Directed by Los Angeles filmmaker Matthew Mishory.
Review and interview written by Sarah Galvin.
(Click images to enlarge)
Matthew Mishory’s Delphinium: A Childhood Portrait of Derek Jarman, reviewed at Seattle International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival and Olympia International Film Festival
“Faster,” barks a robed dormitory prefect, strolling between rows of frantically masturbating teenage boys, “First one to come’s the winner.” Attempting a sprint, a young Derek Jarman closes his eyes and imagines the school groundskeeper, shirtless on a motorcycle between two neatly-pruned shrubs. The rows of beds in the Dorset boarding school dormitory seem to float against a black background, a reference to a painting technique of Caravaggio, whose life .Jarman would later chronicle on film. Matthew Mishory’s Delphinium is a collage of such images, the catalysts of Jarman’s creativity, activism, and sexual self-discovery.
A painter, writer and lifelong gay rights activist, Jarman directed numerous cult films, including the punk classic Jubilee, and Sebastiane, one of the first British movies to feature positive images of homosexuality. In Delphinium, Matthew Mishory uses a combination of HD (Red One) and Super8, the latter being Jarman’s preferred film format, to differentiate between past and present, fantasy and reality. Super8 is used mainly for scenes from Jarman’s early childhood: Jarman at a lake, admiring a handsome swimmer, images of his mother gardening among waist-high delphiniums.
HD makes Jarman’s real and imagined interactions with the object of his affection, the school groundskeeper, appropriately sharp and immediate. In one scene, Jarman invites the groundskeeper to be in one of his paintings. When Jarman requests that he takes his clothes off, the groundskeeper says, “What are you, a pervert?” to which Jarman replies, “No, I’m an artist...[I can show you] your true self...a saint, a martyr.”
Jarman sees manifestations of beauty everywhere--in plants, paintings, and other men. He is so overwhelmed by these experiences he is unable to question his vision of beauty, even when facing social rejection and physical danger. In Delphinium, Jarman begins to develop the devotion to personal vision that makes him an artist, and the courage that allows him to be open about his sexuality later in life.
Interview with director Matthew Mishory
NARK: What was the first Jarman film you saw? What were your feelings about it?
Matthew: I very covertly saw Jubilee on a difficult-to-find videocassette in high school. I had never seen a film like it. I was very into bands like The Dead Kennedys, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Sex Pistols, and, finally, in Jubilee, I found a truly punk film: dangerous, DIY, revisionist. The experience was aesthetically formative. I was seventeen and had never been to so much as a protest. It is difficult now to think what my life must have been like at that time – so much has changed – but the escape always came through films and music. Ironically, at about the same time, my “cool kid” classmates began to adopt a designer punk aesthetic, pasting Black Flag decals on their Jeeps and BMWs. Yet these were sons of CEO’s and bankers who lived in places like Beverly Hills and the Pacific Palisades. I am sure none of them realized they were precisely the pricks Jello Biafra was singing about shipping off to Cambodia. It was an early lesson in the difference between true authenticity and Hollywood-style rip-off. Bored rich kids looked to punk and saw a fashion accessory. Derek Jarman saw a radical critique of British society. Jubilee was the real deal.
Later in film school I was introduced to Edward II (the stylized sets and costumes, the modern political interpretation of a classic work, the mix of avant garde and narrative, Tilda Swinton! – these were all the things I loved about cinema), and from there I made my way through the Jarman canon. The Last of England, The Garden, and Caravaggio quickly joined a list of favorites.
N: In what ways do you identify with Jarman?
MM: Any comparison drawn is extremely flattering and probably undeserved, but I have certainly felt inspired by Jarman’s films, activism, and writings. I have also always identified with his outsider status in school, in British society, and in the UK film industry. Jarman always worked in his own way, from the outside looking in. I attended a boys’ prep school with a horrifying social environment and have never really felt comfortable in the LA “young Hollywood” scene. And it has been a terrible struggle to find the funding for this film and others. So in that way, Jarman’s rogue career has always been a model of what can be accomplished without the benefit of a trust fund or a mainstream aesthetic.
That said, I did not find my life interesting enough to reference in the film, so for the contextual, documentary-style bit at the end, I used an anecdote from the writer Clint Catalyst’s childhood in rural Arkansas. A young Goth queer boy driving hours on dirt roads to rent the latest banned Jarman film seemed a more fitting tribute than anything I could contrive.
N: In Delphinium, how did you decide what format to film different scenes in?
MM: Overall, the visual style was a mixture of concepts and influences: the period, the material, my own unusual tastes, our budgetary constraints. Super8 was a necessity. It was Derek’s and is my favourite medium. I had planned to shoot the rest of the film, the scenes set on stages, on super16, but in the end we didn’t have enough money and switched to RED One for those sequences. The HD sequences generally correspond to the more straight-forward narrative aspects of the film, with the super8 as a sort of translucent dream state that slips in and out: memories, foreshadowing, and careful recreations or embellishments of archival or family movie footage. Super8 is the most romantic format and the most connotative of memory, so I felt I had carte blanche to do whatever I wanted with that part of the film. Along with my DP, Lili Wilde, and editor Johannes Bock, I experimented with a variety of stocks, frame rates, and textures.
N: In real life, did Jarman ever get to paint that groundskeeper naked?
MM: I have no idea, actually. I approach historically-inspired films as a means of finding a truth or an essence, beyond the mere facts. It is difficult if not impossible to ever "know" what the specific “facts” might have been. There are various accounts; certain truths are oppressed. Since Derek's films were very much about uncovering alternative readings of historical “fact,” I did not feel obligated to follow one particular account – or any, for that matter. I used a multitude of sources as well as conjecture to create the script for Delphinium and craft a story I felt represented Derek's life, work, and legacy. While many of the incidents in the film are lifted directly from his memoirs, the interaction with the groundskeeper is invented and serves as a sort of extended metaphor for the way Derek saw the world.
N: Which scene was hardest to film?
MM: Scenes of violence are always difficult. Delphinium has two. We used many non-actors to fill the dormitory beds, and most had never been in front of a camera before. The stylized lighting always took several hours to set up, so I had relatively little time to film each scene. Time was always the enemy. We also had several very long dolly movements, and for each our technical crew did remarkable work to accomplish the shot.
Delphinium premiered at the 17th Raindance Film Festival in London, and has also screened in Seattle, Reykjavik, Oslo, Sao Paulo, Chicago, New York City, Atlanta, and Olympia. The festival tour continues around the world throughout 2010 (Including a special Seattle screening on Valentines Day, brought to you by NARK, DRK BLK and 12 HR Notice). For more visit matthewmishory.com and delphiniumthefilm.com, and check out Matthew's upcoming feature project PORTLAND.
Queer icon Clint Catalyst appears in the film. For more: clintcatalyst.com
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