“Poets of Pandaemonium”: Jennings and Jarman
This program, running through February 17 at the Museum of the Moving Image , pairs up these two iconic British filmmakers whose work was made about four decades apart. Humphrey Jennings referred to the post-industrial world as ”pandaemonium” and Jarman interpreted contemporary Britain as a place where nostalgia for a lost rural past gave way to an indulgent embrace of pleasure and beauty. Most of the program includes a short film by Humphreys followed by a longer one by Jarman, suggesting a continuity and a legacy of inspiration that affected Jarman’s work. All of Humpreys’ work in this series will be projected in 35mm.
Both filmmakers died tragically young: Jennings as a result of a fall while working on a film at age 43, and Jarman of AIDS at 52. Jarman, knowing he was dying, mused upon his mortality in his writings and his films. His final film Blue opens the program on January 8 (shown with Jennings’ short film of wartime imagery, Listen to Britain) and is not shown very often unless as part of a Jarman retrospective. It is simply a screen of blue, with Jarman, Tilda Swinton (who appeared in a number of Jarman’s films) and John Quentin reading from the filmmaker’s essay about the color blue, collected in his book of essays on color, Chroma. The final line of the essay, “I place a delphinium, blue, upon your grave” inspired the title of a short film made in 2009 about Jarman’s childhood, Delphinium. Jarman’s The Last of England follows Jennings’ The Dim Little Island, both films that use upon England’s rich artistic past and its uncertain but vibrant future.
Jennings’ eight minute film Words for Battle precedes Jarman’s An Angelic Conversation, one of Jarman’s few films shot partially in black and white. A young Lawrence Olivier reads poems of Blake, Kiping and Milton in Humphreys’ film, surely inspiring Jarman to cast Olivier in his glorious War Requiem, featuring a story of stunning wartime imagery (including a young Tilda Swinton as a nurse who grieves the loss of her soldier lover) that plays out over Benjamin Britten’s short opera, based on poet Wilfred Owen’s writings (showing February 16th). In An Angelic Conversation, Jarman has Dame Judi Dench read Shakespeare, to accompany an expressionistic and personal story of love and desire.
Jarman’s Sebastiane, a powerful vision of the life and death of Saint Sebastian, steeped in Jarman’s unmistakable expression of sensual homoeroticism, is paired with Jennings’ powerful docudrama The Silent Village. Longer than many of Jennings’ works in this program at 36 minutes, this elegant film relocates the Lidice massacre in Czechoslovakia, where hundreds were slaughtered under Hitler’s orders in 1942, to a mining village in Wales. Both films feature largely unprofessional casts of actors.
On Saturday February 16th, the aforementioned War Requiem, projected in 35 mm (a rare opportunity for cinephiles), is preceded by Jennings’ fascinating docudrama exploration of a well-loved wartime song, The True Story of Lili Marlene (1944). These films represent perhaps the most emotional subject matter of both filmmakers’ respective oeuvres, offering lyrical yet heartbreaking backdrops for examining the impact of war and the redemptive power of music to soothe war’s ravages upon the human psyche.
On February 17, a double feature soles the series, and begins with Jennings’ only feature film (63 minutes), Fires Were Started (1943), a docudrama about firefighters battling the blazes of World War 2. Jarman’s Jubilee (1978) is his rowdy, colorful portrait of angry, disaffected urban punks who enjoy physical and emotional mayhem.