The three feature films that were the main outcome of the creatively fruitful collaboration between former BBC-trained producer/director Jack Bond and Welsh-born actress, playwright, writer and filmmaker Jane Arden (born Norah Patricia Morris in 1927) completely disappeared from circulation for over twenty years after being withdrawn by Bond soon after Arden’s death by suicide in December of 1982; but, in all truth, they’d been little known and rarely screened before that, and were already becoming eccentric residents of yet another dusty corner of Britain’s vast forgotten cinematic legacy until the BFI exhumed them a few years ago with the approval of Bond (who provides an informal commentary here for what is the earliest of the three films in the series) in immaculately restored but separate Blu-ray and DVD editions. Now that they’ve recently been re-packaged in line with the Company’s duel-format releasing policy, which brings together identical Blu-ray and DVD copies under one cover for the price of one, we’ve been given another chance to look back at what are perhaps some of the most challenging and provocative works of British cinema to be released during the late-sixties and early-seventies. And considering this was the period which also nurtured the likes of maverick talents such as Ken Russell and the enigmatic Donald Cammell, that’s saying something!
Bond’s career route leading up to the point at which he was able to secure financing to direct the independent production “Separation” in 1967, had taken a fairly similar direction to that of Russell’s, and perhaps accounts in some ways for many of the film’s bold idiosyncrasies of style and approach: like Ken Russell, Bond made many acclaimed documentary films for the BBC under the directorship of controller Hugh Wheldon, during a period when a tremendous spirit of creative experimentation had been encouraged in the area of arts documentaries at the company, and while he was developing an working association with Melvin Bragg on the presenter’s arts series “New Release”. In 1966 Bond shot the documentary “Dali in New York”, and here he met Jane Arden for the first time while filming her interviewing the great surrealist artist on the streets of New York. She managed to annoy Dali sufficiently enough with her acute questioning as to be banished from his presence before the end of the project. The RADA-trained actress was at this point married to renowned British television & film director Philip Saville and had begun writing for the stage and for television while developing an interest in the politics of feminism and anti-psychiatry -- an interest which came to inform her writing in television plays such as “The Logic Game”, a Saville-directed drama which she both wrote and starred in in 1965.
After meeting Bond, the two became involved in a relationship which was both a personal and a professional coming together; “Separation” was the first result of Bond’s staunch determination to realise Arden’s increasingly challenging ideas for the screen. It was also the start of a collaborative exercise which would lead to some increasingly strident works of art cinema which attempted to use and abuse and twist the medium of film in order to challenge rationality and the concept of sanity itself with increasingly provocative, radical feminist critiques of patriarchy, and its role in the construction of female identity.
The opening jaggedly edited shot of “Separation” is of a clock being smashed with a hammer, and of the film running in reverse so that the pieces seem to come together again, thus setting in motion the film’s seemingly self-destructive attempt to unravel memory and personal history and with it the social identity of the tortured ‘protagonist’ (played by Arden in the film as a number of fractured alter egos), while portraying this apparent self-immolation also as an act of creative self-expression which appears to express the hope that these disjointed splinters and fragments of perception we are about to experience can somehow come together in the end to produce a kind of coherence in the collective minds of the film’s viewers -- just as a backwards-running piece of film can re-assemble disparate elements into a whole through the magic of cinematic trickery, editing and montage.
What then follows disregards all conventional notions of narrative or any distinction between realism, documentary or drama; even time itself and any solid sense of the persistent construction of place become malleable to the point of abstraction so that a swimming pool’s changing rooms might simultaneously function variously as a photographer’s studio, a psychiatric clinic or a surrealist’s beauty parlour; repetition is employed so that scenes stutter or else start again from scratch -- it becomes a hard film to pin down precisely analytically, and intentionally so, too -- yet the overall experience is certainly an affecting and ultimately rewarding one for those hardy souls prepared to stick with it through many long sections of, frankly, chaotic bewilderment!
The main impression left by the film as a whole is of it being an attempt to conjure a personalised internal monologue, with images that form a disorderly representation of a collapsing mind as it attempts to negotiate an escape route from definitions imposed by patriarchy by way of conventional means of socialisation: diverse pursuits such as fashion photography, medical pathologies and psychiatric evaluations – even fortune telling or tarot card reading -- become attempts to impose meaning from outside by male-centric codes of understanding here, while a (sort of) back story emerges in fragmentary form where it appears that a middle-aged woman protagonist called Jane (Arden) has been for some time separated (but not divorced) from her psychiatrist/husband (David de Keyser) and has embarked on an affair in the meantime with a younger lover (Iain Quarrier, “Cul-de-sac”).
Other characters wander through this disorientating and often alienating and dreamlike sound-and-image-scape of drifting mixed fantasy and memory, which is nevertheless inclusive of a crisply photographed landscape lit superbly by cinematographer David Muir (“Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly”), consisting of phallic modernist glass and concrete tower blocks, and pristine hospital-like spaces shot from low angles. Many of these figures consist of ominous, suited males who exude medical authority and seek somehow to control by evaluating and cataloguing. There’s also a blonde woman played by ‘60s TV actress Ann Lyn and her sadistic, smartly suited male lover who appears to transmute into a sort of spy-assassin during the course of the movie; and there are numerous attractive-looking sixties fashion victims who appear in various scenes, either as patients in a sadomasochistic beauty parlour or as stoned denizens of an underground drive-in car wash.
Many of these images also appear projected on a wall amid liquid light display gels in the film’s brief colour sequences where Ardin appears clad only in a bridal veil with Quarrier as her sleeping lover beside her. The black and white images on the wall burn up and disintegrate as though these colour scenes are the only remaining refuge for the Arden character’s true self, or what remains of it once her mental landscape is challenged. Semi-documentary interludes in which real-life characters sometimes appear either as themselves or while playing improvised roles in real-life London locations account for some lengthy dialogue scenes which bring the feel of a time capsule snapshot of late-sixties London to an otherwise experimental tone, which self-consciously exists somewhere between the gaps of Godard’s “Alphaville”, Fellini’s “8 ½”, Bergman’s “Persona” and Cammell’s “Performance” -- with the distinctly ‘Swinging London’ vibe evident in the film’s preoccupation with location and fashion reminding one of some of Antonioni’s most famous works. Quarrier looks like Brian Jones in his dark pinstripe suit and bohemian get-up consisting of full-length wolf-hair coat and mirror shades; Arden herself sports clothes throughout provided by many of the decade’s most with-it fashion boutiques and designers such as Granny Takes a Trip and Ossie Clark, as they both ride around central London landmarks in a Ford Galaxy. There’s even a lengthy sequence shot in the exclusive, by-invitation-only restaurant, Alvaro’s -- which at that time provided a fashionable eating haunt for all the big stars of the era. Michael York can be seen in the background here, and John Barry and Jane Birkin are the motorists being told to move along by a London Bobby when they’re caught on film attempting to park just outside. Although it has to be said, the joint did look a little cramped anyway!
The film’s thematic concentration on the oppressive defining of female identity and the notion of it being imposed by social institutions moulded by patriarchy, cannot help but self-reflexively be informed by the fact that this is, of course, ultimately a film directed by a man, which constructs a representation of a female’s ideas on the subject matter. Arden’s often disturbing, sometimes moving mental disintegration/transformation and her questioning of the many forms the male-female relationship dynamic can adopt takes place often in the midst of Bond’s own home stomping grounds: the well-kept suburban streets of Richmond, the shabby bohemian charm of Little Venice or the crowded energy of the Portobello Road, as well as the various Georgian and Victorian splendours of Sloan Square and Holland Park, are the backdrops for many fragmentary sequences, with Bond’s own flat in Little Venice even serving as one major location. Arden takes on numerous personas in this landscape, from little old lady riding with a (her own?) coffin, to impressionable housewife sleepwalking through the make-up department of a London department store; other times she’s a catatonic trauma victim attempting to deal with the death of her mother, or else having a panic attack and taking refuge in the persona of a little girl traipsing through the woods with a teddy bear – the latter probably being the closest she comes to ‘freedom’ during a surreal sequence in which she joins some children who cavort with a giant figure made of silver foil in a playground park.
This disparate 90 minute melange of images and fragmented audio should be completely unwatchable, but the fluidity of editing provided by Michael Johns (whose IMDb résumé seems surprisingly short) and the artfully composed framing consistently fabricated by Muir -- even when the imagery appears to be tracking off-the-cuff improvisation with hand-held cameras -- is astonishing, making this one of the most visually memorable achievements of the era’s cinema, despite the obscurity of what is a low budget, little-seen film. A colourful soundtrack provided by Stanley Myers and the pop group Procol Harum is the icing on the cake and the BFI accordingly treat this offbeat gem with all the reverence we’ve since come to expect from their Flip Side Strand, which came into being soon after the original separate releases of the three Arden/Bond collaborations, now available in duel format editons.
The telecine sessions for the HD release were supervised by Jack Bond him-self and the results look and sound terrific. The BFI is providing some of the best HD transfers of older films available in the format and this belongs in the company of the very best of its work. An excellent commentary by director Jack Bond is moderated here by Sam Dunn and is a repository of many engrossing anecdotes and memories about Bond’s working relationship with Jane Arden and on how this film became the starting point for the development of her later ideas. The short liquid light film “Beyond the Image” (with music provided by The Soft Machine) is included for contextualising reasons, as it was made by artist Mark Boyle, who also provided the psychedelic liquid light and photographic displays used in the colour sections of “Separation”. The disc also features a trailer for the Bond-Arden collaboration “Anti-Clock” (the only reason this disc receives an 18 Certificate). Lastly, but certainly not least, an excellent thirty-four page colour booklet crammed full of essay analysis, bibliographies and filmographies for Arden and Bond, biographical snapshots of both artistes, contemporary articles and credit and cast lists provide between them an overwhelming amount of fascinating information to help inform your viewing of this undeniably difficult but very worthwhile excursion into the backwaters of British art cinema of the 1960s. Worth giving a chance.