarman was a staunchly individualistic spirit who eschewed postmodern cinephilic reference points and was more likely to be influenced by a Coil record or a Shakespeare play than another film. This is all to say that the seven cinematic pairings in this dual retrospective are speculative, and that it is likely the case that the filmmakers’ tendencies toward nonconformity are what directed them down similar paths of expression.

The world of Humphrey Jennings’ films is the world of the liberal masses fighting against fascism, the world of a singularly unquashable culture persisting through the ages, surviving the “Pandaemonium” (as Jennings dubbed the Industrial Era) of war and industry. Derek Jarman painted on his cinematic canvas a mishmash of atomized emotions and a decaying national culture, and thus his world is an internal one, a world whose pleasures lie in the flesh and the sublime and whose Pandaemonium results from the traumas of unrequited love and a repressed culture.

Humphrey Jennings died tragically in 1950 at the age of forty-three after falling off a cliff while scouting a film in Greece, and Derek Jarman succumbed to AIDS half a century later in 1994 at the age of 52. The tragedies of their early deaths still reverberate through film culture as their legacies grow more influential with each new generation of film artists. As masterful audiovisual craftsmen, a review of their oeuvres (both together and separately) is always in order, and this partial retrospective features many new and recent restorations of their most brilliant works. – Max Carpenter, freelance curator


Friday January 25 at 7pm

Both Jennings and Jarman were dead set on pushing the envelope of accepted film form, and as it happens their respective magna opera jettison the aural components of cinema to the forefront, with Jarman going as far as to eliminate all but a solid palette of rich blue from the visual realm, and Jennings (along with co-director Stewart McAllister) eschewing the conventional ubiquity of the voiceover in favor of an ethnographic immersion in tableaus of wartime Britain.

Blue

Directed by Derek Jarman. With Derek Jarman, Tilda Swinton, John Quentin
UK/Japan 1993, DCP, color, 79 min

Print courtesy Zeitgeist Films.

Preceded by

Listen to Britain

Directed by Humphrey Jennings and Stewart McAllister
UK 1942, 35mm, b/w, 19 min

Print courtesy British Film Institute.

Also screening as part of the Cinema of Resistance program.

 

 

 

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Friday January 25 at 9pm

Humphrey Jennings’ The Dim Little Island is an anomaly of post-war melancholy sprinkled with a feigned optimism for the perseverance of the British spirit. Jennings films Ford Madox Brown’s painting The Last of England and empty smoke-filled cathedrals while composer and narrator Ralph Vaughan Williams predicts that the contemporaneous decline of Britain as a world power will bring about a future of unprecedented artistic expression. Who could deny Williams’ prophesying genius when such an unprecedented artistic collaboration as that of Derek Jarman and his composer Simon Fisher Turner lay on the distant horizon with their own monumental Last of England?

The Last of England

Directed by Derek Jarman. With Tilda Swinton, Spencer Leigh, ‘Spring’ Mark Adley
UK/West Germany 1987, 35mm, b/w & color, 92 min

Print courtesy Kinemathek Hamburg - Metropolis Archiv.

Preceded by

The Dim Little Island

Directed by Humphrey Jennings
UK 1949, 35mm, b/w, 10 min

Print courtesy British Film Institute.

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Saturday January 26 at 7pm

Words for Battle and The Angelic Conversation are quiet works of contemplation whose expressionistic visual montages are backgrounded by the reading of poetry. In Words for Battle,the reader of works by Milton, Blake, Kipling and others is a young Laurence Olivier, and Judi Dench reads Shakespeare’s deeply personal sonnets in The Angelic Conversation. Jennings’ aim was the stoking of British patriotism while Jarman sought a sort of personal poeticism, but both explore the marriage of poetry and film with a masterful soft touch.

The Angelic Conversation

Directed by Derek Jarman. With Paul Reynolds, Phillip Williamson, Judi Dench
UK 1985, DCP, b/w & color, 77 min

DCP courtesy British Film Institute.

Preceded by

Words for Battle

Directed by Humphrey Jennings. With Laurence Olivier
UK 1941, 35mm, b/w, 8 min

Print courtesy British Film Institute.

 

 

 

 

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Saturday January 26 at 9pm

Jennings, like many early propagandists, was a filmmaker for the masses. His films aimed to encourage liberal populism and patriotism against the very real threat of fascism. Jarman was less interested in the masses than in individual experience, in which world the threat of unrequited love can wreak a similar fascistic havoc. As such, Jennings’ seminal docudrama The Silent Village (which relocates the Lidice Massacre to a Welsh mining town) and Jarman’s Sebastiane (which recontextualizes the ancient story of Saint Sebastian as a homoerotic tragedy) offer intriguing parallel narratives in which enemies gradually knock away at the gates of freedom. The Silent Village and Sebastiane also position Jennings and Jarman as formidable directors of non-professional ensemble casts.

Sebastiane

Directed by Paul Humfress and Derek Jarman. With Leonardo Treviglio, Barney James, Neil Kennedy
UK 1976, DCP, color, 86 min. Latin with English subtitles

DCP courtesy British Film Institute.

Preceded by

The Silent Village

Directed by Humphrey Jennings
UK/Czechoslovakia 1943, 35mm, b/w, 36 min

Print courtesy British Film Institute.

 

 

 

 

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Monday January 28 at 7pm

Fires Were Started, Humphrey Jennings’ only feature film, is a docudrama centered around a real group of heroic firefighters as they extinguish the destructive blazes of war; Derek Jarman’s Jubilee follows a group of nihilistic punks who love nothing more than to set anything ablaze. In both films the spirit and mettle of the directors’ respective Britains are on display, and Jennings’ heart-heavy optimism is starkly opposed by Jarman’s bitterness. A mythic inferno opposes the British spirit, but may also be the only way to access it as it slips away, and both Fires Were Started and Jubilee explore this in contrasting but similar ensemble narratives.

Jubilee

Directed by Derek Jarman. With Jenny Runacre, Neil Campbell, Toyah Willcox
UK 1978, DCP, color, 106 min

DCP courtesy British Film Institute.

Preceded by

Fires Were Started

Directed by Humphrey Jennings. With Philip Dickson, George Gravett, Fred Griffiths
UK 1943, 35mm, b/w, 63 min

Print courtesy British Film Institute.

 

 

 

 

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Monday February 11 at 7pm

Two haunting musical works, both based on poetry of the Great War, form the respective backbones of Jennings’ Lili Marlene and Jarman’s War Requiem. Jennings’ episodic docudrama tells the story of both the WWII-era song “Lili Marleen” and its singer Lale Andersen as the War ravages on, making for a tantalizing blend of contemporary history, some of Jennings’ most powerful battle footage, and a heartstring-pulling tale of the perseverance of the human spirit through music. Jarman’s War Requiem is at its core a poetic music video for Benjamin Britten’s titular mass, and the most persistent visual thread is the story of the poet Wilfred Owen (played by Nathaniel Parker) and his tribulations during World War I. Music, battle, and, as always, British identity are at the forefront for both filmmakers. (War Requiem also features Laurence Olivier, who 48 years earlier had narrated for Jennings, in his final screen role.)

War Requiem

Directed by Derek Jarman. With Nathaniel Parker, Tilda Swinton, Laurence Olivier
UK 1989, 35mm, b/w & color, 92 min

Preceded by

The True Story of Lili Marlene

Directed by Humphrey Jennings
UK 1944, 35mm, b/w, 29 min

 

 

 

 

 

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