Close your eyes and face the bright of the sun. Let it burn into your eyelids a hot, vivid, red; let it sear its temporary mark onto your retinas until everything goes white-hot, just a few seconds will do, then turn away, and open your eyes.
Deep blue occupies the screen
Blue. As you stared, close-eyed, at the sun, light would have still passed through your eyelids — specifically, red light. Your brain, meanwhile, would have been working to neutralise or balance the colour that you saw. You can think of it as your red-colour receptors ‘wearing out’ temporarily, so you are less able to see red. As a result, when you open your eyes again and all light enters, everything you see will be tinted in blues and greens, drained of reddish hues. Another way to experience this effect is to look up any of those colour-based optical illusions online, the ones that usually feature an image in negative-colour with a red dot in the middle. They will tell you to focus on the red dot for a few seconds to a minute, then look at a plain wall — the image will appear in full colour on the wall. A similar process takes place in your brain to produce this effect.
These illusions are usually all fun and games of course, but they also illustrate a very important concept about visual perception — that it is both subjective and incomplete. Everything our sight detects is only available to us through a process of mediation taking place in our brains, an automatic process which we are not fully conscious of, much less in control of. And, the thing is, our brains are easily tricked. Recall, back in February of 2015, when an unassuming picture of a dress sparked endless debates over its colour. Yes, ‘the dress’, as it was affectionately called. Whether you were team white-and-gold or team blue–and-black, the consensus we arrived at for why people were seeing the dress in different colours was that our brains had assumed different lighting conditions (Pascal Wallisch). Was the dress in the light or in the shadow, was the light artificial or natural? These assumptions consequently ‘coloured’ the image from there. How we perceive the world is therefore literally influenced by the assumptions we make about it, narrowing our visual reality down based on subjective factors.
The silhouette of a man, obscured in blue
External manipulation of visual culture, or what is made available for us to see, further carves down that visual reality. A prominent example would be media and cultural representations of AIDS during the 1980s AIDS epidemic in the UK. As Tim Lawrence, a Professor at the University of East London, noted in his article on AIDS representation, the visual body of AIDS had been moulded into a morbid site of disfiguration, cementing horror, fear, and hopelessness into the concept of the disease:
Bodies are almost always disfigured, whether it be through emaciation or the skin lesions associated with Kaposi’s sarcoma. Debilitated, sick, and almost dead, people with AIDS are desperate in the face of their inevitable death. […] All of this despite the fact that the vast majority of people with AIDS wear no visible stigmata of the disease, have a life expectancy of years, and carry on with their lives much like everybody else. (243)
Lawrence observed that the body with AIDS, detached from the individual, became vandalised for various political agendas during the epidemic, centred around the erasure of gay culture and equation of homosexuality with sin (243). Echoing this entrapment of the individual within their corrupted bodily image, Derek Jarman’s Blue poetically declares that “the image is a prison of the soul”. Obscured beneath that sickly portrayal of sin, unable to speak out or break free, the “subjectivity” of the individual effectively “disappears, while the body with AIDS remains visible” as a sweeping symbol of deprivation (Lawrence 243). It is therefore not just that our sight is an imprecise means of perceiving the world, but that our over-reliance on it can be used against us in ways that we are simply not equipped to resist.
How are we perceived if we are to be perceived at all?
For the most part we are invisible. If the doors of Perception
were cleansed then everything would be seen as it is.
— Derek Jarman, Blue (1993)
In reconciling the image of the AIDS sufferer with its deeply subjective and personal nature, Jarman chose to refrain from representing any image at all. To clarify, Blue is not an audio movie or radio drama, but a film that offers only one, singular, visual stimulus in the form of an unchanging screen of blue. This format gives Jarman greater control over what we as the audience are allowed to see: when we choose to watch a film, we have (ideally) chosen to enter into an implicit contract with the director — to spend the next hour or two with our eyes trained on the screen, seated with no other distractions, and giving the film our fullest attention. This means no writing emails or doing chores while listening, we are simply not allowed to be able to see or do anything else. The blue hue we are forced to perceive serves in part as a nod to Jarman’s own vision deteriorating into shades of blue due to his experience with AIDS, thus retaining his autobiographical intentions. At the same time, the blue inheres a certain “plural” quality to it, as it refuses to offer any fixed visual definitions (Lawrence 249). The character we are acquainted with in the film is one defined not by his image, but by a free-floating voice with no source: an auditory self.
A blurred silhouette of a humanoid figure, obscured in blue
The auditory self represents freedom from the constraints of visual representation. In the words of Steven Connor, who defined the auditory self in his chapter “The Modern Auditory I,” this form of selfhood is one “imaged not as a point, but as a membrane; not as a picture, but as a channel through which voices, noises, and musics travel” (207). This way, Jarman managed not only to avoid presupposing his version of AIDS as the objective truth, but also approached a paradoxical sort of subjective universality in his work. The uncertainty of language and the ambiguity of the single-coloured screen make the film more subjective, more malleable, and more capable of serving as a conduit that allows the voices, experiences, and emotions of every viewer to pass through it — almost as if the film were an autobiography not of Derek Jarman, but of an indefinite public consciousness. By stripping away all visual stimuli in his film, Jarman allowed not just himself, but also everyone else, to be seen as they are.
Connor, Steven. “The Modern Auditory I,” Rewriting the Self: Histories from the Renaissance to the Present, edited by Roy Porter, Routledge, 1997, pp. 203–223.
Lawrence, Tim. “AIDS, the Problem of Representation, and Plurality in Derek Jarman’s Blue.” Social Text, no. 52/53, 1997, pp. 241–264. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/466743.
Wallisch, Pascal. “We Finally Know Why People Saw ‘The Dress’ Differently.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 12 Apr. 2017, slate.com/technology/2017/04/heres-why-people-saw-the-dress-differently.html. Accessed 23 Oct. 2023.