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Separation (is Here Again)

Ian Hockley reviews the DVD

Twelve months have passed since Separation flickered on to a London cinema screen for the first time in decades: exhumed from the British Film Institute archive and lovingly restored and presented during a season of films celebrating the work of Jane Arden and Jack Bond. Their filmic collaborations, unseen for decades, are now back in the public domain, and finally available on DVD for long-overdue reassessment and reappraisal. My initial reactions to the film at the London screening are recorded here.

Twelve months on, the beautifully produced DVD of Separation allows greater scrutiny of this fascinating, enigmatic slice of Procol Harum periphea. The theme music, effectively brought back into the band’s set-lists in 2002 as a ‘chill-out’ moment, is simply beautiful and the unique version of it here (unavailable elsewhere) is worth the price of the DVD alone.

Watching the film again in the home and with the options of repeated viewing, the film begins to make more sense and has a compelling, almost violent beauty about it. It can be taken literally, as a series of stylised tableaux of London life in the 1960s, with a wonderful sense of aching nostalgia and unease amidst the mostly implied backdrop of swinging London, and as a powerful feminist statement whose messages, inscriptions and associational logic begin to make sense only after several viewings.

I won’t attempt a detailed analysis here: the DVD booklet does that superbly well and like all British Film Institute releases, it is beautifully produced, possibly the best one I have ever seen, and has 28 pages crammed full with essays, technical and biographical information concerning the movie and its makers.

Two essays by academics, Clare Monk and Maria Walsh, give an extremely detailed analysis of the content and stylistic elements of the film, its influences and initial reception, and its place in feminist history. Maria Walsh’s introduction to the film is worth reproducing:

The film’s ostensible narrative circles around a protagonist ‘Jane’, played by Arden, who is torn between a husband and a lover, as well as being haunted by voices and persons from her past, mainly her mother and her child self. From the film’s opening sequence, narrative is constantly eschewed in favour of montaged vignettes and a-synchronous sound that communicates ‘Jane”s mental fracture. Paradoxically, it is Arden that holds the film together giving the film its intensity and logic, albeit irrational … but the stylised, fast-paced cutting and Arden’s playful theatricality, the combination of which prevent the film from fitting easily into any genre, frustrate our desire for knowledge and leave us fascinated by a surface we cannot fathom”.

These very detailed essays are followed by Notes on the Commentary recording, a biography and full filmography of Jane Arden and then Jack Bond. Jack Bond’s biography in the DVD booklet begins thus:

Fêted by Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol, described as ‘the most irresponsible man on God’s earth’ after a bear and assorted mental patients escaped from the set of The Other Side of the Underneath, Jack Bond has had a distinctly colourful career”.

Clearly then, the sort of man one could have a good night out with.

I like, too, Jack Bond’s pithy advice to budding filmmakers on the commentary track:

You hear all the time, ‘How do I become a filmmaker?’. Well my only answer to that is: start Monday, and if you can’t do it, you’re never going to be able to do it”.

Jane Arden was clearly an artistic force to be reckoned with and her early death in 1982 robbed the British film and theatre world of a remarkable talent; her stage play, Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven, described in the DVD booklet and staged in London in 1969, sounds like an electrifying piece of theatre. Did anyone reading this ever see it?

There are further articles in the booklet, including contemporary reactions to the film and an essay concerning the effects process for the colour sequences in the movie, devised by Mark Boyle.

The gleaming black and white photography is superbly rendered on the DVD release (I haven’t seen the Blu Ray version), and generally the film is visually sumptuous, with an incredible eye for detail and for making the most mundane objects and scenes rich in effect.

The commentary track is again, very worthwhile. Recorded by Jack Bond and Sam Dunn of the British Film Institute in April last year it is full of interesting information and, once again, Jack is highly engaging to listen to. There is a great deal of information given about the technicians, crew and actors in the film and the few minutes of Procol Harum-related comments include the revelation that Matthew Fisher used to keep his Hammond organ at Jack Bond’s Victorian house and used to play it so loudly that the walls used to shake!

Jack and Sam Dunn (Head of Video Publishing, BFI) later explain:

JACK: Originally, Stanley Myers was to be the only composer for the film but then Denny Cordell, perhaps minded to get some publicity for Procol Harum, played me some music, but I liked it so much I had to say to Stanley, I want you to do the music with them.

SAM: So all worked out between Denny, Michael (sic.) and Stanley?

JACK: Yes, they all got on extremely well and it was all done at Twickenham Film Studios. The organ was taken there, Stanley had his grand piano and orchestra …it was very harmonious between Stanley and Procol Harum, Matthew Fisher particularly”.

It would be interesting to know if there were any sessions with the whole band at Twickenham which is what seems to be implied.

[Sam Dunn mentions the 'Michael' error in the notes on the commentary, pointing out it was left in to leave it as live feeling as possible. Jack didn't seem to notice. It is an extremely informative and interesting commentary, not just about the film but has a lot about Jack Bond's life and his thoughts on life the universe and everything. For instance, I didn't realise that Mortlake (even with that name) is actually built on a real, massive burial ground full of plague victims. One of the nuggets that falls out during it.]

One of the sadder points of the commentary is the news that leading man Iain Quarrier has disappeared completely and is “untraceable”. With looks to die for, it almost makes one cry at such a lost talent.

Extras on the disc include the trailer for the last collaboration between Arden and Bond – Anticlock – in 1979, and Beyond Image, a montage of Mark Boyle’s experimental colour effects which punctuate Separation at key points.

Generally then, a lost movie worth exploring for anyone interested in British cinema of the 1960s, difficult to classify: but a film that repays viewings; this excellently-presented DVD restores an important early footnote in Procol Harum history to the public domain.

More about Separation | Order it from Amazon by clicking this link

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