I watched The Last of England (Jarman, 1988) not really knowing what to expect. I’ve not seen any of Derek Jarman’s work before, and even now, I’m not sure that I exactly enjoyed the film. And yet I find myself fascinated by it; it’s wormed its way into my brain and I find myself thinking about it without realising, surely the mark of a great piece of art?
Jarman’s film is so densely layered with different techniques and meanings that it could be interpreted endlessly in many different ways. Like Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky, 2001) The Last of England creates an aura which flits between euphoria and deep depression. But Jarman’s filmmaking is much more opaque than Aronofsky’s, leaving the audience to interpret the film and find their own meaning. In describing The Last of England Jarman writes:
The Last of England is not as manipulative as a conventional feature; you know – jump here, be frightened here, laugh. Traditional features manipulate the audience. Apart from being stuck with my film for 85 minutes, my audience have much greater freedom to interpret what they are seeing, and because of the pace, to think about it. I have my own ideas, but they are not the beginning or the end. The film is the fact – perhaps in the end the only fact – of my life. (Jarman, 1996)
To this end, Jarman obscures many of his shots by shooting them so shakily that it becomes difficult to follow the subject. Similarly he uses double exposures and extreme closeups so that the audience is forced to be active in deciphering what they are seeing. The double grain (of the original super-8 and the reprint on 35mm) also serves to hide Jarman’s subject behind a kind of cinematic fog.
But, also like Requiem for a Dream, what stands out the most is the sound and the way in which Jarman used it as another layer in his montage. The narration dominates at the start of the film (and is a clear rebuttal to Thatcherism, politics and bureaucracy). But the frequency with which the narration appears drops as the film progresses and is instead supplanted by audio montage; sounds of the British parliament, Hitler’s speeches, cash registers ringing and radios tuning are layered on top of each other to connote an equally damming indictment of capitalist British politics. And this audio montage created by Jarman is so dense, with so many layers that it becomes almost impossible to absorb all of the sound at once. Instead the audience has to choose (consciously or not) what to absorb. In this way Jarman’s style seems to be more like long-take than montage in its effect; it leaves the audience free to choose what’s important; it suggests rather than directs.
Jarman also uses some diagetic sounds in his design, but plays with them by only selecting one element in a scene (like a flare being lit) then exaggerating its sound and intertwining it with music and other non-diagetic sounds. This technique adds to the hallucinatory quality of the film and activates the audience by making them question why that particular sound has been chosen and highlighted. Jarman also draws the audience in by distorting his sound-scape, much like the visuals, so much so that it’s difficult to identify what is being heard; is it laughter or wailing?
The other indispensable aspect of The Last of England is its use of colour. Many shots are tinted either a violet-blue or an orange-red, with the rest looking like they were shot on Kodachrome super-8 stock. It’s unclear what Jarman wants to convey by using these different colour tints, but both seemed to connote war and violence (the red mimicking the haze of fire and the violet the burnt out aftermath). These different colour casts work to create a sense of memory and nostalgia, as if the audience is watching the events presented to them via the distorted memories of someone else. The colour also works to link and separate different sequences. We question why some scenes are red and others blue; what connects them and what separats them? Maybe this uncertainty is what Jarman wanted?
Aronofsky, D., (2001), Requiem for a Dream, Artisan Entertainment
Jarman, D., (1988), The Last of England, Anglo International Films
Jarman, D., (1996), Kicking the Pricks, London: Vintage