Sight and Sound in Derek Jarman's film "Blue"

Term Paper, 2015

18 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of contents
Introduction ... 1
General information ... 2
The film: Development of Blue ... 2
The director: Derek Jarman ... 3
The context: New Queer Cinema ... 4
Analysis ... 6
The essence of cinema ... 6
Seeing and hearing ... 7
Visibility and representation ... 9
The experience of the spectator / listener ... 12
Conclusion ... 13
Bibliography ... 15

"For Blue there are no boundaries or solutions."
(Derek Jarman in Blue, 1993, [00.37.28 - 00.37.35])
Derek Jarman's Blue (1993) is an experimental work that bears no images over the
course of the 76 minutes of its duration except for a monochromatic International
Klein Blue colour resembling Yves Klein's IKB 79 painting. The pulsing blue screen is
accompanied by a soundtrack of ambient music composed by Simon Fischer Turner
and a montage of sound effects, chants, whispered reflections, diary excerpts and
personal poems narrated by the four voices of Tilda Swinton, John Quentin, Nigel
Terry and Derek Jarman himself. It was Jarman`s last film, published four
months before his death of AIDS at the age of 52 and portrays the director`s coming
to terms with the complications of the illness, his blindness and the reality of his
inevitable nonexistence. The voices speak of the colour blue, homosexuality, the
effects of AIDS on the gay community, friendship, love and loss with multiple
discourses at work. Modes of narration range from rational pragmatism with
descriptions of AIDS related symptoms and a detailed recital of the 42 possible side
effects of the DHPG medication to accounts of individual emotional experience of
the illness through to cryptic poetry contemplating the mysteries of time, death
and afterlife.
The colour blue is repeatedly alluded to outside of the visual field ("a blue funk",
"blue an open door to soul", "a sky blue butterfly", "fathomless blue of bliss", "blue
protects whiteness from innocence", "blue is darkness made visible" "azure seas",
"cobalt river", "slow blue love of delphinium days") and becomes a visual metaphor
for meanings of "an infinite possibility becoming tangible" [00.24.33 - 00.24.40].
Blue thus not only aligns the viewer with Derek Jarman's dwindled eyesight, but
also conflates personal, political and poetic ideas about visual culture, experience
of AIDS, ethics of representation and the poetic meaning of colour.
At the outset of this paper, I will examine the development of the film's aesthetic
form, its place in the director's oeuvre and the cultural and historical context of its

release. Thereafter, I will take a closer look at the static cinema and re-evaluate the
essential qualities of film. Elaborating on the theoretical considerations of Michel
Chion (1994; 1999; 2003), I aim to gain a better understanding of the importance
of sound in Blue. In the subsequent chapter, I will explore the concept of invisibility
and the film`s political significance with regard to the AIDS epidemic and its effects
on the LGBT community. Taking into account Vivian Sobchacks's (2011)
phenomenological reading of the film, I will finally analyse the audio-visual
experience of Blue and the peculiar relation between its images, its sounds and its
General information
The film: Development of Blue
Even though Blue is primarily known as a film, it has taken on a variety of forms and
title changes between its inception in 1987 and its cinematic release at the Venice
Biennale in 1993 (Stuebner, 2014). It had initially been conceived as a tribute to
French artist Yves Klein and his abstract blue monochrome paintings (Ellis, 2009).
Jarman had first discovered the deep ultramarine IKB 79 painting in 1974 at the
Tate Modern in London (Stuebner, 2014). As a forerunner of minimal art, Klein
believed in the political potential of art and abstraction to change the perception
of the viewer. Jarman was affected by Klein's combination of ideas about aesthetics
and ideology and Klein's paintings without form and line (Peake, 1999). Klein's
artworks were occupied with the "transformative potential of aesthetic space" and
experimented with the sensory experience of the artwork's recipients (Ellis, 2009,
p. 233). In Blue, Jarman acknowledges these notions on immateriality, infinity and
the void. Like Klein's framed colours, Jarman's film reduces and yet expands the
field of vision, provoking a vivid sensory experience.
Furthermore, Jarman shared Klein's interest in challenging the boundaries of an
artwork and reimagined the relation between the artwork and the viewer (Ellis,
2009). Throughout the years, Jarman's project developed from a multimedia

performance to a written text called Chroma, to a gallery installation until it was
finally screened in cinemas, on TV and later released on VHS and DVD. A musical
equivalent of Blue has later been issued as a CD version allowing the viewer to
escape from the situation of cinematic reception of the blue screen and listen to
the soundtrack in any visual environment. Technical evolution has additionally
made it possible to watch the whole film on YouTube. The sense of spectatorship
and the viewer`s relation to the screen thus drastically changes depending on its
mode of reception, which will be further discussed in chapter 3.4.
The director: Derek Jarman
Michael Derek Elworthy Jarman was born in 1942 in London and died from AIDS in
1994, one year after the release of Blue, in the same city (Vallorani, 2010). During
the course of his life he did not only direct twelve feature films, but also produced
a variety of experimental video projects filmed on super 8 and worked as a painter,
author, stage designer and actor. This interest in a multiplicity of creative practices
resulted in his films frequently overlapping with other disciplines such as
contemporary art, painting, writing and theatre (Peake, 1999). In comparison with
Jarman`s earlier films, Blue fits in the range of his usual filmmaking in terms of
subject matter dealing with aesthetic space, concepts of time and queer
representation. His last one does however strongly deviate with regard to style and
means of production. While Jarman had always taken an unconventional approach
to film making, the radical decision not to include any actors on screen goes far
beyond his former experimentation with image, text and sound, making Blue
"nothing less than a revolutionary cinematic achievement [which] redefined the
notion of what is possible in cinema"
(Garner, 1996, p. 57).
Derek Jarman was an outspoken advocate for the rights of homosexuals and PWAs
(Persons With AIDS) and politically engaged in lesbian and gay liberation
movements. His films featured explicit and
unapologetic depictions of gay sex,
raised AIDS awareness and thus challenged dominant heteronormative
representations. Jarman employed experimental forms of narration in his

reinventions of traditional pieces such as Shakespeare's plays and sonnets in The
Tempest (1979) and The Angelic Conversation (1985), Marlowe's play in Edward II
(1991), a blend of past and fantasy with Queen Elizabeth I travelling to Britain's late
twentieth-century punk scene in Jubilee (1978), a new take on philosophy in
Wittgenstein (1993), an interpretation of sixteenth-century painting in Caravaggio
(1986), and the story of martyred fourth century Roman soldier Saint Sebastian
dialogued entirely in Latin in Sebastiane (1976). In this manner, he created his own
version of history inserting positive images of homosexuality. Consequently,
Jarman's films exposed continual homophobia, deconstructed traditional ideas and
constituted an innovative way of seeing the familiar and the unfamiliar (Ellis, 2009;
Khalip, 2010).
The threat of AIDS is a recurring topic in many of Jarman`s movies, but Blue is his
most autobiographic. Diagnosed HIV positive in 1986, the film openly addresses his
personal struggle with the illness, the failing of his diseased body and the loss of his
eye sight. Throughout the production of Blue, Derek Jarman was suffering with an
infection of CMV (Cytomegalovirus), an AIDS related disease destroying the retina
and leading to partial blindness (Ashton, 2013). The absence of images and
montage in Blue was therefore influenced by his mere inability to see and to
physically direct actors. Nonetheless, this artistic choice was also motivated by his
refuse to constrain the representation of the body suffering from AIDS, which will
be explained in a subsequent chapter. In sum, Blue not only presents the physical
loss of his optical vision, but also questions politics of visibility and restriction of
artistic vision, as referenced in the script: "I have to come to terms with
sightlessness. If I lose my sight will my vision be halved?"
[00.10.40 - 00.10.51].
The context: New Queer Cinema
The New Queer Cinema is an independent queer-themed cinema that emerged in
the 1990s with the purpose to destabilize misconceptions about gender and the
intent to offer an alternative to the under-representation and stereotyping of the
gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. Attempting to deconstruct the
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Sight and Sound in Derek Jarman's film "Blue"
Concordia University Montreal
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derek jarman, blue, sight, sound, queer cinema, new queer cinema, queer studies, AIDS, film studies, cinema, cinema studies, homosexuality, LGBT, film analysis, visibility, essence of cinema, hearing, seeing, spectator
Quote paper
Vivien Cahn (Author), 2015, Sight and Sound in Derek Jarman's film "Blue", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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