Dir. Derek Jarman
Starring Jordan, Toyah Willcox, Adam Ant, Richard O’Brien, Nell Campbell
Here’s a funny little bit of 70s pop art, an early attempt at capturing the punk aesthetic on film before punk had even really crystallized into a genre of music. It probably doesn’t have as much to say about society and philosophy as it thinks it does, but on the other hand it’s probably saying a lot more about 70s England than it thinks it is, too. So, you know, give a little, get a little. And as far as pretentious self-consciously arty 70s anti-narratives go, it’s pretty entertaining. So given that Paul McCartney etc just wished the Queen a happy diamond jubilee, I figure it’s only fair to remind the world that Toyah Willcox, Adam Ant, Jordan, and the guy who played Riff Raff in ROCKY HORROR beat them to the punch by 30 year and a lot of nudity.
The framing device for this story finds queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre, small parts in THE LADY VANISHES, THE PASSENGER, and THE WITCHES and also playing a dual role here) being brought forward in time to the late 70’s by her advisor, occultist John Dee (Richard “Riff Raff” O’Brien, who Adam Carolla once described as the most obnoxious guest he ever had on his show). The queen wanders around what appears to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland overrun by bored, violent, nihilistic punks and expresses some concern over the direction her country has taken. Her criticism has a certain amount of support, because, for example, the current queen has just been killed in a arbitrary street mugging. Not necessarily a sign of a stable, prosperous society in my book. Take it from a Political Science major.
|Seriously, teachers. Leave those kids alone.|
But maybe we’re better off, because it must be said that the queen is super boring, but the various punks, arsonists, anarchists, nihilists, musicians, and sexual deviants that overrun the film are mostly a colorful and amusing lot. Much has been made over the film’s inclusion of early punk staples like Adam Ant, The Slits, and Souxie and the Banshees, but mostly the film is populated by cult actors and early punk scene kids (for instance, Malcolm McLaren protege and Sex Pistols’ muse Jordan) so don’t expect a big parade of cameos. They’re playing exaggerated, absurdist versions of their already exaggerated, absurdist personas, so there’s a kind of mordantly funny parody of the apocalyptic concerns expressed by most of straight society at this new generation of deviants.
On one hand, it’s kind of a pretentious art film, where people might say things like, “In those days, desires weren't allowed to become reality. So fantasy was substituted for them - films, books, pictures. They called it 'art'. But when your desires become reality, you don't need fantasy any longer, or art.” or maybe out of the blue we’ll watch a naked ballerina dance around a bonfire in the middle of a bombed-out wasteland in slow motion for the entire duration of a classical piece. Oh my, look, they’ve juxtaposed classic British high culture with profane modernity, however did they think to do that. But on the other hand, director Jarman isn’t entirely above indulging in the more pulpy aspects of his punky Mad Max London, so a reliable stream of orgies and murders keeps things nicely visceral.
The movie is clearly a reaction to 1970s British malaise, as the economy crumbled, the Empire waned, and British cultural identity suddenly came into question. Jarman cleverly shoots the whole thing on location, using the bombed-out WWII era husks which are still around to remind us that this is an England which is caught between a past that it can’t let go of and a future which it can’t seem to build towards. So even though I think Jarman is over-reliant on trying to shock you with his nihilist characters, their reactionary lifestyle does feels truthful on some level -- emotionally, anyway. It’s not such a far cry from listening to the Sex Pistols articulate their own frustrations with the decaying ruins of classist English society in the excellent Julian Temple doc THE FILTH AND THE FURY. You can see that these kids were not just lashing out pointlessly: they were making an (admittedly crude) calculated political statement about the pathetic future that their society was offering them. The deliberately modeled themselves as a chaotic inverse to repressed, regressive postwar British culture. ‘You expect us to just shut up and accept a pathetic half-life of stuffy mannerisms and fading empire? Well fuck you, we quit. We’re not playing your game. We’re making up our own rules.”
|Condescending Jordan is condescending.|
As with most movements which are purely reactionary, I’m not sure their philosophy holds up quite as well out of context. I mean, I’m for mayhem, pretty theft, nudity, androgyny, unprotected casual sex, pyromania, and punk rock as much as the next fellow (and actually, probably a lot more, now that I think about it). But these days, I’d say idealism is more revolutionary than nihilism. Perhaps because we needed the prickly rejectionism of the early punk movement to break us out of the 70’s doldrums before we could move into ironic postmodernism, and finally, some kind of new perspective which is possibly just peeking into the public consciousness today.
But even if not, it’s at least intermittently fun to watch these freakos do their thing. In particular, Toyah Willcox and Jack “The Incredible Orlando” Birkett are mesmerizing as a sociopath pyromaniac and insane record label executive, respectively. Birkett is apparently primarily a dancer and mime, and completely blind to boot (I guess that explains his Borgnine-level crazy eyes) but he’s playing an already outrageous character with both the crazy and the charisma turned up to 11. He’s a side character in this one, but ends up feeling like the central hub around which the movie rotates -- and although their criticism of media conglomeration and corporate opulence is somewhat passe now, you gotta remember that it’s pretty impressive (and still trenchant) in a movie from fuckin 1978. It also sounds the death knell to punk maybe 3 years after it came into existence. It would be amoral corporate interests like Birkett’s “Ginz” character (and of course, Jordan’s own boss Malcolm McLaren) that would ultimately reduce punk to a safe, predictable, mass-marketable hollow shell. Those equally reactionary right-wing types who used to spit on John Lydon everywhere he went? They didn’t win. But the money did. The money always does.
|The seductive face of evil.|
Anyway, an interesting little time capsule which falls somewhere between HOLY MOUNTAIN and REPO MAN. In a few years, the punk aesthetic would becomes commercialized and conglomerated and be sold off globally in little chunks until it was meaningless. By the early 80s, it became shorthand for a hostile, dispensable “other” that folks like Charles Bronson could blow away in an effort to restore a decent society. But here, for an occasionally irritating but memorable 103 minutes, it’s nice to have a reminder of how it is we got there in the first place. If Queen Elizabeth I really did travel through time to the present, I’m sure she’d have some major issues with what she saw. But I think she might like the movie. Like its protagonists, it can be longwinded, vacant, and ugly. But there’s an essential germ of genuine truth and bruised humanity in there, and as a snapshot of a turbulent and dismal time for Old England, I think it’s just about right.
God Save the Queen.
We mean it, Maaan.