After having previously written and starred in his 1967 independently produced film “Separation” (which had been a cinematic debut feature for both of them), Jane Arden’s association with the former documentary-maker who was now her partner, Jack Bond, continued when they again came together artistically to collaborate on the 1972 film “The Otherside of the Underneath”, this time with Jane in the director’s seat and Bond producing and starring alongside a cast made up mostly of artist colleagues of Arden’s who were involved in her feminist women’s theatre troupe (known as ‘Holocaust’) and had previously appeared at London’s Open Space theatre in 1971 in a well-received theatre production entitled “A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets and Witches”. This play had been a collaborative effort in which, guided by the trendy anti-psychiatry philosophies of R.D. Laing, which treated mental illness as a social construct rather than a biological phenomenon, Arden led her performers through group sessions aimed at excavating painful traumas buried in their pasts, in the belief that exposing their inner fears and hurts would provide material that would enable them to pass beyond and deconstruct the societal gender roles forced upon adults by the pressures involved in conforming to rational patriarchal notions of identity and sanity. The play had been made up of the suite of collaborative performance pieces born in these workshops, and “The Underside of the Underneath” was to be the film version of that stage production: shot on location in the hills and valleys of South Wales, with many of the same performers and a handful of actors such as Ann Lynn, who was also in “Separation”, and Sheila Allen.
The very act of bringing the filmed production to this evocative, bleakly melancholic location immediately relocates it as potentially a much more personal project for Arden, centring on the playwright and former actress’s own upbringing in Pontypool. The resultant chilling, unapproachable outpouring of anger and grief portraying a disintegrating personality couched in surrealism and Jungian symbolism, is a further elaboration on themes previously touched upon in her other film: but while “Separation” had already collapsed any notion of the need for ordered narrative in cinema, it was still approachable by viewing it as an expression of the inner turmoil of the film’s central subject, played by Arden herself, attractively glossed in ‘60s cultural reference points which allow a way in (of sorts) for the casual viewer. This next film though, strips away any true identification figure to latch onto and plays as a figurative textural evocation of the state of schizophrenia itself, mired in the drab greys of the early ‘70s and conjuring the horror and confusion of spiralling insanity with a gruelling, unrelenting intensity unseen anywhere else with quite the same bluntness in the cinema of the era, it posits just such a state as the end product of western society’s alienating attitude towards femininity.
Given Arden’s continual intellectual development across a diverse range of work, and her refusal to stay tied down to one system of thought, the fact that her journey of expression took such a nihilistic turn which, eventually, culminated in her suicide at the age of 55, makes it hard not to see the hilly landscapes, slate skies, towering chimney stacks and crumbling redbrick buildings of her Welsh childhood, so vividly evoked throughout the film, as an anchor by which the work ties itself to the autobiographical genre, despite its complete eradication of narrative development or focal subject. We’re certainly initially tempted with the promise of ‘a story’ in the opening seconds of the movie, with imagery apparently firmly entrenched in the psycho-thriller sub-genre; we’re initially presented with a stark, middle-distance shot seen from high up, with inscrutable figures watching as frogmen drag an unconscious female (Susanka Fraey) clad only in a flimsy Victorian nightgown, from a chilly, grey lake nestled among rolling green hills, and a nurse (Ann Lynn) performs mouth to mouth resuscitation on the comatose apparently lifeless figure in the mud. Discordant sounds like gulls or geese on the soundtrack, accompanied by the sombre bass tones of a scrapping, plucked and frantically see-sawing cello (musician Sally Minford’s distinctive score provides the film with one of its only constant ,yet still unsettling, features), further add to the impression of mystery and intrigue by now being built as the young girl is carted off to a paint-peeled, darkened room in an old, derelict-looking stone building, which is inhabited by a leering Punch-like clown/magician figure and numerous other unhappy-looking and similarly-clad female souls. From here on in we descend, for the next half-an-hour or so at least, into perhaps the section of the movie which is most successfully realised and certainly the most memorable, taking us through its outlandish nightmare version of Alice’s rabbit hole with frightening intensity, in the form of a succession of therapy room doorways which lead from dingy asylum corridors into any number of surreal, unnerving visions featuring increasingly absurd situations and distorted, grotesque figures pictured alongside a series of often bizarre tableaux set-ups.
The deliberately upsetting, unrelentingly harsh tone and the grim depictions of mental anguish which are so frequently set alongside them, encourages a weird tone -- pitched somewhere between a dour British landscape version of “Eraserhead” with all its dissonant textural weirdness, and the edgy suspense of a horror movie. Comparisons to the work of Jodorowsky provide at least a vague orientation for what the viewer can expect to be confronted with: symbolic imagery abounds in what are almost certainly re-stagings of some of the original play’s central performance pieces, such as a scene in which a strange game is played out between two girls using the dagger-like splinters from a broken reflective mirror and a flick-knife; then there’s a squalid sequence in which a naked woman in a cell furnished in crucifixes and candles regurgitates the Sacrament. This first section of the film -- though occasionally diverted into what some might see as trite and obvious digs at Catholicism’s ‘schizophrenic attitude to the body as the source of female shame (a crucifixion scene with a female Christ clad in a soiled sanitary towel anyone?) -- is consistently pursing a fine line between being intensely scary and disturbing, angrily didactic and utterly, laughably absurd (another sequence in which the girl from the lake at the start attacks another girl with a toy rubber axe filled with fake blood while some hippy musos wig out obliviously in the background as they rehearse their most pummelling prog rock licks, is guaranteed to raise a chuckle). But then other elements begin to intrude on the picture, elements which muddy the waters morally for the film, and hint at an exploitative side to the production with regard to Arden’s treatment of her cast: nearly all the performers were encouraged to live together in the derelict building that was used as the main interior ‘asylum’ location, and had to wear their nightgown costumes throughout, even when not filming. The group therapy sessions which had provided the source of much of the material seen in the play were entered upon once more during the making of the film, this time on-site, with Arden herself acting as group leader; but these sessions were also filmed and included as part of the finished work itself. Since many of the participants were taking doses of LSD during these exploratory encounters, their distorted thought processes and emotions become part of the texture of the film, and an air of uncomfortable ‘reality’ intrudes into the otherwise staged nightmare visions as a result, in which people not in full possession of their faculties might possibly be thought of as being exploited for the sake of Arden’s attempt to use the film as a vehicle for seeking revelation and female ‘awakening’ by breaking down her performers’ psychic defences in real life as well as in fiction.
Other sections of the movie can also appear in dubious taste, particularly when the cast interact with real people brought in for a gypsy party scene in the latter half of the film: here, mentally handicapped people and those considered to be outcasts from traditional society such as welsh tinkers and gypsies, all intermingle and are filmed singing, dancing and even fighting. Finally, artist Penny Slinger (who appears in all the most extreme sequences in the movie) was at one point encouraged to make love with Arden’s partner Jack Bond on film, despite the objections of Slinger’s real-life partner at the time. Committed to the aims of the film and to her friendship with Arden, Slinger complied -- but her relationship eventually ended as a result. According to Slinger, who writes intelligently about her involvement in the film for an essay in the BFI disc’s accompanying booklet, many of those who took part in the project later suffered for it as a result, including the husband of cellist Sally Minford who soon-after killed himself by setting fire to himself in Holland Park. “The Otherside of the Underneath” is a hard film to fully recommend to people: it’s a fractured, uncontrolled, disturbing, incoherent and unashamedly self-indulgent beast of a movie, infused with a rebellious contrariness and some, frankly, maddeningly dubious ideas. Even so, the opening thirty minutes are possibly still the scariest ever committed to film, with some of the most outlandish, grotesque and unsettling imagery made to unfold in front of the viewer like a fevered delirium that’s being mainline-projected from a crumbling psyche onto the screen. These elements alone make it worth a watch, but the very nature of the enterprise means it is inherently unfocused, rambling and difficult to sit through and digest all in one sitting. As a whole the project fails to engage totally and few would honestly be able to say at the end of the experience that they ‘liked’ such a film; but, better this than the bland niceties and false comforts of ninety per cent what ends up on our screens these days.
Now available in a dual format edition from the BFI, replacing previous separate Blu-ray and DVD versions (both of which are still available if you’re quick!), “The Otherside of the Underneath” features the original 107 minute theatrical cut and 33 minutes of extra and extended material from the workprint, which can either be viewed separately or, on the Blu-ray version, as an extended cut which seamlessly branches the extra footage into the full movie, giving it a running time well in excess of two hours. The 16 mm film stock is, understandably, very grainy, and there isn’t the kind of resolution to be found here that one would normally expect from the Blu-ray format, although given the source material it’s probably always looked much like it does here. Extras wise there’s a video interview with actress Shelia Allen, who takes part in the on-stage striptease section of the movie (after turning down a part in “The Onedin Line” to do Arden the favour!) and also an interview with Natasha Morgan who appears in part of the group therapy section. These run at 27 minutes and 9 minutes respectively and were filmed for Susan Croft’s Unfinished Histories project, which was set up to record the history of alternative British theatre. There’s some interesting insight into the circumstances of the making of the film and further corroboration of the view that the project had a dubious exploitative side to it for many of the participants. There’s also a trailer for Arden and Bond’s third full-length feature “Anti-Clock”, and the usual full-colour BFI booklet is included with the set, which in this case is a particularly interesting read featuring many fine essays, reviews and analyses of the movie and its background, as well as extensive biographical notes and filmographies.
This is an almost uncategorisable transmission from the most neglected underside of the British art cinema underground, which well deserves the rescue job the BFI have done to preserve it after years of it being lost from view. Not an easy or indeed likable find, but required viewing for anyone interested in the more offbeat areas of British film and its checkered history.