Thursday, December 11, 2008

War Requiem

Derek Jarman Film Series at the SF MOMA
Saturday, December 06, 2008
Phyllis Wattis Theater
1:00 p.m.

I went to one of the last of SF MOMA's Derek Jarman screenings to see his War Requiem. Except for a prologue featuring the last appearance of Laurence Olivier, this is basically a music video of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem. The soundtrack is the 1963 Decca studio recording led by the composer himself.

The text of the War Requiem is a complicated interweaving of the traditional Latin text with poems of Wilfred Owen. Jarman illustrates each musical section with a scenario, which may be a dramatic scene relating to the text or a more abstract commentary. As in the other Jarman movies I've seen, there is a loose, episodic narrative framed by the death of the main character, in this case the poet Wilfred Owen himself. Tilda Swinton appears as a frontline nurse.

The opening Requiem aeternam includes a symbolic scene of the nurse mourning the young dead poet. She lets out what must be a piercing scream, her mouth open wide, but we only ever hear the musical sound track. A following segment depicts Owen & his friend in training, & it looks like a conventional flashback.

A detailed narrative accompanies the Dies irae. Owen comes upon an initially benign encounter between his friend & a German soldier. However it ends with Owen killing the German soldier who in turn kills the friend, who ends up impaled on a tangle of barbed wire. There are no innocent combatants here.

The climax of the Britten work is the Libera me. In the movie it is accompanied by a gory montage of documentary footage of war killings, climaxing with an atomic bomb explosion. The Strange Meeting section follows the poem closely. We see the dream in which Owen explores an underground chamber & meets the German soldier he killed.

The final chorus is illustrated by Christian iconography & a recreation of the Piero della Francesca painting of the Resurrection of Christ. It's quite a literal depiction of the text. The tone is somber, reverential & ritualistic.

The movie is an interesting experiment. I feel that Jarman is always admirably respectful of the meaning & intent of the Britten work. Jarman has his own very artificial & idiosyncratic aesthetic, but he is at least always true to his own style, & I always feel that he has thought things through. At the same time I find it hard to imagine that he is anything more than a marginal artistic figure now. There were about 25 of us at the museum showing, & I none of the other screenings I went to seemed that much more enthusiastically attended.

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