Apr 22, 2013
For me to describe a woman as the greatest “feminist filmmaker” who ever lived would not typically be the most flattering of compliments, at least when concerning the use of the word “feminist” in my own personal lexicon, but when it comes to the tragic Welsh auteur/actress Jane Arden (Vibration, Anti-Clock), I do not mean it be totally facetious. During her relatively short life, which was cut short when she committed suicide at the age of 55 years old in late 1982, she only directed two feature-length films and one short, yet her debut feature The Other Side of Underneath (1972) aka The Other Side of the Underneath – a psychosexually erratic epic avant-garde work combining seemingly aesthetically discordant scenes of surrealism and realism about a schizophrenic girl on the verge of suicide – alone merits her an important place in cinema history as a strikingly singular and innately idiosyncratic work that is without contemporaries, even if it is somewhat plagued by counter-culture mumbo jumbo of the now rather outmoded sort. Adopting the then-trendy socially 'liberating' interests of feminism and the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s, Arden became seriously committed to these dubious causes from 1965 on, and in 1970 she started the avant-garde feminist Holocaust Theatre Company, where she wrote and directed the play that would later be adapted into her first feature The Other Side of the Underneath – a film shot and produced by her partner Jack Bond (director of Dali in New York (1965) and the Pete Shop Boys musical It Couldn't Happen Here (1987)). Taking its title from a line of her successful 1969 play “Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven,” The Other Side of the Underneath would ultimately evolve into the greatest artistic achievement of Arden's relatively short directing career because, aside from being what is arguably one of the most aesthetically and thematically ambitious films of its time, the film also has the distinction of being the only British feature-length film of the 1970s to have been directed solely by a woman (although fellow feminist filmmaker/film theorist Laura Mulvey co-directed a couple flicks with Peter Wollen), thus one could quite easily argue that the director was a rare feminist who more than practiced that which she preached, even to a deleterious degree. Not unsurprisingly for those that have actually seen The Other Side of the Underneath, the film had not been screened since a July 1983 National Film Theatre tribute to Arden (she committed suicide on 20 December 1982) until relatively recently in July 2009, thus it developed an almost mystical reputation as a sort of lost holy grail of avant-garde cinema. Seeing Jane Arden star in Separation (1968), a bittersweet yet sometimes humorous film she also co-penned set in the Swinging London zeitgeist about the disintegration of a marriage, it is almost hard to believe that she is the same women who directed The Other Side of Underneath – an intrinsically dark gloom and doom work without humor or tangible hope that clearly foretells the director’s suicide as if she had already accepted her fateful death over a decade before she actually gave into self-slaughter.
Things are not going too well for the unnamed protagonist (played by Susanka Fraey in her sole movie role) of The Other Side of the Underneath because, aside from being fished out of a lake in a dubious situation that seems to have been a suicide attempt that should have almost certainly resulted in the young lady’s premature death, she is taken to a decrepit old mental institution (most of these scenes were set in the Welsh mining communities of Abertillery and Cwmtillery in Ebbw Fach) in ruins that put the post-industrial setting featured in Paulus Manker’s Schmutz aka (1987) Dirt to shame in their sinister technocratic decay. Clearly, the all-female nuthouse featured in The Other Side of the Underneath is not a concrete reality as the gigantic and mostly vacant building is falling apart, full of debris and trash, and is in an irreparable state far further gone than the mind of the protagonist who sees pernicious phantom children in grotesque masks, a sexually confused female jester named “Meg the Peg” (played by Sheila Allen) with a smile and pantomimes more creepy than Ellen DeGeneres, a cadaverous cellist (played by the actual composer Sally Minford) who plays intrinsically inharmonious tunes in dark hallways, and psychedelic rock bands. The protagonist, like director Jane Arden, is quite antagonistic when it comes to therapists and wastes no time in bitching out the sole ‘soul doctor’ (ironically, played by Arden herself) at the quasi-lesbian lunatic asylum. When not laying in bed and being tormented by the merrily mischievous Meg the Peg, the pretty protagonist is stabbing to death fellow female patients with a butcher knife slasher-style while a psychedelic rock band performs live, watching herself dance in an antique cabinet in an unnaturally frenzied manner, having some awfully perturbing periods, using the little girl’s room where evil little girls wearing monsters masks and wielding axes dwell in the bathroom stalls, looking at shattered glass in a ritualistic manner with a topless fellow patient, having a transsexual marriage ceremony/funeral, walking around the mental institution (which looks more like a bombed-out factory than a hospital for hopelessly hysterical women) in a somnambulist-like state, and encountering women standing naked turned away from the cross of Christ, and various other peculiarly penetrating situations that might make it seem like she is in the humble home of the Whore of Babylon. Later, after regretting the gospel of psychiatry and patriarchy, the protagonist attends a traditional family get-together outside in what seems to be the Welsh equivalent of Harmony Korine's Gummo (1997), where pretty boys engage in heated fistfights, a pig is cooked over an open flame and eaten, the Welsh prove they are much better drinkers than the Irish, and everything is not as it seems in one rather deranged daydream.
In a scene obviously inspired by Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) and, in turn, potential ‘crucifix envy’ on Ms. Arden’s part, the lovely yet loony lead protagonist of The Other Side of the Underneath is crucified, but instead of bleeding from her hands and feet, she is bleeding profusely out of her womb as if she just had a miscarriage of a pair of Satanic twins of sin. As someone who had a Christian friend who once matter-of-factly told me that women hemorrhage for about a week every month, have unbearable pain during child birth, and are under subordination of man as a punishment from God because of an evil and deceptive serpent conning the first woman in human history to make the mistake of consuming the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil and thus causing the “original sin” of man, I can see why Jane Arden felt it necessary to create such an aesthetically heretical and spiritually hysterical scene of a topless schizophrenic chick with vital fluids oozing from her cunt on the cross in a scene that puts to shame the softcore Hollywood heresy of The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) directed by Martin Scorsese, where Jesus wusses out on the cross and gives into a life of sins of the flesh and self-indulgence. I might be looking too far into things, but The Other Side of the Underneath seems to have influenced a number of much better known cinematic masterpieces, but the most blatant seems to be The Shining (1980) directed by Stanley Kubrick, especially in regard to the hallucinatory and phantasmagorical scenes of various apparitions (especially of little girls) in the mental institution, which are no less effective than the iconic ghost scenes in the Stephen King adaption. Undoubtedly, if there ever was a female/feminist celluloid counterpart to David Lynch’s cult masterpiece Eraserhead (1977), The Other Side of the Underneath is it and it is no less esoteric, if a bit more visually kaleidoscopic and socio-politically blatant in its criticism of gender and women’s role in the modern world. Additionally, if one were ever to dig in to the unruly and ‘possessed’ unconscious mind of Isabelle Adjani’s curiously creepy character in Possession (1981) directed by Andrzej Żuławski, it might seem like the psychotic celluloid psychodrama Arden dreamed up in The Other Side of the Underneath. Indubitably, if Helma Sanders-Brahms scratched the surface of female schizophrenia in Die Berührte aka (1981) No Mercy, No Future, Jane Arden dived in deep and without moral or social qualm with The Other Side of the Underneath to the point where it potentially contributed to her suicide as it is surely the sort of work that one must be in camaraderie with demons as no virgin of misery could have tackled such uniquely unsettling and—frankly—soul-destroying material without being forever touched by an ugly kiss of death as sired by a very real mental disintegration, thus it should be no surprise that most of the cast was drunk or high on LSD (Arden apparently enjoyed her alcohol while everyone else was tripping) during the filming of the, quite literally, 'psychedelic' production. Indeed, whatever arguments one might make regarding the artistic merit of The Other Side of the Underneath, it is impossible to deny it was made under the sort of decidedly morally degenerate circumstances that led to the soulless Sodom and Gomorrah that is the West today, but one also cannot deny that Jane Arden knew how to create art that reflected (her) life and vice versa.
Surely, Jane Arden assembled a celluloid ‘bad trip’ of thoroughly abstract “anti-psychiatry” surrealism and fierce fecund-free metaphysical feminism with The Other Side of the Underneath that makes the strikingly scatological demonic possession of The Exorcist (1973) seem rather tame and tedious by comparison, which is no small achievement, especially for a film that has no interest in being described as a ‘horror film,’ even if the psychological horror never ends. With the release of The Other Side of the Underneath (as well as Arden and Bond's other cinematic collaborations, Separation and Anti-Clock) on DVD and Blu-ray by BFI in 2009, there is no reason that the film should not develop a new cult following, especially with the further spread of female discontent and mental illness in the Western world, where everyone is taking some sort of mind-altering/dulling pharmaceutical drug(s) just so they can get up in the morning and live some semblance of a 'normal' life. Of course, I have one major warning regarding The Other Side of the Underneath, especially in regard to the final segments of the film in which the protagonist goes through a sort of ‘hippie rebirth’ where a sensitive man pays special attention to her sensitive female parts, she is crucified in spite of the holy patriarch Jesus Christ, and she goes through a number of dubious quasi-Buddhist-feminist rituals to reach ‘total transcendence’ of body and soul, but as Jane Arden essentially proved with her own suicide, all forms of the counter-culture Weltanschauung have proven to be—at best—temporarily entertaining and heedlessly hedonistic but ultimately counterfeit and—at worst—totally self-destructive. That being said, The Other Side of the Underneath is, at least for me, a cinematic goldmine of entrancing and horrifically hypnotic celluloid images, but also an unintentional how-not-to guide for a woman to lead her life. Indeed, when it comes down to it, Jane Arden was another victim of the Golden Calf that was counter-culture ‘liberation.’ Although I sincerely doubt Arden would agree, The Other Side of the Underneath is one of the most penetrating looks at the positively possessed collective unconscious that is Occidental womanhood.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 8:20 PM
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