The Other Side of the Underneath Review
The Other Side of the Underneath is a difficult film to come to terms with. Since its director Jane Arden's death by suicide in December 1982 and a tribute showing at the National Film Theatre the following year, it's been next to impossible even to see, withdrawn at the behest of Arden's partner in life and filmmaking Jack Bond. Now its release on DVD and Blu-ray (along with that of Arden and Bond's other features, Separation and Anti-Clock), enable us to reassess the work of someone so far all but missing from most accounts of British cinema. The Other Side of the Underneath is the only British feature film of the 1970s solo directed by a woman. (The only other woman directing films in the UK in that decade that I'm aware of is Laura Mulvey, who co-directed two features with Peter Wollen, as Arden did with Bond on Anti-Clock.)
This is by no means an easy film, nor even – if some accounts of its production are to be believed – an especially likeable one in some of its methods. There's no conventional plot in anything other than the loosest sense. But after two viewings there are sequences and images that I know will stay in my memory for a long time, even if I don't wish them to. It's very much a film of ideas, born out of radical feminist politics, experimental theatre and in particular the “anti-psychatry” movement of the time, based on the work of R.D. Laing. Laing's ideas had a lot of currency in the late 1960s – influencing, amongst others, David Mercer's TV play In Two Minds, whose director, Ken Loach, remade for the cinema as Family Life. Laing posited that madness was due to the collapse of a false self constructed for survival in society, and this could be a positive thing as a true self might then emerge. The unnamed protagonist of Arden's film (played by Susanka Fraey) is in such a state of collapse, being fished out of a lake in the opening scene. In between nightmarish fantasy scenes, laden with sexual, and specifically female, imagery, are sequences of group therapy sessions, presided over by a stern therapist played by Arden himself. It's in these sequences that the film blurs the line between fiction and reality. The actresses, mostly from Arden's Holocaust Theatre Company (the film was derived from a stage production), were staying in an isolated house in Wales. They were under the influence of LSD, while Arden herself was allegedly drunk. These sequences in particular make for uncomfortable viewing by any standard. The last half hour or so changes to an exterior location and sequences depicting the life of a hippie commune, symbolising its central character's rebirth.
The filmmaking process seems to have been an intense experience for those involved. At least two of the participants, interviewed on this DVD, are distinctly critical – see more in the description of the extras below. One of the cast, Martin Pullinger, husband of Sally Minford (the cello player in the film) and father of Sophie (the child), committed suicide by setting fire to himself shortly after the film was made. The film's DIY ethos may have been derived from, and contributed to, a cultural climate that fed into the punk movement later in the decade. There's a direct link in the fact that this film's editor, David Mingay, codirected a key punk film, Rude Boy. Producer/co-cinematographer/actor Jack Bond later directed the Pet Shop Boys in 1987's It Couldn't Happen Here.
I'm not convinced that The Other Side of the Underneath is a lost masterpiece. It seems a little too committed to ideas which were fashionable at the time and which have less currency nowadays. Some may find certain aspects of its making morally dubious. It's a film which is clearly very much of its time. I doubt this is a film to be readily understood, more to be wrestled with and unpicked over subsequent viewings, but if you stick with it there are some powerful sequences in it. It's simply quite unlike anything else that I've seen which was being made at that time.
The Other Side of the Underneath is released on DVD and Blu-ray by the BFI. This review is of the DVD edition, which departs from usual BFI practice in being encoded for all regions.
Shot in 16mm, the film is transferred to DVD in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Bond supervised the HD transfer. Given the smaller-format origins, and the low budget, grain is certainly in evidence in Aubrey Dewar and Jack Bond's camerawork. Colours are intentionally muted for the most part, with some vivid reds standing out.
The mono soundtrack is presented as a LPCM mix, which is clear and well-balanced. Subtitles for the hard-of-hearing are provided for the feature, the extended sequences, and the Anti-Clock trailer, but not for the interviews.
The extras begin with four extended sequences. (In the Blu-ray release, these are integrated into the feature via seamless branching to produce a longer, workprint version of the film.) These are “Graveyard Projections” (5:09), “Group Session” (13:08), “'Underneath Me Nightie'” (6:54), “'The Thing About Mothers and Fathers'/Freak Out” (8:53).
Interviews, both conducted in 2007 as part of an oral history project on alternative theatre, follow with Sheila Allen (27:31) and Natasha Morgan (9:24). Allen describes her first meetings in the early 60s with Arden, Arden's first husband Philip Savile and later Jack Bond. She gave up a role in TV's The Onedin Line to make The Other Side of the Underneath but disapproved of Arden's methods, leading to a final argument and a falling-out. Natasha Morgan goes even further, claiming that some of the participants died, either during the production or shortly afterwards. She finds the film embarrassing and exploitative of the women who took part. The on-disc extras conclude with the trailer for Anti-Clock (2:55),
The BFI's booklet has essays on The Other Side of the Underneath by Amy Simmons and Sophie Mayet. Penny Slinger describes her part in the film's making, while Susan Croft discusses Arden's “invisibility” as a research subject. Also included are Arden's inroduction to an extract from her play Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven as well as a piece by her on the Holocaust Theatre group. Finally there is a transcript of David Will's radio broadcast (Radio One, no less) on the film from 1972 and biographies of Arden, Bond (both with filmographies), Allen, Morgan and Croft, plus credits for the film and DVD and transfer notes.