The Weekend Watch: Jubilee

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The Weekend Watch: Jubilee

Welcome to The Weekend Watch, a weekly column focusing on a movie—new, old or somewhere in between, but out either in theaters or on a streaming service near you—worth catching on a cozy Friday night or a lazy Sunday morning. Comments welcome!

Derek Jarman’s filmography spans some of the most lavishly beautiful films ever staged, and some of the most moving avant-garde artwork ever created. The production designer of The Devils,  Ken Russell’s gorgeous piece of 17th-century blasphemy, brought his lush eye for (literal) painterly detail to the faithfully designed quasi-biopic Caravaggio. On the other end of the aesthetic scale, Jarman’s formal experiment Blue—a solid-colored poem released mere months before his death—is perhaps the definitive farewell of the AIDS crisis. But, though his rebelliousness was always visible behind the costumes and pageantry, Jarman wasn’t always so controlled. His second film, 1978’s Jubilee, is a queer punk riot, spitting in the face of conservatism while lighting its own punk bonafides aflame. There’s nothing Jubilee respects, even the icons of its own movement. You can find Jubilee streaming on Max, on The Criterion Channel, or for rent.

Jubilee is, inexplicably, a time-travel movie, though it is less about Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre) and John Dee (The Rocky Horror Show writer Richard O’Brien) asking an angel to take them into a future Britain of mohawks and leather, and more about the anarchist bums running around this ruined nation. These social deviants include the sex fiend Crabs played by Rocky Horror’s Little Nell, the burlesque performer Amyl Nitrate played by style icon Jordan (sporting her famous Aladdin Sane-esque make-up and blonde hair-antlers), an aspiring rocker played by Adam Ant and many more. Siouxsie Sioux and Gene October are around, as is Jayne County. A French tightrope-walker is tied up with barbed-wire and abused. A pair of incestuous bisexual brothers pops up and you think, sure, why not?

This motley crew wages war against the murderous police force, good taste, conventional narratives of history and each other—sometimes literally, like when a boxing bout breaks out after a small fencing match. Though the stuffy authoritarianism of monarchy is Jubilee’s key target (Westminster Cathedral and Buckingham Palace have been co-opted by an enterprising impresario as his musical sin dens), so too is Brit-punk’s beeline towards fascism. 

Jarman saw the writing on the wall: It may not have happened during the first wave of U.K. punk, but the rise of the alt-right skinheads was a natural progression once the “apolitical” violence and “ironic” fascination with Hitler were weaponized by those driven by hate. Amyl Nitrate’s mocking performance of “Rule Britannia,” filled with goose-stepping and Nazi chants, is both a “fuck you” towards imperialist patriotism and the counter-culture’s quickness to incorporate Nazism. (The punks also seem to hang out with an aged Hitler near the end of the film) Some of the monologues that break away from the madness for on-the-nose commentary are so stiff it seems clear that Jarman and co-writer Christopher Hobbs are thumbing their noses at some of the pretension in these crowds.

And some in those crowds took offense. Vivienne Westwood, who helped bring punk fashion to the London masses alongside people like Jordan, scrawled a homophobic response to Jubilee on a t-shirt. “Open T-Shirt to Derek Jarman” is so heated (and so clearly misses many of the movie’s ironies) you can’t help but think that Jarman hit a sore spot.

Aside from the Elizabethan time-travel strangeness, which is quintessential Jarman, these characters and themes make Jubilee feel a bit like a Mad Max hellscape by way of John Waters—especially when an older guy with a Tom of Finland ‘stache waters his gaudy plastic plants. It’s knowingly camp, especially as it blends religious iconography with sexuality or military garb with pink latex gloves. Its future is completely queer, despite the bigotry still just beneath the surface. But it’s also as angry as its characters.

This aesthetic and tonal intersection feels particularly prescient in 1978, as Jarman bridged stiff U.K. history to its bombed-out post-war present, then looked further forward to a future where a lack of ideology left a power vacuum that capitalists were only too happy to fill. He saw that queerness would be monetized yet discriminated against, that rebelling without a cause would only allow the rich and powerful to take advantage of those acting up. Jubilee is a riotous mess, but its killings and firebombs at least rage with intent.

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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