Soon after Kodak introduced Super 8 film in 1965, a friend gave some to the young Englishman Derek Jarman, later to become a beloved filmmaker, painter and gay activist. He began his first filmin 1970 and would continue to use Super 8 throughout a career cut short by his death at age 50 from AIDS, in 1994. Four non-narrative, silent early Super 8 films, transferred to video, were recently on view at Elizabeth Dee, accompanied by recorded music by frequent Jarman collaborator Simon Fisher Turner. Minimalist string arrangements offsetting ambient drone heightened the films’ plangent visual qualities. Jarman called these films home movies and screened them privately, often for close friends, including those who appeared in them.

Three short films were projected, one per wall, in the gallery’s front room. In Studio Bankside, his first film (1970-73),the handwritten titles “Derek Jarman film diary” and “One last walk / one last look / Bankside 1971” appear at different points, creating a tone at once modest and mournful. A montage of very brief shots, the film takes as its leitmotif an abstract shape that recalls a flower’s petals, described by a bright orange line. This image is intercut with views of Jarman, his friends and collaborators in his studio, as well as shots of his personal effects. Peering through the camera on a tripod, Jarman shoots his own image in a mirror—a portrait of the artist as a young filmmaker.

Sloane Square (1976) conveys a lighter mood, recording bustling activity in Jarman’s apartment; the far wall is mirrored, doubling the space and the figures. Men pose and joke, one of them nude; a patch of sunlight moves across the floor, and Jarman lovingly shoots still lifes of household objects. Through stop-frame animation, small objects seem to walk around, and people’s movements become comical. In one scene, a party proceeds in a graffitied room (“tomorrow has been canceled for lack of interest” is spray-painted on a wall). Also shown was the rather slight 10-minute Sebastian Wrap (1975), which presents faint images of a group of prone sunbathing men, doubtless outtakes from Jarman’s film Sebastiane (1976), a homoerotic feature about Roman soldiers shot entirely in Latin.

If a dream could be captured on film, with its mysterious and portentous images at once frightening and somehow silly, it might look something like the 54-minute In the Shadow of the Sun (1974), shown in the gallery’s back room. While Studio Bankside and Sloane Square depend on quick cuts, In the Shadow is all slow motion, most of its frames layered with multiple exposures, a technique Jarman would use in later films. Fire imagery (evoking the sun of the title) sets the tone, including recurrent scenes of one man photographing another lying naked on
the ground amid flames. Among other repeating scenes are a stylish man brushing his hair in a mirror held by a top-hatted figure; costumed, hooded people, and one wearing a skull mask; and nude men posing with mirrors that reflect bright flashes of light.

Technical demands aside, it’s a shame the works had to be shown on video rather than in the full visual richness of film. Moreover, though the works in the front room looked great together, projecting three pieces simultaneously with a single musical accompaniment somewhat recast Jarman as a video installation artist. Of course, the works not having been made for the public, one can quibble only so much with any particular presentation. Sexy and sad, intimate and experimental, the films are an affecting postcard from Jarman’s London.

The films shown at Elizabeth Dee, along with 14 others, will be on view at X through May. 30.   

Above: Far left, In the Shadow of the Sun, 1974, 54 minutes; left, Studio Bankside, 1970-73, 6 minutes, both Super 8 film transferred to DVD; at Elizabeth Dee.