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Fantasia Obscura: ‘Jubilee’

There are some fantasy, science fiction, and horror films that not every fan has caught. Not every film ever made has been seen by the audience that lives for such fare. Some of these deserve another look, because sometimes not every film should remain obscure.

Sometimes, you want to be anarchy, know what I mean…?

Jubilee (1978)
Distributed by: Cinegate in the UK, Libra Films in the US
Directed by: Derek Jarman

Remember the last time we all faced excessive inflation, the result of a war between a major oil supplier against a smaller country? All of this happening around the time the man elected president had tried some shady stuff to keep in office?

And how all of that led to this…?

Punk was a visceral, angry reaction to the people who were entrusted to keep order but couldn’t really deal with a long list of failures that either just happened on their watch, or worse were caused by them. And 1977 in the UK was the epicenter of that explosion of rage, where life had gotten gloomy just as Elizabeth II celebrated her Silver Jubilee, giving everyone there a sense of “us” and “them” that had never been that painful before.

Which explains the film’s title, as well as its attitude:

We open during the reign of Elizabeth I, where we find the Virgin Queen (Jenny Runacre) consulting with her court astronomer, John Dee (Richard O’Brien). Her Majesty wishes to know what the future holds for her kingdom, so Dee summons the angel Ariel (David Brandon), who proceeds to grant her her wish.

And before you can say, “Be careful what you wish for,” she finds herself in the chaos of 1970s London.

Well, more of a hyper-imagined London during the punk years, really, where violence is a lot more common and hated institutions have actually fallen apart. But, you know how the movies exaggerate everything…

We don’t so much see Elizabeth in the film as much as we watch what she sees. We get introduced to the likes of Mad (Toyah Wilcox), the hyper-violent armed revolutionary, Amyl Nitrate (Jordan), the intellectual poser, Crabs, (Little Nell), the one dominated by her libido, and Bod (Runacre in a second role), who has claims to being royalty and is as prone to mayhem as Mad but a lot better at committing it.

After a few ugly introductions to them and other hangers-on around them, the plot picks up when Crabs is approached by an aspiring musician, Kid (Adam Ant), who Crabs promises to help his career along if he’d do something for her, ifyouknowwhatImean. The scene where Kid gets promised an audition pretty well encapsulates the entire film’s flow and ethos:

Ultimately, Kid and his band (the members of the Ants who went on to become Bow Wow Wow) do get their audition before the major tastemaker, the man who essentially controls the media, Borgia Ginz (Jack Burkett, aka Orlando).

Ginz is a larger-than-life character, as played by Orlando in an over-the-top performance. He gives us a wild laugh and maniacal delivery, describing how the money he’s making from these saps allows him to ultimately control what they think and feel, with a maniacal stare that feel like they’re shoving you against the wall. He ends up stealing the film from the rest of the cast, for whom this was their first theatrical work for most of the performers. (What Orlando does with his gaze is especially noteworthy, as the actor himself was blind.)

And it’s here the film pretty well just stops heading in a steady direction, much like your average Sex Pistols concert. As bad as things looked for the world at the beginning of the movie, they get a lot worse as it goes on, with bloody beatings, shootings, castrations, and hand-to-hand class warfare piled on with abandon. It gets so bad, you barely remember that Ariel’s out there showing Elizabeth and Dee what’s to come.

Derek Jarman, circa 1980

Blaming the collapse of this film on Jarman’s direction and script would be pointless, in that for him, feature films were never his main focus. At best, his films such as this one, Sebastiane, and The Tempest were always secondary to the Super 8 films he’d shoot throughout his life. They were just one facet of his output, along with music videos for the likes of The Smiths and Pet Shop Boys, his paintings, set design work, and activism for gay rights in the UK. Jarman was a film maker the same way Andy Warhol made films in the US, in that both of them did such films on the side and tried not to let them get in the way of their larger body of work.

And what better way for a film with a punk sensibility to unfold than to see it fall apart as it unspools. Watching the characters degenerate into violence as the world falls apart has to be as close to the ethos of punk as any project that tries to look at the movement.

As a result, Jarman’s observations about punk, looking at it from the outside, are very spot-on. The fact that the character of Ginz accumulates power and wealth despite (or because of) the collapse of everything around him can be looked back on years later as a subtle warning about Thatcherism, waiting in the wings to come on stage.

Poster for US release

At the time, though, the film didn’t get the same appreciation a later audience removed from that period would give it. The most famous bad review of the film came from Vivienne Westwood, the punk movement’s clothier, who let Jarman know what she thought of the film on “an open t-shirt” she sold through her boutique, SEX. Among her complaints were the film’s lack of appreciation for the authenticity of punk, and how he had no respect for what he was looking at.

Considering how Malcolm McLaren, the man who at that time gave the world the Sex Pistols and Adam and the Ants, would go on show how much punk was driven by cynical hucksterism, though, maybe Jarman had a good understand of it all along…

 

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