I can’t watch Derek Jarman’s Blue. By which I mean I have seen it, I have listened to it, and not just once but several times — more than several, this year it has become a minor obsession — however, I still don’t feel that I have taken it in its entirety. I am not able to feel its edges or recall how it moves, to describe the arc of it in detail, or to even attempt to pull together its seemingly trailing threads into something that makes sense to me. I have also, often, failed to watch it. I have never for its 75 minutes stayed focused on its blue screen. This I understand is not the point, not to stay entirely trained, otherwise it wouldn’t make sense to release it in formats where it is untethered from its visuals, but on the other hand, my failure to stay focused, to be immersed in blue, led me to feel distant from it. There are also the times that I have succumbed to its lullaby qualities and been bolted back to consciousness by the gleeful cry of ‘cock sucking’ or the chiming of bells.
This is not a slight on Jarman’s work, I often find myself in a quiet space with many quiet people, lolling a little to the side in an uncomfortable seat, and being unable to pull back from the weight of sleep. Waking up at different points in this film, my eyes would open only to be forced closed by the brightness of the blue and I would listen for a minute or so facing down in the darkness before squinting up at the screen. After trying in official settings to take it in — special screenings, an exhibition at the Tate, a DVD watched in the corner of a library — I turned to unofficial sources to continue my endeavour. From the high quality to the lowest sources, I searched online to find the soundtrack and while looking discovered via Google Image that ‘Derek Jarman Blue’ brings up a wall of different shades of blue — a spectrum of not quite ultramarine. This made me think about how the blue had moved. From Yves Klein painting to photograph, photograph to celluloid frame, celluloid frame to high resolution digital file, to a compressed upload, to a tiny icon of no more than 200 pixels wide on my screen. On Youtube I found multiple versions of the film, in its entirety and spliced up into pieces, with a blue rectangle filling the screen or a letterbox barred across it. There is one that shows the silhouette of a man I assume to be Jarman standing in front of his film. There are ones with English subtitles and others with multiple languages. One set of subtitles has an error about two-thirds through where a few lines of text are displayed in the wrong order. The best upload in terms of sound quality, although with what I am sure is entirely the wrong blue, was recently taken down. This could have been caused by a copyright infringement cease and desist order, but so many remain that I doubt it.
The version that I have watched most often is a playlist in seven roughly ten minute parts. Here there are small breaks in the soundscape, a few seconds that falter like a jump-cut, before the sound swells again. This should, I think, tear apart the experience, but in fact I found it helpful — it made it possible to see something of the structure, to recall more than just the odd line, and to think about how this followed that, how it peaks and falls. Even with the breaks, I am still misled every now and then by the different voices. I can identify a whispering Swinton, but the three males bleed into each other in my mind. This led me to listen trying to follow only one voice at a time, but they would always re-intertwine as I was pulled along into the wider narrative flow. Once, I listened to a CD of the soundtrack, borrowed from a friend, on random shuffle. Its seven movements made up of 41 tracks each individually titled (Delphinium Days; Sweats in the Night; Love Fades; Walk Away) all jumbled up into not quite nonsense, but a fractured solecistic mess. This was probably the worst experience, or at least the least engaged or immersed I had been — worse even than when note-taking or listening on a pair of broken headphones. This overthinking, of straining to see the inner-workings, was too present, it muddied up what I had already found unclear. And so I returned to the whole and tried again. I started the film and I tried not to think. I stared at a midnight blue jacket hanging on the back of a chair and I tried not to think. I kept myself seated upright, my feet firmly planted on the floor and I tried not to think. I sat still, breathed evenly and I tried not to think. And I listened and I watched and I realised that I cannot not think. The film is urgent, it’s direct, for all its sweeping poetry, but it is not singular. And though I want to know it, to consume it whole, it is un-consumable. It is angry and beautiful, visceral and ethereal. It is moving, sentimental and unsentimental. It lists and it lists, and it rarely repeats and yet there are refrains, more like clarities, which move into focus only to recede. More than this, it is deceptively coherent, because at once it is one film and it is a life’s work, a singular vision and a deftly interwoven chorus. It is not as vulgar as a distillation, it is an expansion. It is final and it is not definitive. And so, I cannot have my definition and am forced still onwards, still thinking.