‘Delphinium’ directed by Matthew Mishory

Matthew Mishory’s thirteen-minute short feels a bit like a mash-up between Derek Jarman’s films The Last of England and Caravaggio with a touch of Todd Hayne’s Poison. Jarman fans will recognize Mishory’s deployment of Jarman’s iconography and technique, including collaged home movies and episodic, dreamlike narration.

The sky blue butterfly
Sways on a cornflower
Lost in the warmth
Of the blue heat haze
Singing the blues
Quiet and slowly
Blue of my heart
Blue of my dreams
Slow blue love
Of delphinium days
—Derek Jarman, from Chroma

The narrative of the film focuses on an event from Jarman’s life that he often recounted. Here is Jarman’s description from At Your Own Risk in a section entitled “Sex at Nine 1951”:

I was unsuccessfully trying to fuck the boy in the bed next to mine—unaware that I was doing anything out of the ordinary—when the sky fell in as we were ripped apart like two dogs by the headmaster’s wife; and from that day and all the days of my childhood I waited in vain for a man to carry me off and initiate me—rescue me from suburban conformity. (20)

Sixteen pages later he tells the same story again:

At nine, I was caught in bed with Gavin—thrown to the floor by the headmaster’s wife, lectured publicly and whipped. Frightened by this unexpected outburst, I was to have no physical contact for thirteen years. I lived my adolescence so demoralized I became reclusive. (36)

Mishory changes much of the story. He makes the schoolboys significantly older—the actors are currently 20 and 21, so depending on when the film was shot, they were probably 19 or 20. In the film, the characters seem about 15 or 16. Gavin (Kaiden Blake) has long black hair with gorgeous blue tips, an unlikely look for 1951. The headmaster’s wife is gone, as is the public humiliation. The headmaster (Edward Singletary) administers a caning to the two boys as they bend forward over his desk. The phallic cane meets their unseen bottoms in a brutal perversion of the anal eroticism they had been trying to achieve. The caning scene ends with a close up of Jarman (Samuel Garfield), his face covered in tears.

The narrative moves forward as a groundskeeper at the school (Jeremiah Dupre) gives Jarman a gift of delphinium seeds for his flower box. The groundskeeper begins a seduction that Jarman has to finish, coaxing the older man to pose nude as Saint Sebastian. The tearstained image of Jarman is matched by the tears lacquered onto the groundskeeper’s face, Pierre et Gilles style. The suggestion is that Jarman’s suffering is redeemed in the eroticism of his first film Sebastiane. But Mishory makes this embrace of shame partial. Unlike Genet, Jarman opposed shame as an erotic force. Mishory’s biggest alteration to Jarman’s account is that the event seems to further awaken the young artist’s desire, increasing his powers of seduction, rather than shutting down his sexuality until college.

Mishory recreates the home movies that Jarman’s father filmed, and collages them into the narrative. The landscapes are lush and beautiful, and seeing Jarman’s estate at Dungeness is a true pleasure. The home movies are collaged as a loving and joyful counterpoint to the viciously rigid order of the boarding school. In some ways, I was sad that Mishory did not (or could not) use Jarman’s original films—Jarman’s mother’s face had a British pedigree that simply cannot be recreated.

Interestingly, NewFest chose to screen Delphinium along with The Adults in The Room. This feature is a hybrid narrative/documentary about filmmaker Andy Blubaugh’s attempt to come to terms with having had an affair at the age of 16 with a man in his late 20s. The film is roughly eighty minutes of hand wringing about the sexual vulnerabilities of late adolescence. As the film moves forward, it becomes clear that Blubaugh is far less upset over the affair than at the affair having ended. He seems to want what Jarman wanted: “a man to carry me off and initiate me.” But Blubaugh gets the initiation without the carrying off. Blubaugh seems unable to come to the conclusion that feels quite clear to the audience: He is still in love with the older man. To make matters worse, the adults in the film endlessly agonize over whether or not they have actually reached a status deserving the name “adult”—despite the fact that they live alone, pay bills, support families, go to work, etc. In contrast, here is Jarman at his most urgent:

I was aware of my sexuality at nine, which makes a nonsense of an age of consent of twenty-one and of the ideas of CONVERSION, PERVERSION and CORRUPTION of youth. (20)

Jarman’s impassioned defense of queer youth and their right to sexuality stands as a strong remedy to the sort of narcissistic blather that Blubaugh seems intent on prolonging. Jarman’s point is that children are punished for being queer at the same moment that their queerness is denied as even being possible. Jarman’s refusal to abandon queer children at any age shouldn’t be mistaken for pedophilia. It should be understood as recognition of the suffering imposed on children who recognize their own queer desires (or have them recognized).

Blubaugh’s navel-gazing melodrama highlights the real agony of Jarman’s generation: brutal schools, repressive families, an invasive state, violent police, a vacuum-sealed closet, and the AIDS epidemic. It seems impossible to think of what it would be like to see nine-year-old actors playing out the scenario that Jarman actually endured. A nineteen-year-old model/actor subjected to a stylized caning hovers near eroticism; a nine year old being whipped is an unredeemable horror.

Mishory’s tribute to Jarman is ultimately quite beautiful. He inhabits Jarman’s style, iconography and themes with respect and mastery. The life of a short film is often quite limited—making the rounds of festivals or put on a DVD with largely mediocre films of the same length. I hope that this piece, like Jarman’s work, will find its way to the audience it deserves.

Directed by Matthew Mishory
2009, USA/UK, 13 minutes