The Garden

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The Garden (1990)

The Garden

By Paul McAdory

On Derek Jarman’s half waking dream, half fiery polemic.

The Garden plays 7 Ludlow beginning on November 10 as part of Zeitgeist Films at 35.


Derek Jarman

Death is not the end. It’s an opportunity. Grow your brand, reach new audiences, or contribute to the continued success of a business or state better positioned to take advantage of this difficult time. Transcend.

Look at Jesus Christ. Look at Derek Jarman. The English filmmaker and artist watched tabloids sell the idea of his supposedly imminent demise from 1987, when he announced his positive HIV status, until his death from AIDS in 1994 at age 52. In 1990 he released a febrile, nearly non-narrative movie about this phenomenon, and much else, called The Garden, which loosely depicts episodes from the life of Christ and his followers. Judas, hanging from a tree, his tongue lolling, hawks credit cards. The “Madonna of the photo opportunity,” as Jarman refers in his diaries to one of Tilda Swinton’s characters, flees “wise men transformed into terrorist photographers,” balaclava-clad and intent on harassing her until they’ve produced a picture of her blessed despair. The same men don Santa suits to hound a saintly young gay couple. Others mock, humiliate, tar and feather the two, beat them bloody with bundles of sticks (ha ha), martyr them for the pleasure and prospective value of the spectacle.

An aside: the maniacal leader of the torturers resembles Twin Peaks’s BOB put through an Ezra Miller filter, or vice versa; he is incredibly sinister.

Look again at Jesus Christ, again at Jarman. In The Garden, you might have trouble telling them apart. Jarman cast Roger Cook as the Messiah after frequent collaborator Sean Bean declined the role on religious grounds, but I can’t help seeing Cook as a stand-in for the director, a perception approximated by The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant when he said of the film, “Oh Derek, more of your martyr complex.”

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The Garden (1990)

If Jarman’s sense of self-sacrifice can seem vainglorious and transparent, consider that it’s also self-mocking, silly, and, for a non-believer, apt. He could not by dying save anyone from death—but then again, neither could Christ, in Jarman’s estimation. What both could offer was the image of their suffering and the eminently exploitable idea, born of hope, fear, desperation, historical circumstance, savvy, or whatever, that their agony might have meant something. In any case, the passion of this Christ scarcely registers as absurd in context. Naked men clamber down a rock pit on their bellies. A Satan-figure writhes around in leather. The apocalyptical tenor of the affair, at times overemphasized by discordant string arrangements, is leavened by pink-filtered scenes of paradise, as well as what Swinton once approvingly described as the “whiff of the school play” that scents Jarman’s work.

Swinton might as easily have said the “whiff of the home movie.” The Garden is set mostly, and appropriately, in and around Jarman’s now-famous garden in Dungeness, Kent—an arid headland in the southeast of England known for a then-operational nuclear power plant. The director had purchased a cottage in sight of the plant in the wake of his diagnosis. Outside it, he cultivated poppy, holly, dill, crocus, iris, helichrysum, a fig tree, and more, and arranged flint and flotsam and jetsam into shapes that pleased him. He wrote about the growth of the terrestrial and filmic gardens in his diaries from this period, 1989-1990, published as the exquisite Modern Nature, and in the loveliest seconds of his movie, many of them shot on Super 8, the two gardens become one. Petals glow green or yellow. Grasses bow in the gale. Swinton crouches among clumps of lavender.

Since his death, Jarman—who’s probably best known in the US for his final feature, beautiful Blue (1993), which I’ve heard described, more or less accurately, as “the saddest film ever made”—has become a tourist destination in addition to an artist. Pilgrims flock to Dungeness. His fame grows. A holy site is a selling point, and a garden is a good one. The Garden, however, isn’t after your devotion or its associated tokens; its ambitions are grander and less attainable than sainthood. As Jarman writes in Modern Nature, “Strands of thought crisscross, but one thing is clear: the film must show the quaint illusion of narrative cinema threadbare.” Elsewhere: “Had I not raised a hopeless banner against the admen of the Cinema Renaissance, entered a battle I knew I would never win—not even posthumously as they held all the cards?” The banner still flies. Death is not the end. It’s an opportunity.

Paul McAdory is a writer and editor from Mississippi. He lives in Brooklyn.

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The Garden (1990)