If ever there were an avant-garde film that tested a cinephile's resolve, it's Blue: 75 minutes of a swimming-pool shade of the titular color projected on the screen without variation, accompanied by a soundtrack laden with meditations, noises and music. What are you supposed to see while looking at the blank screen? That's the question the late independent filmmaker Derek Jarman, subject of a mini-retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, poses in Blue. There are evocations of sky, ocean, heaven and flowers, of course, and maybe the minimalist canvases of French painter Yves Klein that Jarman acknowledged as influences. Perhaps there are even such intangibles as being in a blue funk or talking up a blue streak. But above all, blue serves as a metaphor for the AIDS-related blindness Jarman suffered before dying earlier this year. Reduced to perceiving the world in flashes of blue shadows, Jarman the auteur gained a vision as he lost sight.
A quasi-autobiography of his years of illness, spoken by Jarman in a voice ranging from laconic to witty to neutral to outraged to grieving (a few of the performers Jarman repeatedly cast in his movies also contribute, Tilda Swinton among them), makes up most of the voice-over that is, basically, Blue. The narrative is profoundly gripping, in an unfortunate way, when documenting the ravages of AIDS. "I have no friends now who are not dead or dying," Jarman announces, and to the sounds of waves crashing he chants a hushed litany of their first names. "Gautama Buddha instructs one to walk away from pain and illusion," Jarman muses over the sounds of a busy hospital. "He wasn't attached to [an intravenous] drip."
One day before blindness fully set in, Jarman tells us, he stopped at a shop window to admire a pair of shoes. But it soon hit him that "the shoes I'm wearing at the moment should be sufficient to walk me out of life." A detached recitation of the seemingly endless side effects of an experimental drug, spoken over a background of '70s disco music, makes the treatment sound more horrific than the illness it's intended to cure. What's most distressing, he points out, comparing his skin to the poisoned tunic of the centaur Nessus, is having "my mind bright as a button, but my body falling apart."
Not all of Jarman's language is that acute or lyrical. His disgust at people ignorant of AIDS is little more than railing. And he doesn't explore the unfortunate ramifications of hospitals' referring to patients as numbers (i.e., soon-to-be statistics). In life, Jarman was an emboldened gay activist, and much of his cinematic oeuvre reflects homoerotic sensibilities. Here, though, he is surprisingly quiet about gay rights, lifestyles, love. Some of his death-bed pronouncements say nothing: "If the doors of perception were to be cleansed, well then, everything would be perceived as it is." Some say too little: "Time is what keeps the light from reaching us." Some say too much: "I resign myself to fate -- blind fate." And while one may perhaps argue that stream of consciousness works well in a film by a writer/director who had a virus running through him unrestrained, nevertheless Jarman frequently gives the impression of having neither rhyme nor reason for why his thoughts are spoken in the order, or disorder, they are.
Still, Blue is intriguing, to no small degree because of how unexpectedly soothing the end result is, and because Jarman was forced to eschew pictures to document aspects of gay life many doggedly refuse to see. Jarman was a striking visualist in his other films, but with Blue, a mainly verbal presentation, it's an open question whether what he created is really a film at all.
Written, directed and narrated by Derek Jarman. 75 minutes. Not rated. Screenings July 15 and 16 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet. Other Jarman films will show later in the month. Call 639-7515.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.