Jane Arden lingers on the very edges of memory, her place in the history of cinema as precarious as the subjective states that her work seeks to express. Released in 1972, The Other Side of the Underneath is the only British feature film of that decade to be directed solely by a woman. In it, Arden unflinchingly chronicles a confrontation with her subjective experiences by incongruously projecting the most shadow stained corners of her mind onto the industrial landscape of South Wales. When I first encountered The Other Side of the Underneath I felt as though I had come home. The same year and just one valley over from Arden’s journey to her own personal underworld, my Grandad’s leg was crushed in a mining accident.
Arden, born Norah Patricia Morris in Pontypool, left Wales in the early 1940s to train at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. In her own words, from the inside cover of You Don’t Know What You Want, Do You? – a part-poetry, part-manifesto call to overthrow the restictions imposed on the self by the rational mind: ‘my education was a compression of Methodism, poetic incest, and the wild hopes of revolution’. These threads of her biography run vividly through The Other Side of the Underneath, which started life as A New Communion for Freaks, Prophets and Witches – a play written by Arden and performed by her all-female radical theatre group, ‘Holocaust’.
Arden collaborated on two other full-length films during her lifetime with her professional and romantic partner, Jack Bond: Separation and Anti-Clock. Following Arden’s suicide in 1982, Bond was reluctant to share the projects that they had worked on together, and it’s only relatively recently that their triumverate of films have became available to watch by way of the British Film Institute. Arden wrote the screenplays for both Separation and Anti-Clock, acted in the former and co-directed the latter with Bond. While they vary significantly in tone and thematic concern, the three films share an experimental, anarchic approach to the narrative and technical possibilities of cinema and border on the psychedelic in its purest sense: the revelation of the soul or psyche.
The Other Side of the Underneath was filmed near Arden’s place of birth; the mining towns of Cwmtillery and Abertillery. Geographically, the film very much belongs to the South Wales valleys. The dystopian spires of the Newport Transporter Bridge feature prominently, a fever dream striptease takes place in an actual working men’s club, and the film builds to a strangely ecstatic conclusion against a colliery tower illuminated by pyrotechnics beneath the night sky. There’s a distinct sense of Arden attempting to retrace her steps in her search for self-knowledge, of literally as well as metaphorically returning to her deepest buried roots.
The Other Side of the Underneath is communal and collective in its construction. The majority of the cast lived together in a pub for the duration of the fiming. Most of them were, apparently, on LSD for most of the process, while Arden sustained herself on a seemingly infinite supply of cigarettes and wine. Sally Minford composed the thoroughly unnerving soundtrack and also appears throughout the film playing the cello, while the celebrated visionary artist Penny Slinger both acted in the film and was jointly responsible for its art-direction. With Arden at the helm, they descend into a shared exploration of female suffering and oppression that resits and dismantles the all too common cinematic glamorisation of mental illness.
The film begins with its unnamed protagonist (Susanka Fraey) being pulled half-drowned from a lake. She is resuscitated and driven by ambulance through narrow streets of terraced houses before emerging from the dark entrance to a mine shaft on the back of a pony and trap. A young girl rides with her, a remnant perhaps of her younger self, and it’s as if they are reborn side by side in an attempt to make sense of the present. Throughout The Other Side of the Underneath time is distorted, looping back on itself or stagnating completely with the soundtrack repeating fragments of dialogue and sound. The central character arrives in what can best be described as an asylum located between the valley’s hills, and the long white nightgowns worn by the women who reside there as they wander its derelict corridors suggest lingering Victorian ideas surrounding female hysteria.
The film’s narrative is elusive, almost tenuous, unfolding as a series of vignettes loosely held together by something resembling group therapy sessions. Largely improvised and increasingly disconcerting, these are presided over by Arden herself in the role of a therapist or psychiatrist. Here, Arden works through her own growing aversion to psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic practices, and her personal belief in the damaging nature of any uneven power dynamic between therapist and patient is integral to the film in its entirety. In the therapy scenes, Arden sits in profile, chain-smoking and twisting the womens’ words back at them.“Why aren’t you crying?”, Arden asks, “you’re always crying when I see you”.
The many interlocking scenes of The Other Side of the Underneath see the protagonist participate in displays of extreme psychological pain and anger as self-destructive impulses are made material rather than repressed. Arden is concerned with the embodiment of rage, and her methods for communicating this are violent and transgressieve: a game of mirrors played with Slinger leads to murder; one of the women attacks the others with an axe; they masturbate in a church, and consume and vomit the communion bread and wine; Fraey assumes the role of Christ in a climactic re-enactment of the crucifixion. Arden spins a visceral web of sex and death and then attempts to navigate out of it by orchestrating psychodramas of resurrection.
One extended sequence sees Fraey’s character married in a graveyard. She’s buried alive in her wedding dress, and archival footage is projected over her face to the accompaniment of the ordinarily rousing singing of the Cwmbran male voice choir. Another image is laid over monochrome recordings of miners, a photograph of a tombstone: “In loving memory of Bronllys, the beloved wife of J.E. Jones”. There’s a kind of anti-nostalgia to Arden’s return to her place of birth, and the lens she gazes through is tinted much more by blood than rose. Sheila Allen appears in the role of a jester at intervals to taunt the protagonist: “Strength, little girl,” she tells her, “is madness. And madness is the persistent belief in one’s own hatefulness. Lightening in the brain signals down the arm, persuading the fingers to conclude that which happened a very long time ago”. Arden tries to sever the cords of centuries old patriarchal conditioning, to look the puppet master straight in the eye as she cuts the strings and usher in a new age of freedom. The jester calls this “the night of witch howl”.
Frequently, it feels as though the entire film is on the brink of collapsing in on itself, or that Arden will lose her way in the depths of mental anguish that she so relentlessly pursues. However, rather than serving as a depiction of the complete entropy of the self, The Other Side of the Underneath is ultimately more like an exorcism, one that we’re forced to participate in rather than merely observe. This is what makes it such a potentially uncomfortable viewing experience; Arden refuses to allow us a safe aesthetic distance from the desires, fears and wrath that she excavates.
The film culminates with the women dancing against the backdrop of the old coal mine. It’s a ritual that points to a hard-won release from an ancient nightmare, one that requires them to channel each other’s emotional truths. They’ve swapped their nightgowns for pristine white robes, and it’s as if they’ve regenerating themselves from the dust and dirt itself. Arden brings a whisper of the counterculture — Sufi meditation, occult rites — to the end point of her maze of torment, hinting at the possibility of transcendence. The film’s final image is a close-up of Fraey’s face, neck bending back and eyes rolling, and an echo of an earlier conversation with the therapist played by Arden: “tell me about your head” — “I don’t know very much about my head”.
The culmination is nothing if not ambiguous, but this contributes to making The Other Side of the Underneath relevant and vital decades later. After all that has transpired, there are no neat answers or clever epiphanies. The film is paradoxically very much of and ahead of its time. In my own experience, it’s impossible to adequately fit experiences of mental illness into a coherent or recognisable narrative arc, or to completely convey an internal process in words. Arden’s work attests to this, and with The Other Side of the Underneath she attempts a ceremonial self-transformation. Her attainment of this goal is certainly questionable, but she succeeds in capturing what it’s like to dwell within and then rise above the limits of the pain you think yourself capable of enduring. Despite it all, the mines closed and the world moved on. Jane Arden’s inexplicable deletion from prevalent discourses of cinema remains as a wound in time, and the night of the witch howl is still to come.
by Lana Rhiannon
Lana Rhiannon is a Welsh writer and recent MA graduate with particular interests in cult film and television, folk horror, the occult, and the intersection of death and desire. Find her on instagram and twitter @lanaxrhiannon
Categories: Women Film-makers