‘Chroma’ by Derek Jarman

Upon its initial publication, The Economist called Chroma, “an appropriate legacy for a colourful man who was just as proud to be homosexual as Randy Shilts… who died a couple of days earlier.” Chroma was published in January 1994; Jarman died in February of that year. The reviews of Chroma blended with obituary, and many of them shared The Economist’s sense of confusion about quite what to say. Like Jarman’s body of work, Chroma is hard to classify. Despite The Economist’s eager, insulting, and awkward attempt to index both Jarman and Chroma for their readers (file under “C” for Colourful; “H” for Homosexual), this is actually Jarman’s widest ranging work, with art history outweighing biography significantly. The book is best described as his final memories and musings, organized by color. The chapters have playful titles like “White Lies” and “How Now Brown Cow.” The memories, contemplations, and factoids are disjointed, strung on the most slender thread of unifying color. A few people get their own chapters: Marsilio Ficino, Leonardo da Vinci, and Isaac Newton. The book was written and dictated as Jarman was going blind. He began the book as an elegy for his sight. The book came to serve as an elegy for him.

Jarman is best known for his films, which are often difficult and hermetic. He has written elsewhere that his movies are misunderstood because they are essentially home movies, a stunningly accurate assessment. I often do find this “inside” quality of his films a barrier to my enjoyment. But in his writings, this “inside” quality becomes a strength. A film is a team effort; one can feel left out. In writing, there is a more immediate bond between writer and reader; no one is between you. There is no exact written correspondent to home movies. When Jarman writes, “I wrote this book in the absence of time. If I have overlooked something you hold precious—write it in the margin,” (42) he means it. Jarman’s texts always hover between the public and private. Chroma is not a diary, but it doesn’t shy away from sharing the day’s events. It’s public in the way that a home movie might be, in that while it was created with a small group in mind, you’re welcome to join that group. The closest analog might be Walt Whitman’s complex sense of the boundary between himself and you-the-reader. But while Jarman is self conscious, he’s not self aggrandizing. He always speaks to you, never for you.

His writing about color isn’t a demonstration of his mastery over color, or the presentation of some well thought through theory of color. The chapter on brown becomes an occasion to retell the story of how the gods ended up turning Callisto into a bear (brown) and then into a constellation. He ends his retelling, “Her story is almost as complicated as that of Marilyn Monroe…. And it teaches us that the rich and the powerful, like George Bush, always make a mess of things, and the gods are unaccountable, like Mrs. Thatcher, for the distress they cause” (86). The chapter on Green mashes up folk song lyrics, quotations from Kandinsky, and the origins of the renaissance in the space of three short paragraphs. The chapters range wildly, letting whatever thought comes next appear on the page. The intimacy of Jarman’s work is achieved by his always mixing registers, by refusing the conventions of any particular genre. There’s a certain way in which the book could be accused of being indulgent—that he hasn’t bothered to organize his thoughts into a coherent argument. But that’s why one feels so close to Jarman in his writing. The construction is conversational. He constantly creates the sense that this is simply what he was doing while he was dying. If you’d like, you can look over his shoulder while he does it.

Ultimately, it’s the disorder that makes Chroma a queer book, the refusal to move inside of a narrative or a progression. AIDS disrupted the life cycles of gay men, meaning that a queer life no longer had any trajectory. As Eve Sedwick observed, in most gatherings, it’s a fairly good bet that the people will die roughly in order of age (oldest first, youngest last). In queer gatherings of the 1980s and 1990s, death had no respect for chronology. Since AIDS didn’t respect where you were in your life or career, neither could AIDS activism. As a painter and filmmaker, Jarman worked in color, and due to an opportunistic infection, he had gone blind. His meditation on color is a meditation on what he has lost, and on what he remembers. Chroma feels oddly casual and unhurried, but Jarman reminds us that the disease itself could be casual and unhurried, inflicting cruel and painful ailments on its hosts. And as bad as the illness, the treatments of the late eighties and early nineties were excruciating. But Jarman’s queer refusal of boundaries clearly predates his diagnosis, and the way in which the material of the book crosses over with his other writings seems to advance a polymorphousness of pleasure that refuses to obey the kind of categorization that would lead The Economist to shoehorn Jarman next to Shilts. A large section of the chapter “Into the Blue” is also the script for his film Blue—though the two are not precisely overlapping. Jarman is repetitive, with the same stories surfacing in all his books, but then sex is also repetitive, the same acts always being played out with significant variation. Jarman builds the pleasures of cruising into his returns to ground already covered. And again, like Walt Whitman, his desire to touch you has a double meaning—even (especially) after his death.

It’s hard not to feel like Jarman had half a career—and while he died an accomplished filmmaker—his later work was showing signs of a major change.  Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho was released in 1991, the same year as Jarman’s Edward II. But it’s unwise to speculate on what the dead would have done or wanted. Had Jarman made a move toward the mainstream, it’s hard to know what that would have meant. But part of what makes Jarman so accessible in his writing is precisely the way he avoided mainstream fame. In Edmund White’s recent book City Boy, White talks about the “blue chip” gay artists (Rauschenberg, Sontag, etc) who never came out, and if they did—because they made their reputations prior to this new knowledge—homosexuality was just one more facet of their brilliance to discuss.  Jarman was always out of the closet, always visibly gay, always taking the heat to clear a path for the next generation. He was always ours, and we always knew it. In Chroma, he feels like the big gay brother that so many of us want and so few of us find. He tells you not just how to be gay, but how to be gay and whole—how to integrate what the straight world will always try to abstract as the fundamental truth of you. Explicit and embodied in Jarman’s work is the wisdom that homosexuality is inextricable from our lives, but that our lives can’t be reduced to that one fact. In returning to color for his last work, he reminds us that his classical training was never abandoned. He tramples the boundaries that seek to abstract his life into neat divisons. He was canonized by the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, and as a saint, he does indeed seem to carry many of our burdens. What was it that The Smiths sang?  He knows so much about these things.


Derek Jarman
Minnesota University Press
ISBN: 9780816665938
Paperback, 151p, $18.95