Arden and Dali Loiter in the Streets

By Sean Kaye-Smith

dali-in-new-york-jack-bond.jpgDali in New York, 1965

Films featuring the British film director, screenwriter, actor and poet Jane Arden (1927-82) are currently – and frustratingly  hard to track down. However, one film featuring Arden did find a large and enthusiastic audience in the summer of 2007 as it was shown in daily cycles at Tate Britain’s hugely successful Salvador Dali exhibition. Dali in New York, made in 1965 by Arden’s close associate Jack Bond (b.1937), features her in yet another role, that of interviewer. It follows the renowned surrealist artist and Jane Arden around the streets, galleries, hotels and concourses of New York in the week before the opening of the major Dali exhibition at the Hartford Gallery of Modern Art at the end of 1965. They are invariably accompanied by a team of Dali’s hangers-on – or ‘slaves’ as they are later controversially branded – and, at times, bizarrely, by an ocelot on a lead. It is, without doubt, one of the most compelling conversations ever filmed, because, far from indulging his ‘exhibitionist antics’ - as J.G. Ballard has dubbed Dali’s public behaviour - as everyone else around the artist seems to be doing, Arden makes an heroic attempt to engage him in a profound, searching and often philosophical discussion of his work and ideas. When this eventually leads to her dismissal from his presence, Bond himself is seen gamely continuing with the same tack. The overall result is an art documentary like no other.  

Dali in New York, filmed in black and white, often with a hand-held camera, inevitably recalls the pioneering American documentaries of the late 1950s and 1960s by film makers such as Frederick Wiseman and Don Pennebaker, and even, at times, the early improvisational dramas of John Cassavetes such as the classic Shadows (1959). Although there is a recognisable beginning and an extraordinary ending, Bond wisely eschews a strict linear narrative in favour of a pacey mosaic of street scenes, gallery groupings, snatched conversations, brief voice-overs and, occasionally, very effective quieter moments with Arden when she takes stock of her ongoing Dali encounter. The film is not so much about what happened when Dali went to New York but what happened when Dali met a highly intelligent, articulate and – significantly – fearless - woman who wanted to talk to him rather than merely admire him or be shocked by his stunts. Oddly, the film hints at how compelling some strands of so-called reality television could be with the right stewardship. And we can only speculate on the future delights of developing virtual technology: Jane Arden wanders around C16th s‘Hertogenbosch chatting with Hieronymus Bosch, in London with Blake, or Rye with Edward Burra

dali-in-new-york-jack-bond-2.jpgDali in New York, 1965

In a 1969 New Worlds article entitled The Innocent as Paranoid J.G. Ballard firmly states what he sees as Dali’s importance: ‘Dali’s paintings constitute a body of prophecy about ourselves unequalled in accuracy since Freud’s ‘Civilisation and Its Discontents’’. And yet Ballard is under no illusions about the artist’s public persona, saying that, in comparison with David Hockney’s user-friendly amiability, Dali never ‘achieved the comfortable rapport with his audience…too often coming on like a hallucinating speak-your-weight-machine’. Jane Arden is no assassin: she comes to praise Dali, not to bury him, but in Dali in New York her reactions do, at times, cruelly expose this ‘hallucinating speak-your-weight-machine’ and the team of service engineers tasked with maintaining it. Her comments in the film would make a useful manifesto on art, culture, celebrity and the complex power struggles which pervade all human contact.

If we can link Jane Arden with another highly intelligent and much underrated Jayne, it is quite clear that ‘the girl can’t help it’. (The prospect of Dali and Jayne Mansfield is another gem for future virtual technology). But it was clearly not in Jane Arden’s nature to simply accept what was going on. Their interview ends when Dali storms off down the street yelling, repeatedly, ‘Everyone is my slave!’ This outburst is the inevitable outcome of an encounter in which we have heard Arden wistfully declare, in voice-over near the start, “I feel depressed by this concept of genius”.

In what lies between these points there is much talk of cherries, which were important to Dali, apparently, from the womb onwards; cybernetics – which Dali claims to have invented - and its link with angels (Arden is quite taken by this idea); and a meeting between Dali and Freud which the artist declares to be the last human relationship (it is not clear what he thinks has been going on between people since then). Arden finds generous things to say amid all this, such as,

"Any artist who has been courageous enough to make relationships between things that nobody dare relate…anybody who crosses that line, in any field, has to be admired, because it’s a dangerous game to play."

dali-in-new-york-jack-bond-3.jpgDali in New York, 1965

Arden is clearly talking about Dali, but she could be talking about herself: this is, after all the author of the play Vagina Rex and the Gas Oven (1969) and the writer/director of the film The Other Side of the Underneath (1972). She also acknowledges Dali’s interest in science, particularly quantum physics, saying at one point ‘I’m sure that Dali feels that the magic is in the molecules’.

There is one fascinating sequence where, in one of his staged events, Dali relates money, and especially gold – he claims to possess the powers of King Midas without actually naming him – to ants. Laying in a coffin he has himself covered with notes and coins whilst an egg of live ants in cracked open on his lips. For some reason the ocelot seems particularly interested in all this; and Dali’s ‘military adviser’, Peter Moore, is also a key player in this event.

If Dali in New York had been a boxing match Dali would have been stopped in the fifth round; as it is Arden is disqualified on a highly dubious technicality. But apart from a slight anxiety that she will not be allowed into the launch of the exhibition, one senses Arden’s relief when Dali storms off. Earlier she had declared that the curious thing for her about Dali was that ‘his intellectual companionship was of a very low order indeed’.

 dali-in-new-york-jack-bond-4.jpgDali in New York, 1965

In the end the art works win through. In scenes which, at times, oddly predict Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus (one often expects a roving hand to appear to slap bare flesh) Bond’s camera ranges over the paintings with keen interest, and, perhaps surprisingly, the black and white shots help us, in the C21st, to see the paintings afresh. These scenes show why George Orwell, in an otherwise scathing review of Dali’s autobiography in the essay Benefit of Clergy: Some Notes on Salvador Dali, acknowledged the Spaniard’s supreme drawing skills; they are given extra potency by the guitar playing of the superlative flamenco musician Manitas de Plata, often accompanying the extraordinary singing of Jose Reyes.

And this leads to the film’s brilliant final scene. After the opening night of the exhibition, in which Jane Arden and the American feminist writer Lila Karp play a kind of mischievous Greek chorus, and some morning after shots of them reading the newspaper reviews of the exhibition, we arrive at a concluding sequence in which Dali, de Plata and Reyes perform together. Dali literally paints to the music, occasionally pausing to sit and listen to the musicians. Bond cleverly lets this scene run, and it seems the perfect, harmonious ending to a fascinating film, in which we have witnessed art, commerce, conflict, tantrums, philosophy, music, bizarre events and probably the most high-profile ocelot in the history of Western Culture.

Dali in New York, which provided an early screen credit for arts supreme Melvin Bragg, as executive producer, was produced and directed by Jack Bond.

More information about Jane Arden can be found here

Sean Kaye-Smith teaches Media and English at Ashton Park School in Bristol. He regularly watches King’s Lynn F.