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Derek Jarman was well into his directing career when, in September 1984, filmmaker Ron Peck asked him to help with the prep for what would become Peck’s crime drama Empire State. Set loose in a gay club with a video camera, he wandered around shooting interactions between bar regulars and assorted characters Peck considered putting into his film. This experiment seemingly contributed little to the feature; but, plucked from obscurity and offered as a stand-alone document, it captures the scene in a surprisingly involving way. Cruddy tech values and a total absence of manufactured plot make it a non-starter for most moviegoers, even given Jarman’s stature as an artist. But patient viewers may well be seduced by this unusual people-watching expedition.
Peck organized this evening at Benjy’s, an East London club where he was a regular. He invited around 100 people, many of them regular denizens or employees of the bar. Jarman was directed to observe the social flow over the course of the night, paying special attention to dancing.
At the outset, it seems he’ll have little to do: The dance floor is nearly abandoned, and small clusters of people stand in isolation from each other. As Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” livens things up, Jarman points his VHS camcorder at a chubby breakdancer. The primitive device can barely capture an image in the darkness; bright lights in the background burn ghostlike streaks across the screen as Jarman pans past them.
A low-charisma DJ makes a few announcements, uttering some of the few intelligible words captured by Jarman’s gear. As we start noticing repeat appearances by some characters onscreen, we also register the way Jarman notices them: checking one man out indirectly, using a mirror; zooming down the length of the bar to observe someone else covertly. But if the director had written elsewhere about gay clubs as a sort of prison, whose inmates were addicted to physical perfection, there’s nothing predatory about this environment, which is far more inclusive and unintimidating than expected.
Slowly, the people-watching gets better. A clean-cut young man loiters on the edge of a conversation between the club’s prettiest boys, trying to join in. From behind the camera, Jarman asks someone to dance and is put off. An awkward loner does a jerky dance out on the floor, betraying his self-consciousness with a single glance at the camera; nearby, a senior citizen in a muscle shirt moves with abandon.
At some point, we realize we’ve stopped counting the ‘80s dance hits we recognize (or trying to figure out when that Frankie Goes to Hollywood remix will end) and have become invested in the social lives of the men and women on camera. And, especially, in Jarman’s interaction with a crew-cut youth in a varsity jacket: That’s Phillip Williamson, soon to co-star in Jarman’s The Angelic Conversation, and yes, he eventually gives in and dances with the camera. Whereupon this movie seems to levitate slightly, no longer observing a night in the club but transformed by it — losing track of time, forgetting the rest of the room, until everything ends in an uncomfortably long freeze-frame.
Production company: Team Pictures Limited
Director: Derek Jarman
Producers: Ron Peck, Mark Ayres
Not rated, 78 minutes
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