Although her life ended in 1982, Jane Arden's history is a fascinating one, almost more so in thanks to the mystery it provokes. This director, writer, actor, and poet worked most of her adult life, yet that work is almost entirely out-of-print and difficult to track down, something that hasn't particularly changed even as many other avant-garde filmmakers have become more accessible thanks to increased availability provided by the internet and various remastering services and archives. She performed in plays created primarily through the efforts of her all-female theater troupe, Holocaust. She wrote screenplays, starred in a production of Romeo and Juliet, and appeared as a combative journalist in the documentary Dali in New York, challenging Dali with her line of questions. She is one of the few experimental female directors of her time, and yet very few people have heard of her, and fewer still have recognized her works as being on-par as iconic as those of other experimental filmmakers of her time. In short, Arden is something of a puzzle, and the lack of information available on her lends to the legend.
Content Warning: Much of Arden's work dealt with themes of mental health and suicide. While it is our hope to be as sensitive as possible when discussing these matters, the subject matter does consistently appear throughout this article.
Arden's work was often intertwined with that of people close to her in life. Her first important creative partner was her husband, director Philip Saville, with whom she had two sons. While married to him, she began writing and produced a surprisingly varied body of work, from sitcoms to high-drama plays. Her work became more radical as she became more interested in feminism during the '60s, and the culmination of this approach was a film called The Logic Game which she wrote and starred in. Unfortunately, this film is incredibly difficult to track down, even more so than many of her later, more experimental works.
Her second well-known partner was her next husband, Jack Bond, who she met through his 1966 documentary Dali in New York. Arden had appeared on television a few times discussing feminism and was brought in to be the writer on the set of the documentary, to ask Dali questions about his work. The result is interesting, to say the least. In conversation with Arden, Dali comes across as pretentious and the subtle sense of oppressive politics in his own work is used as a conversational tool with which Arden effortlessly disarms him. He very nearly withdrew from the project because of Arden's refusal to go easy on him, although the film is more interesting for her stance. The end result is a film that is either not remembered at all or is generally considered a bit too revealing of Dali's weak points for those who idolize the artist. The movie is, again, as with so many other Arden works, out of print, but occasionally revived for short runs coinciding with Dali exhibits.
At this time, Arden began working more in theater, forming her previously referenced radical feminist theater troupe Holocaust to cast her productions. Her play A New Communion for Freaks Prophets and Witches was adapted by her for the screen as The Other Side of Underneath, which would be her only solo directorial project. Although produced by her husband Bond, the film is unique to her vision of a tortured inner life. Described by one reviewer as “a most illuminating season in Hell,” the film was horror, but it also spoke a great deal to Arden's experiences with mental health.
Then came Anti-Clock, which very well may have been the Arden/Bond opus. Finished only a couple years before Arden's suicide in 1982, Anti-Clock is as experimental as The Other Side of Underneath, but rather than playing upon its horror aspects, it goes almost fully into a Philip K. Dick-inspired dystopia, in which feelings are repressed by therapy. A suicidal young man, played by her son Sebastian, is the protagonist, and, through a long narrative, he comes to rediscover his anger. Importantly, the meaning of an Anti-Clock in the film is a point which is the opposite of time. In Arden's script, she posits that the Anti-Clock makes it impossible to believe in one's own free will. She refers to the ability to choose between one action and another as completely absurd, giving on-air credence to the suicidal depression that inspired the film.
While Jane Arden is primarily an experimental filmmaker, what makes her interesting to the genre crowd is her tendency to lean into genre on several occasions as a tool to convey her points. The Other Side of Underneath is an unpleasant and psychedelic art house, but there is a theme of standard horror to it. Likewise, Anti-Clock could only be referred to as science fiction in the way that one would refer to El Topo as a western or Mulholland Drive as a horror story, but in that those two have been widely regarded for their ingenuity and their experimentalism, Arden's work that border on genre has come and went with incredibly little fanfare or commentary.
Arden's interest in feminism is apparent, and her label as a feminist director is well-deserved. With a sharper edge of cynicism than most, she comments on the dynamic between men and women with an almost natural propensity towards Freudian thought processes consistent in all of her work. “I was the lunatic that would not be lobotomized,” one of her characters in Anti-Clock intones, and it speaks to her interest in the women's rights movement that she segues often in the film to seemingly random female characters calling out their mundane, everyday oppression from the men in their families as being equal to the oppression instilled upon all of mankind by the dystopia in which they live.
Arden was almost as strongly interested in the anti-psychiatry movement, and there's been a lot less commentary on how that specifically influenced her work. In Anti-Clock, the shadowy government that is needed for all dystopian fiction is created and ruled by therapists. Now, many of us would view anti-psychiatry as being extreme and possibly foolish, but it meant a very different thing for women in the '50s through the '80s. The early years of psychoanalysis were notoriously dismissive and cruel to women of all walks of life, and the racism intrinsic in the studies caused devastating effects that are still seen society-wide to this very day. Housewives were heavily medicated and turned into addicts by psychiatric doctors. Electric shock therapy was given to women considered insubordinate or too strong-willed. LGBTQIA people were treated as victims or monsters suffering from a mental disorder, and lobotomies took many of our most creative minds from us. Being anti-psychiatry and a woman in the '60s was a great deal different than it would be today. In Anti-Clock, Arden's inherent suspicion of doctors and her fear of repressive therapy methods becomes the overriding plot of the film.
When asked what Anti-Clock is about, Bond deferred that it doesn't really matter as its intent is vague in its very essence. Sebastian, however, clearly stated in an interview, “It's about me and my mother.” For audiences, Anti-Clock and Arden's other works might not always click, and it might seem abrasive and even needlessly combative to us when it does, but these films serve as a dark window through which we are allowed to view her troubled inner world, which required a great deal of vulnerability from a woman that suffered that strange, unspoken depression that plagued many mothers and wives through the '50s and '60s. Many other directors of her time that delved into similar themes were granted the ability to explore them more in-depth over time, while Arden's few films are all we can know of her. Still, these visions are those of a woman approaching or having reached middle-age, questioning her future and coming up with no answers as to where in it she herself might fit, and as such speak to a very specific, often unheard part of dystopian fiction that increases its realism just as it decreases its possibility for a happy ending.