Thanks to the rapid advancements made in the medical treatment of the disease, living with HIV is no longer as daunting as it once used to be. It has become a completely manageable condition, facilitated by an increasing awareness thanks to targeted public information campaigns. However, this wasn’t the case in 1994, a time when Derek Jarman succumbed to complications caused by AIDS while living in a sociopolitical climate that routinely ostracised and demonised homosexuality.
Jarman’s final project, Blue, also turned out to be his magnum opus but that is mainly due to the final act of the film – his death, a year later. Highly experimental in nature, Blue is a collection of soothing connections and jarring disconnections which filter through in the form of Jarman’s poetic narrations about the experiences of his final days. The film has been described and dissected in a lot of ways but I can only think of it as Jarman’s volatile death rattle that washes over the audience.
By showing us around 70 minutes of a static blue screen, Jarman makes a bold choice to make the viewer confront an unchanging reality while he talks about various issues that haunted him. He explains the choice in the film itself, claiming that “blue transcends the solemn geography of human limits”. It contributes to the construction of a paradoxical experience that is simultaneously clinically cold and vibrantly warm, inherent with all the ironies of the human condition.
The reason for choosing this blue screen is the fact that Jarman had lost his vision due to AIDS and only had the ability to see the world in shades of blue. As a result, his perception of reality had warped with it but he still managed to have clearer insights about the nature of the world than those on the opposite side of the political spectrum whose policies put his life at risk and ultimately resulted in his death.
In an interview, Jarman once explained: “I wanted to convey some of what I’d seen, and the disaster of which I’ve been living through of the last few years. I mean for instance, last Thursday, I was in the hospital, and there was a mom with a two-year-old child who’s got the same infection in the eyes as I have, I couldn’t…” He broke off, not being able to deal with the overwhelming sadness that follows such a heartbreaking realisation.
More than anything, Blue captures the agony of waiting for one’s death and that is all that dominated the psyche of Jarman at the time. He said: “I sat and watched as I waited, it was just quite terrible, honestly, you know, I was thinking of this child, you know, that’s all happening and people don’t see it, and they don’t think about it very often, and I hope the film sort of makes people think about that just for a moment”.
Throughout the film, Jarman weaves personal experiences into larger protests against the state of the times. He reveals that the only friends he had left were either dead or dying, remembers the lesbian woman who helped him come to terms with his homosexuality but also reminds the audience of Bosnian refugees and engages in acerbic attacks against the mismanagement of the government at home.
He deems us as all culpable, complicit in his murder and the death of thousands of others who were marginalised and neglected. In his characteristic style, Jarman mocks those who advise Buddhist detachment from the pain: “Gautama Buddha instructs me to walk away from illness but he wasn’t attached to a drip…we all contemplated suicide. We hoped for euthanasia. We were lulled into believing morphine dispelled the pain rather than making it tangible”.
Unlike many mainstream films that are explicitly about people living and dying with HIV, Blue only uses words but paints a more vivid picture of the horrors than most of those commodified representations. Jarman’s harrowing description of swallowing up and puking out the treatment that’s supposed to save his life is more tragic than anything I have ever seen: “I’m taking about 30 a day, a walking chemical laboratory. I gag on them as I swallow them and they come up half dissolved in the coughing and splattering.”
“The earth is dying and we do not notice it,” Jarman poignantly reflects, slipping this observation in between other tangential meditations. Jarman died decades ago, the earth is still dying and while the world is recovering from the onslaught of another virus, I think of Blue quite often. I have come to the sombre realisation that I will carry this weight forever.