There would have to be something miraculous about a new film by gay, British art-house director and artist Derek Jarman, but that's exactly what London's BFI Flare LGBT Film Festival offered last weekend. Jarman, who died 20 years ago, put together a VHS tape following people in a nightclub back in September 1984. Released for the first time as Will You Dance With Me?, the footage was to help fellow director Ron Peck with the casting and styling of his feature film Empire State, which eventually came into being, though without Jarman's brilliant touch, three years later.
Watching 78 minutes of roving camera shot across a tiny dance floor and among the characters crowding around the bar of Benjy's in Mile End, East London, may not sound like your idea of an evening's entertainment, but think again. Remember, this is Derek Jarman behind the camera. He was a cinematic genius, a visual poet who could make spilt beer brooding.
Anyone who remembers the '80s in Britain will recognize the scene: the carpeted floor, the dingy plush booths, the long pool of light that is the bar, the tininess of if all -- everything, in fact, suggestive of someone's front-room conversion rather than the cavernous, multilevel dance halls of later eras. This is the local disco with its twice-a-week gay nights, a place as thrilling and scary as any back alley for a 20-year-old out to hook up and pick up. Gay bars and pubs still blacked out their windows then, and no one really wanted to be seen entering or exiting. Within is a world of satin prints, cotton jumpers, ass-hugging slacks, New Romantic quiffs, perms, and lining the pints of beer up at the bar -- paradise, in other words. My own personal paradise was The Coven in Oxford, where town met gown on a dance floor that was overcrowded with half a dozen people on it. There was the promise of sex, waking up in a strange bedroom, bussing home with Oxford's commuters in last night's underwear, a not-so-guilty secret, feeling special at last rather than feeling like a freak, knowing that you're not alone.
The initial impression in the first few moments of Will You Dance With Me? is not exactly nostalgia but a sort of synesthetic sense memory of poppers, Stella Artois and Eau Sauvage. But if that was all it had to offer, it wouldn't be worth more than five minutes of your time. Jarman cannot help but weave a plot from his material, following one dancer after another, ranging back to the bar to inspect the profile of a drag queen or zooming across the club to eavesdrop on a pretty boy blue and his older companion. The camera becomes a prowler, apparently omnivorous but actually on the hunt for something particular, something it will know when it sees it. There is wry humor here; quixotic dance routines elicited applause from the cinema audience. And the soundtrack was that of my early 20s: Sister Sledge, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Evelyn Thomas, the anvil beat of a generation's heart, worth issuing on its own.
At last Jarman's video narrator finds what he's looking for, a handsome young man, chiseled, sensitive, though paradoxically a bit rough around the edges. "Will you dance with me?" he asks, giving the film's producers their title. "In a minute," the boy diffidently replies, as though turning down the likes of Derek Jarman were a nightly occurrence.
And the last 15 minutes or so of the film become a paean to this youth, or perhaps to youth itself. When he asks him to dance to camera, under the lights the young man's face has an almost unbearably sad beauty to it, fragile and vulnerable -- and we're reminded that HIV/AIDS was already the uninvited guest at the party. How many there that night in 1984 would not see their 30s or 40s? Jarman himself only had 10 years left to live.
Phillip Williamson was the young man, and he went on to star in Jarman's exquisite distillation of Shakespeare's sonnets, The Angelic Conversation. Benjy's was never used in the film, and the innovative handheld camerawork remained on a shelf for 30 years. Of course, the whole thing was set up, and that is the artistry of it, for the film feels like a video montage of an average night out. Although fashions may have changed (thankfully), and although the settings may have become slicker, the essential butterflies in the belly are still the same for today's clubbers, which makes the movie universal.
Will You Dance With Me? is a worthy addition to Jarman's stable, a splendid, romantic, heady, scrappy, noisy, artful hymn to a moment-in-time gay scene that is also for all time.
While there's talk of a general release, Will You Dance With Me? will be at a film festival near you soon.