Daring Brit director Jarman dies at 52

Iconoclastic British director Derek Jarman, best known for such controversial homoerotic films as “Caravaggio,””Sebastiane” and “Edward II,” has died of AIDS complications. He was 52.

Jarman died late Saturday at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in central London, a hospital spokesman said Sunday.

Jarman first revealed his HIV condition in 1987 and became a fiery spokesman for AIDS, both in his native country and abroad. He criticized actor Ian McKellen for accepting a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth and was in turn criticized by other prominent gay Brits who came out publicly in support of McKellen’s decision.

For more than two decades, Jarman produced an oeuvre of experimental films that were boldly unconventional and often blatantly erotic. They brought him a solid cult following. He was alternately a darling and a whipping boy to critics , who applauded and derided his uneven output.

Despite a vast output, only a few of his films reached wide theatrical release, including “Sebastiane,” about a martyred saint, which was a surprise box office hit in England; “Caravaggio,” a stylized biography of the 16 th-century Italian painter; “War Requiem,” a free-form musing about the brutality of war shaped around Benjamin Britten’s oratorio; and “Edward II,” a liberal interpretation of Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy, which was perhaps his most accessible film.

“It has a good narrative line and it’s pretty clear who everybody is,” he told an interviewer. “It’s much more traditional.”

Funding frustrations

He was frequently frustrated in raising funding for his films and blamed his woes, and those of his generation of British filmmakers, on the Margaret Thatcher goverment’s disdain for supporting independent filmmakers. His remarks did little to endear him to the establishment.

“I’ve always fought for what I thought was an indigenous British cinema which could be made with low budgets about subjects that were sort of home-based, without any pandering to the States,” he said.

Jarman, born in 1942 to a “typical suburban family,” was educated at King’s College in London, where he studied painting.

Art interests

In 1967 he won the Peter Stuyvesant award and presented work at the Young Contemporaries’ and John Moores’ exhibitions. He had annual shows at the Lisson Gallery. He also developed an interest in costume and set design, working first at the Royal Ballet and then on a production of “Don Giovanni” at the Coliseum. He was production designer on Ken Russell’s “The Devils” and also worked for the Festival Ballet.

“Sebastiane,” his first feature, was followed by “Jubilee” and a version of Shakespeare’s “Tempest,” which was framed by a singer chanting “Stormy Weather.””The Last of England” was an apocalyptic view of Britain after a governmental coup and “The Garden” juxtaposed the passion of Christ with the tragic fates of gay lovers. He also traveled to Russia to make “Imagining October.”

Eclectic helming

“Caravaggio” and “Edward II” brought Jarman more serious attention, although his biography of “Wittgenstein” led to more head scratching. He also directed musicvideos for such artists as Pet Shop Boys, Marianne Faithfull and Bryan Ferry.

Jarman continued his design and painting work, contributing to the London Contemporary Dance Company and a production of “The Rake’s Progress” in Florence , Italy.

AIDS activist

In 1987, Jarman was diagnosed as HIV-positive and developed numerous AIDS-related illnesses. He became an outspoken AIDS activist and political rabble-rouser.

He wrote three biographical diaries about his experiences as a gay man and his fight with HIV: “At Your Own Risk: A Saint’s Testament,””Dancing Ledge” and “Modern Nature.”

Last year he made his final film “Blue,” which consisted of a personal commentary on the audio track set against 76 minutes of solid blue screen.

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