Thursday, 9 September 2010

Derek Jarman's In the Shadow of the Sun

After making a number of Super 8 shorts in the early seventies, Derek Jarman took his first steps towards a long form work with In the Shadow of the Sun. This non-narrative, experimental film is composed of various layers of Jarman’s Super 8 movies blown up to 16mm and superimposed on top of one another. Because the Super 8 films were originally shot without sound, the images are accompanied by music composed for the film by Throbbing Gristle.

In the Shadow of the Sun is an astonishing film, a cinematic equivalent of ambient music. Over the course of some 50mins Jarman weaves an extraordinary tapestry of drowsy half-speed Super 8 images flowing above and beneath one another like rivers of lava, momentarily cooling to form an image then melting, dissolving and reconstituting into the next image. Jarman fans will recognize some of the films that appear within In the Shadow of the Sun -  the landscape film, Journey To Avebury (1971) is extensively used as a backdrop, on top of which you can catch images that have strayed from Tarot (1972) and Fire Island (1974).

There's an extraordinary undercurrent of magick running through the film, with recurring images of mirrors reflecting light, a shadowy figure shuffling tarot cards, sinister figures wearing strange masks and an amorous couple dancing through burning meadows. The Super 8 film stock had naturally degraded to form amazing other worldly colors and textures, and the heavy grain, scratches and rough splices on the film hypnotize the eye as they flicker and dance across the screen.

In the Shadow of the Sun is very much the work of a painter but the films of Kenneth Anger remain a strong influence over the film, and one wonders if Jarman had seen the wonderful 1971 gay experimental film Pink Narcissus, another Super 8 work with searing primary colors and strange, surreal imagery. Jarman would go on to make more conventional films in the succeeding years but he would return to the stylistic experiment of In the Shadow of the Sun with his 1985 film The Angelic Conversation. The score by Throbbing Gristle is a mesmerizing beatless electronic ocean of sound - soothing, becalmed, turbulent and stormy with the occasional anguished, distorted voice rising beyond the surf. The music was entirely improvised by the group to a screening of the film in 1980. After the soundtrack was completed the film made its debut in 1981 at the Berlin Film Festival.

So far the only DVD release for In the Shadow of the Sun is courtesy of Italy's Raro label. Entitled The Super 8 Programme Vol 2, it also includes the Super 8 films Journey To Avebury (1971), The Art Of Mirrors (1973), Ashden's Walk On Mon (1973), Stolen Apples For Karen Blixen (1973). Its difficult to rate the image quality of the DVD, evidently sourced from a VHS copy from the presence of a few tracking lines here or there. However, this may be as good as its gets and the image is pleasing nonetheless. Audio wise, Throbbing Gristle's score sounds a little hissy and dated compared to the current CD version (which was remastered in 1993 as part of Mute's Throbbing Gristle re-issue program). Perhaps one day we'll see a better version of In the Shadow of the Sun, but until then the Raro DVD is highly recommended. The film is also currently available to watch online


  1. I saw a lot of experimental film in college - this sounds like it would be very interesting to see.

  2. Craig, when I was much younger, in my early twenties, my solitary film viewings would be accompanied by a generously well-packed joint, and the weirder the film was the better - I hadn't seen In the Shadow of The Sun back then but if I had had this on VHS I'm sure this would have been the go-to guy for getting stoned, such is the film's extraordinary druginess... I haven't smoked in years now but I still love Experimental Cinema, although I think it's much more fun to watch rather than write about...