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Leaving the poor to fight it out with the police
on 24 August 2017
One of the very few certainties that can be levelled at this film is that Richard O'Brien was absolutely born to play Dr John Dee, after that the story - such as it is - really just serves as a series of hooks - a gallery, if you will, for the works of punk - or at least Punk by Jarman.
The odd thing about Punk is that it happened at all; as a movement of violent protest it had really very little to protest about - admittedly the Socialist government of the 1970s was failing quite egregiously, but it wasn't the kids that were being short-changed, in fact youth unemployment was still reasonably low; popular music was admittedly beyond banal (witness Demis Roussos on TOTP in 1976) but none of that really stood up as grounds for popular anarchist revolution.
I look back on 1977 with considerable fondness - we were, without any doubt, a far happier country than we are now, all that said, the value of Punk was proved two yeas later when Margaret Thatcher got in, a lasting demonstration, if ever there was one, of the need for the proletariat to retain its power to be angry.
Jubilee is a shamelessly violent film, embodying the threat that Punk explicitly embodied - though very rarely lived up to - for all the sneer and swagger, punks weren't really much more violent than hippies. Jubliees violence is credibly sordid and ugly, and all the more disturbing for being carried out by teenage girls. I think there's probably a Feminist statement vis 'If a man did this it would be more acceptable'. It's also blatantly gratuitous, as if defying the audience to object.
Social collape and resulting dystopia were very much leitmotifs of the 1970s zeitgeist, with Survivors, The Changes, Blake's 7, Old Men At The Zoo and Day of the Triffids all trading on the idea that our society was about to disintegrate, and the world of Jubliee is brutally bleak, with the rich living in gated enclosures, leaving the poor to fight it out with the police, or each otrher.
The story follows the fairly meaningless lives of five homicidal girls - Bod, Mad, Crabs, Chaos and Amyl Nitrate - who seem somewhwere close to the acme of cool, though it is stated fairly explicitly that 'cool' is also meaningless - having sex, killing people, not being able to box very well, pontificating, killing people after having sex with them, and setting fire to cars. Bod kills an old woman for the sparkly gold crown in her shopping bag - it may even be the queen.
The only way out of all this seems to be attaining popular stardom in the music industry, and murdering more successful people is a perfectly acceptable alternative to talent. The arbiter of music is the camp, florriid and sleazy Borgia Ginz, and the end of the story is that all the girls go and live with him in his big mansion in the country. Goodness knows how long that's going to last.
It's a nihilistic mystery cycle of set pieces, liberally flavoured with the teenage wish to shock and, to be fair, back in the 1970s two gay men sharing a bed and having an orgy in Westminster Cathedral *was* shocking. The ubiquitous violence is invariably banal - even as far as the machine gun-toting Toyah Wilcox having pink Marigold gloves under her epaulet - nowhere is killing people presented as cool or easy; the dead body, wrapped in red plastic and dumped in the Thames (just down from Tower Bridge, where it's now so expensive), lies at an awkward angle in the mud.
As a framing and contextual device to the whole ghastly caravanserai, Queen Elizabeth I (attended by a very small lady in waiting - authentic apparently) is transported forward in time (and possibly across dimensions) by Dr Dee to the silver jubilee of her later namesake, the grim reality of which she generally deplores. 'Oh, Dr Dee, how horrible, ah me...'. The counterpoint to all this (which, I suppose, is the keystone to the whole film) is Amyl Nitrate's turn onstage singing Rule Britannia - it's the best bit in the film, though the cathedral party is very good too - (and not unfamiliar actually).
The ensemble cast might as well stand as a gallery of Punk (Derek Jarman's view of it at least); Toyah is brashly strident as Mad, while 'Little' Nell Campbell stickily sleazy as Crabs. Jenny Runacre doubles Bod and Elizabeth I, and so might be the closest thing to a leading lady; Jordan can deliver a number, but I'm not sure she's a natural actor. Ian Charlesson does a beautiful cough and a spit as one half of the gay couple, and Jack Birkett - aka the Great Orlando - turns in a bravura job of Borgia Ginz - rather like a camp(er) Steven Berkoff. The quality is patchy - but that could all be party of the genre - more Punk to make a movie that's a bit crap in places than one that's good throughout.
Jarmanism (if there is such a word) is shot through the whole thing, with all the washed-out colour, campery, violence and melancholy that seemed to be his world view. Jubilee has attained the status of a 'cult classic' - which I take to mean that I am not alone in enjoying and liking it, inspite of parts of it being not very good.
In spite of Vivienne Westwood's objections that it mis-represented Punk, Jubilee remains a very watchable film. I can't remember when I last watched The Great Rock n Roll Swindle - about 1984 I suspect.