This is the third and the last of the trio of experimental film collaborations between director Jack Bond and playwright, dramatist and filmmaker Jane Arden, and is perhaps the most difficult and abstract of their projects to get to grips with. This dual disc re-release from the BFI actually includes three discs (one Blu-ray and two DVDs) since it also features a re-edited 2005 DVD version of the same 1979 film, but rejigged by Jack Bond while being also inclusive of a newly recorded voice-over in order to allow him to approach the same film and video materials with their focus shifted onto a slightly different agenda from the opaque mishmash of cod mysticism and mixed quantum mechanical metaphors apparently informing Arden original script. Originally co-directed by both Arden and Bond, what purports to be a experimental ‘psychic thriller’, incorporating parapsychology, meditation and self-analysis, plays like a non-narrative essay-like exploration of the concept of identity; or how such a concept is the result of impositions by the rational mind through its tendency to draw on ‘automatic responses, fixed ideas and blind beliefs’. Such ideas had previously been central to both of the other films in this informal trilogy (although they seemed to have a more radical feminist emphasis to them than does this), but whereas “Separation” and “The Underside of the Underneath” both could lay claim to a certain form of conventional cinematic craft which informed their construction, and from which they drew in order to seduce the viewer into participating in their fractured hallucinatory and sometimes disturbing worlds, “Anti-Clock” mostly dispenses with appealing cinematic imagery altogether, being in the main comprised of a rapid-fire mishmash of video material and library news footage, much of it treated and tampered with to give it the appearance of grainy surveillance video that’s later been recorded onto 16mm film.
There is also 16mm colour film proper, here, and some of this colour footage even appears be part of a conventionally scripted drama of some kind with a proper story to it (in fact, these portions often feels like an excerpt from an episode of a TV drama, like “The Sweeney”); quite often though, the camera merely lingers on a flickering TV monitor (or sometimes more than one) on which an enigmatic edited barrage of diverse video imagery is being played out in blurry, bluish-tinted black & white, as various voices on the soundtrack babble in confusing disarray.
It’s hard to think of any accurate precedent for what Bond and Arden set out to do with “Anti-Clock”, but the closest equivalents for gaining a feel of what to expect would probably involve the view that the film occupies a hinterland placed somewhere between the work of David Cronenberg in his early days and the later works of film and video essayist Chris Marker. At the end of the seventies when this was produced, video was still a fairly new phenomenon and so the incorporation of video footage into the structure of it, as well as the various textures and distortions which could be achieved by manipulating and abusing this brand-new medium, evidently seemed like a ground-breaking way of experimenting with far out ideas as part of various experimental agendas. Now, of course, the computer graphics seen here and the film’s use of video imagery slowed down to a snail-like pace, either look incredibly dated or are now so common that one can achieve the same effects with the step-frame button on one’s DVD player remote control; but back then it appeared to be a state-of-the-art way of demonstrating some profound point or other about the artificial, brain-mediated nature of our conscious experience of time, space and identity, etc.
Although there isn’t a storyline here or even conventional characters who undergo a set of experiences arranged in such a manner as to provide a satisfying sense of narrative progression or resolution during the course of its ninety-two minute running time, there is a strong scenario at the heart of the film which has a vague basis in science fiction, although one suspects its closer to the science fiction of L Ron Hubbard than Arthur C. Clark. Jane Arden’s son, Sebastine Saville, plays dual roles in it, appearing as Joseph Sapha, the test subject in a series of invasive mind experiments incorporating intense surveillance and biofeedback conditioning, and being carried out by a group of parapsychologists led by Professor J.D. Zanof (also played by Saville, in a false beard and with an exotic accent). The viewer is presumably experiencing and seeing everything that Sapha does as the experimenters probe his brain and feed in various electronic video stimuli, while conversing with each-other and with Sapha, encouraging him to fix his thoughts on certain areas of interest and prompting a series of memories, poetic soliloquies on the nature of consciousness, or conversations with his mother (Suzan Cameron) or sister (Liz Saville).
Some of this material, such as a sequence involving a vaudevillian ventriloquist act with a human ‘puppet’, was drawn from one of Arden’s feminist theatre pieces, but there’s a sense of creeping paranoia and mental unravelling inherent to the anti-rationalist standpoint maintained by Arden’s work in general but in this film especially, since the whole piece attempts to pass itself off as the chaotic mental landscape of a fictional character which, instead of revealing character through narrative storytelling, attempts to do so by excavating layers of his unconscious conditioning forged by genetic inheritance and the environmental stimuli which has informed his social identity from childhood; and which in Arden’s mystically inclined worldview taps into a universal bank of unconscious thought called the Akashic Record.
Saville’s unworldly, stilted performance and odd demeanour (he looks like Brian May and sounds like Bela Lugosi) and Arden’s bizarre musical accompaniment (she sounds like an especially zonked out Nico) adds a further air of saturnine solemnity to proceedings which imbue it with such an air of leaden seriousness it’s hard to resist the urge to mock. As Bond himself proudly quotes, from a contemporary review of the film published in the Huston Post, ‘”Anti-Clock” makes “Last Year in Marienbad” look like a TV sitcom in comparison!’ It’s hard to fault such intense ambition, even if many of its ideas seem, let’s just say, aimed at a niche market for New Age claptrap; but at ninety odd (very odd) minutes, this undoubtedly is a tough watch and the unappealing nature of much of the video derived footage (this must be the oddest contender for the full Blu-ray HD treatment yet!) makes it doubly hard to sit through till the very end.
Those who are tempted though will be delighted with the attention to detail afforded the film by the BFI’s release: you get a fully restored HD master, made using the original 16 mm negative, plus a rare super 8mm film as an extra, shot by Bond and Arden during a period when they were both becoming interested in Sufi meditation. “Vibration” includes footage from a trek the couple undertook across the Sahara desert, edited together with footage of Saville and the artist Penny Slinger (who had previously appeared in “The Underside of the Underneath”) and including various video effects and poetic meditations and Sufi chants. The whole caboodle comes with another excellent colour BFI booklet of writings and reviews and biographies, which at least makes the whole thing easier to deal with by placing it in some sort of historical context; but this is still an extremely esoteric release which is hard to find a way into unless you happen to be sympathetic to the particular mystical states of mind its authors were interested in exploring at the time. The re-edited version seems to be more intent on examining the modern surveillance society and is slightly shorter than the 1979 version, with a different voice-over track. This is experimental filmmaking at its most abstract and uncompromising, but, for me, easier to admire than to love.