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JUBILEE

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Jenny Runacre, Little Nell, Toyah Willcox, Jordan, Adam Ant, Orlando, Wayne County
Director: Derek Jarman
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.66:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Trailer, documentary, extended film excerpt, scrapbook, photo gallery
Length: 105 minutes
Release Date: May 27, 2003

"As long as the music's loud enough, we won't hear the world falling apart."

Film * 1/2

Don't be fooled by the sweet-sounding title.  Derek Jarman's Jubilee (1978) is perhaps one of the maddest mind trip of a film you may ever see.  It is outrageously anti-establishment and not for the faint of heart.  Originally titled Honi soit qui mal y pense (Evil is he who thinks of evil), the film eventually derived its title from the Silver Jubilee anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's 25th year on the throne.  Perhaps not coincidentally then, the original Queen Elizabeth is used as a character for the film's prologue and epilogue scenes which frame this chaotic tale of future shock.

Jubilee is frankly the sort of film that either you dig it or you don't.  It is also very much a product of its time and of British society, though even Britons of the day were not entirely sure what to make of the film.  Out of that context, Jubilee may be more difficult for modern audiences to comprehend and subsequently has a somewhat dated feel.  Many of Jubilee's scenes are reminiscent of Clockwork Orange, with their brutal violence and frank sexuality.  Everything is portrayed quite graphically, begging the question of why Clockwork Orange was banned outright in England whereas Jubilee was not.  Perhaps the answer lies in Jubilee's punk origin.

By the mid-1970's, British pop culture had undergone many drastic changes.  Punk had evolved as a reactionary and rebellious British youth movement.  In punk, the younger generation had a vent through which to express their anger and frustration at the government, its handling of the IRA situation, and the generally pathetic state of the economy.  Behaviour and decadence which had seemed scandalous earlier in the decade were more commonplace by the time of Jubilee's release.  While still shocking, Jubilee was a reflection of its era and thereby acceptable to the British censors (apparently).

For his film, Jarman wanted to capture the anarchistic, nihilistic quality of punk.  Punk bands of the time, such as Siouxsie & the Banshees or Adam & the Ants, contributed to the film.  Jarman also wanted to convey a somewhat disjointed nature to his film as a reflection of punk's devil-may-care rage.  In this regard, I would have to give him an "A" because Jubilee is a very disjointed, all-over-the-place film.  If Jubilee had been a painting, it would have looked like the work of contemporary painter Jackson Pollack.

Much like the American pop art icon Andy Warhol, Jarman often used an extended family of friends repeatedly in his films.  He did this for Jubilee and consequently, the film takes on a bizarre quality.  While these friends and non-actors do add a vibrant spontaneity to their characterizations that would be lacking in the polished, well-rehearsed performances of trained actors, their amateurism also produces some fairly laughable results.

Jubilee starts during the Elizabethan Age.  Queen Elizabeth (Jenny Runacre) has requested her court alchemist, Dr. Dee (Richard O'Brien), to reveal the future of her country.  Somehow, the alchemist summons forth the angel Ariel (David Haughton), and Ariel transports both queen and alchemist into a future England not so far removed from the pessimistic vision of Stanley Kubrick's Clockwork Orange.  In Jarman's England, there is utter chaos in the streets.  Policemen do little to maintain law and order and, in fact, sometimes kill people simply for sport.  In retaliation, civilians kill them right back.  Anarchy and flagrant sexuality are pandemic, and even Westminster Cathedral has been transformed into a nightclub for orgy-fests.  Dorset, for its part, has been transformed into a communist state where "gay, homosexuals, and Jews are banned."  The rest of England is rampant with cross-dressing punk transvestites, homoerotic encounters, and street gangs.  Sadomasochism abounds, involving everything from bondage to ménages à trois to orgies among apostles and bishops.

Anyone offended yet?  It's like wandering into a Ken Russell film.  Oh wait, Derek Jarman was his one-time assistant, so it is a Ken Russell film!

In this post-apocalyptic England, we are soon introduced to a pack of six women.  They are led by their own queen, Bod (Jenny Runacre again), a murderous black widow of a woman.  Mad (Toyah Willcox) is the outspoken, flame-haired punk rocker with a penchant for fires.  Amyl Nitrate (Jordan, a punk icon of the day) is a teacher with very incendiary ideas about society and history in general.  Crabs (Little Nell) is the group's kinky nymphomaniac.  Viv (Linda Spurrier) is an artist, and Chaos (Hermine Demoriane) is the silent French au pair.

Jubilee's story, or what little passes for one, follows these six women in their hum-drum, existentialistic lives in this world gone mad.  A number of bizarre, wonderland-type characters wander into their paths.  Crabs has her Kid (punk rocker Adam Ant!), the young and ambitious punk rocker, or Happy Days, the one-night stand who is eventually undone by his red cellophane encounter with Bod.  Viv has her Sphinx and Angel, a pair of incestuous brothers.  Bod has other fresh bodies upon which to feed, too, including Lounge Lizard (Wayne County), a whacked-out punk transvestite who does the karaoke thing to his own songs.  But everyone will eventually belong to Borgia Ginz (Orlando), a cross-eyed and completely insane global media mogul.  He is the puppet-master of this world's chaos, and his power-hungry motto is "they all sign up in the end."

Eschewing a conventional narration, Jubilee employs an almost stream-of-consciousness persona.  The film jumps from scene to scene with barely a trace of direction or continuity.  There's really no plot.  It's not so much a film as a series of small vaguely-interconnected vignettes.  And as for Queen Elizabeth and Dr. Dee?  They are practically afterthoughts which Jarman throws in from time to time so they can bear sad witness to England's dismal future.  Frankly, these scenes tend to be among the weaker ones in the film anyway, as they are very slow and sprout forth some of the most ridiculously pretentious mumbo-jumbo.  A pretentious punk film?  Hmm. 

The film's pacing is understandably quite uneven.  Some scenes have a mesmerizing energy and vitality of their own.  These scenes often feature punk performances with fluid camerawork and energetic choreography.  The best scenes include Amyl Nitrate's "Rule Britannia" Eurovision song sequence or Kid's punk audition.  Other scenes, particularly dialogue scenes or the Elizabethan Era scenes, tend to drag and sink into a quagmire of pointlessness.

The Elizabethan scenes do offer a subtle but subversive political agenda to the film, though Jubilee clearly has a tongue-firmly-implanted-in-cheek mentality.  In a sense, Jubilee uses punk as a medium through which to criticize the disintegrating state of British society, but it doesn't take itself too seriously.  The film is about as intellectual as Avril Lavigne is a real punk singer.

So, is Jubilee a good film?  On the contrary, it tips the scale far in the opposite direction.  Toyah Willcox herself initially wondered if she had wondered into a "bizarre, porno film."  Reviews after the film's premiere at the Gate Two Theater were very mixed.  Even Vivienne Westwood, Jordan's friend and a founder of the punk rock band The Sex Pistols, remarked of Jubilee (after watching it twice) that it was a "most boring and therefore disgusting film."  Did that mean that she liked it?  Who can tell with punk rockers?  

In the end, Jubilee is one of those so-bad-it's-good films.  If you can get pass the Elizabethan pseudo-philosophy, Jubilee actually has quite a bit of satirical humor (all British) and peppy energy.  The whole may not be quite equal to the sum of its parts, but then again, Jubilee was always very much an experimental, independent production (back in the days when that actually meant something).

Video **

Jubilee is presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic transfer.  It has an extremely grainy look, having been originally photographed on 16mm film stock.  One sequence, a fantasy dance, even uses super-8 film!  Needless to say, the film does not have a polished sheen to it.  The most eye-straining quality of the image, however, is its extreme softness.  Often, details will simply dissolve away if a character or an object moves beyond the immediate foreground.  Watching this film may cause you to seriously consider buying prescription glasses.  Don't worry, it's not your eyes, and it's not the TV set, either.

On the bright side, Jubilee is very colorful.  The images oscillate from a weary washed-out palette of gray, worldly London to the kaleidoscopic flood of rainbow colors during scenes with music performances or choreography.  The film is not a musical, but these vivid sequences, of which there are a few, are often the most imaginatively shot and most visually appealing.

The transfer looks quite fine and was even supervised by the film's director of photography Peter Middleton.  Criterion has done a decent job in removing most but not all debris and dust from the film.  I saw no compression artifacts anywhere.  Thus, my low rating for this category is not reflective of the transfer but rather of the somewhat sub-standard appearance of the actual original footage itself.  Oh well, what can you expect from a low-budget, independent British production?

Audio ***

Jubilee is presented in Dolby Digital mono 1.0.  For a monophonic soundtrack, it is quite loud, especially when songs and music burst forth.  Dialogue sometimes sounds a bit thin, but since a lot of it is rubbish, it hardly matters.  To be honest, I didn't understand what anyone was saying anyways, even with sub-titles on, so audio is not a big issue here!

Features ***

The two main features are a large "Rip-off" section and a documentary.  The "Rip-off" section includes the film's bizarre trailer and the extended super-8 footage of Jordan's fantasy dance sequence from the film.  Jarman himself offers an introduction to this sequence, although you'll have to change audio tracks to hear it.

The rest of the "Rip-off" section is essentially one truly massive photo gallery.  It has been divided into three smaller categories, but these nonetheless go on for literally dozens and dozens of photographs.  First is a script scrapbook.  Jarman habitually kept scrapbooks from his films that served as visual scripts, so excerpts in this section feature personal notes, small props, photographs, and much more from the Jubilee scrapbook.  It's worth a look.  Second, there is a continuity stills section of photographs from the film's production.  Lastly, "It's a New Wave Movie" showcases publicity photographs and memorabilia of all sorts, including the entire text of Vivienne Westwood's infamously derogatory t-shirt about Jubilee.

The documentary, Jubilee: A Time Less Golden, is a 37-minute film made exclusively for the DVD.  It features interviews with stars from the film and many of Jarman's close associates and friends.  The documentary includes clips from some of Jarman's early films as well but concentrates mostly on recollections regarding Jubilee's production.

Lastly, but not on the DVD itself, there is a large fold-out insert with an essay by Tony Peake, a Jarman biographer.  I would recommend reading it (and watching all the features, too) before watching the movie.  It will help you to appreciate the film in its proper social context of 1970's Britain.  Don't worry, Jubilee has no real plot to spoil, so it's okay to watch the features first!

Summary:

Jubilee has "midnite movie" written all over it and is about as far from the politically correct mainstream as a film can get.  Viewers with fragile sensibilities or impressionable children in the household may want to avoid Jubilee, but more rebellious or daring adventurers may enjoy the film's heavy dose of sexuality and punk mentality.