Although she has been inexplicably forgotten in recent cultural history, Jane Arden was a prolific and challenging writer, filmmaker, playwright and actress. To mark the release after 26 years of obscurity of restored versions of three of her films, Separation (1967), The Other Side of the Underneath (1972) and Anti-Clock (1979), LISA WILLIAMS discusses the former with SELINA ROBERTSON and SARAH WOOD, film curators of Club Des Femmes. Written by Arden and directed by her partner Jack Bond, Separation is a visually inventive, fragmented but playful evocation of a woman’s inner world as she faces the breakdown of her marriage.
Sarah Robertson: When I searched for Jane Arden’s name online initially I found her to be a US comic book heroine from the 1940s… So there are two Jane Ardens floating around.
Lisa Williams: Arden was born Norah Patricia Morris. I wonder whether she had the early comic book heroine in mind when she renamed herself. Both figures are women braving a man’s world, whether that be investigative journalism or filmmaking.
Sarah Wood: It made me think of Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden where all gender roles can transform: girls can be boys. I had mixed feelings about the film. In some ways, I found Bond’s direction too stylised, too self-conscious. I felt that it hadn’t found its own form, that it was 8 1/2 crossed with Performance crossed with Persona crossed with Alphaville. At the same time, I liked the fact that it was a fractured jigsaw of styles, that no one approach could express the new thing that the film was trying to convey. What is radical for me about the film is the content. To hear the early voice of feminism expressed before there was any form of collective identification is amazing and vulnerable. I was most struck by the dialogues between Arden’s character and her ex-husband. It was very powerful to watch his pathologising control countered by her tentative voicing of the need to be seen as an equal.
SR: I have to say that I had never seen anything like it before, certainly in British avant-garde cinema. It was thrilling, painful, coquettish, beautiful and so joyfully experimental that all I could do was watch. I just couldn’t believe that I had never heard of her name before. The way she placed herself in the story, her body, her image, her emotions, for me very much challenged the typical construct of female subjectivity - woman as spectacle…
LW: I loved how ‘Jane’ the character and Jane the filmmaker were represented by ‘Jane’, ‘Granny’ and ‘Woman’. To me, it was like a forerunner of some of Cindy Sherman’s photography.
SR: Absolutely - feminist personas. I loved the fact that the film notes say that her clothes were from Carrot on Wheels, Quorum, Deliss and Granny Takes a Trip!
SW: Yes! She is a wonderful fashionable construct. It is such a joke within a joke!
LW: It is said that Arden ‘directed the film from within’. She wrote the script and praised Bond’s way of reinterpreting it on the screen. But it certainly complicates matters that such a feminist and personal work is directed by a man.
SR: At the BFI screening of Separation her absence created a big hole: Bond did not really want to talk about his working relationship with Arden – I’m not sure why – and there was only one question from the floor about her plays. I guess this is understandable because he was there representing the film - but frustrating as well. But I think her absence is not atypical. When was it that Linda Nochlin wrote that famous text ‘Why have there been no great women artists?’ I think it was in 1971…
Read the rest of the dialogue in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation, Raindance 09 and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!