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Archive for the ‘Experimental Film’ Category

Maya Deren in At Land

Maya Deren in At Land

Initially, Deren starred in her own films with Sasha Hammid as cinematographer. Although James Agee found Deren’s acting “solemnly, arrogantly, distressingly pretentious and arty,” the majority of critics disagree. At any rate, the director soon reached the limits imposed by the one-actor film. In her opinion, professional actors were devoid of personality. For this reason and also to suit her nonexistent budget, the later films used amateur actors recruited from the ranks of her acquaintances. She would phone friends to demand their presence in Central Park, Skid Row, or Yonkers at seven o’clock the next morning, promising to pay the taxi fares with money they both knew she didn’t have.

The making of Ritual in Transfigured Time was a grueling ordeal for the impromptu cast. Deren kept a large crowd under the lights for twelve hours, simulating a party scene, until many were exhausted and on the verge of hysteria. After all this effort, Anais Nin was shocked at the result, which she found grotesque, meaningless, alienating, and an artistic failure. She blamed “Maya’s ruthlessness with people” for rendering her vision cruel and distorted. Gore Vidal, also a cast member, says the bottom line is that “Maya made Anais look old.” To the protests of all her disappointed friends, Deren’s reply was, “That is why I made you sign a release. You will get over it.”

Another incident described by Nin also served to turn former supporters against their director. Volunteer actor Frank Westbrook was a professional ballet dancer. Deren insisted on footage of him performing dangerous leaps among the rocks of Central Park, which could have led to a broken leg and the ruin of his entire career. Nin and the others encouraged Westbrook to refuse, but Deren’s iron will, and the threat of cutting him out of the film, prevailed, and the rebellion was quashed.

Besides, she did some pretty dangerous stuff herself, like hanging backwards out a window over stone steps. Nin also recalled an old memory, from before she and Deren had met. Strolling on the beach at Amagansett, Nin had seen “two men, one filming a woman who repeatedly went out in the waves and got washed in.” This of course was Deren, in search of the perfect shot. She didn’t ask others to do more than she would do herself.

But it wasn’t all whips and chains. Toward the end of 1945, Nin wrote,

Maya has stopped working on her film, temporarily. We all live on pins and needles for fear of catastrophe, a quarrel or anything else that will spoil it….We all live breathlessly, hoping she will find someone to pacify her so that filming may go on. We may have to draw lots: Now you, Number Nine, go to Maya and make love to her and make her happy, for the sake of the film.

Nin was fascinated by Deren’s wild gypsy look and her “need to seduce everyone.” Whether these references to seduction and lovemaking are meant literally or metaphorically is not clear. Deren has certainly become an icon among the lesbian creative community, despite being straight. In At Land (1944) she caresses two women, but the purpose is to put them off guard so she can steal something. Make of that what you will.

No stranger to temper tantrums, Deren is reported by a reliable witness (Stan Brakhage) to have once thrown a full-size refrigerator across a kitchen. Her friends never tired of discussing her tyrannical, obstinate, manipulative and inhuman ways. They asked themselves, and each other, why they sacrificed themselves to her relentless will, but they did it anyway. Their belief in her work outweighed the aggro, and they honored art-world custom by hosting screening parties and inviting their influential contacts.

She imposed her will on the viewers of her films, going up against the prevailing climate of preference for white people. The focus of A Study in Choreography for Camera (1945) was Talley Beatty, a black dancer and choreographer who studied with Katherine Dunham and Martha Graham. Meditation on Violence featured the Wu-tang and Shaolin styles of boxing as performed by Chao-Li Chi (who had really strange eyes). Deren really hit her stride when she went to Haiti to study and document voudoun .

How much of Maya Deren’s personality was intrinsic, and how much resulted from being a speed freak? This is not known, but she died at the shocking age of 44 from a brain hemorrhage supposedly brought on by amphetamines and malnutrition. Her ashes were scattered in Japan at Mount Fuji.

Photo courtesy of Nova deViator via this Creative Commons license

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maya deren' as performed in KinoDvor nov/2007

see note at end of text

In her most technically complex work, Ritual in Transfigured Time (1946), Deren tackled the problem of using dancers effectively. Meditation on Violence (1948), which depicts traditional Chinese boxing, was constructed according to an elaborate abstract plan based on a parabolic curve. These later, less symbolic films were experiments with space and time, movement, rhythm and form, in which Georges Sadoul sees her as developing “a kind of cine-choreography that eventually reached the commercial screen in e.g. West Side Story.”

She was one of the earliest directors to employ the subjective camera, where the camera is the “first person,” presenting the story from the viewpoint of the main character. Since then, the technique has been used so extensively as to be utterly unremarkable, but at the time it was fresh and daring. Another innovation credited to Deren is the “radical extension of the trance film in the direction of the architectonic film, which did not actually come into its own as a form until the 1960s.”( P. Adams Sitney )

Though Deren openly admitted the enormous debt she owed Alexander (or Sasha) Hammid, who taught her the mechanics of filmmaking, her own creative path was inextricably bound up with her complicated philosophical position. Although she had studied French symbolist poetry, and some claimed to detect a Cocteau influence, Deren herself steadfastly denied all symbolism, and attacked Surrealism for being as deficient in its own way as realism. Rebelling against all psychological interpretations, she nevertheless presented truly unconscious dream material in a new way, with no artificial effects. As Anais Nin expressed it,

The dream resembles realism. The objects are not altered…there is nothing to indicate that one is dreaming or free-associating. A curious prosaic quality is imposed upon the imagination.

In Ritual in Transfigured Time, the editing technique involved extensive fragmentation. Deren saw the self as composed of different bodies, and translated this concept into filmic terms by “cutting on motion,” so that one actor’s gesture appears as the continuation of another’s – a trick picked up by many subsequent filmmakers. This results in an “evocative ambivalence of identity and a sense of mysterious, perpetual metamorphosis” (Sitney). Such abstruse technique calls for exquisite planning beforehand, as did the complicated montage of At Land which involved cutting on action across disjunctive spaces. As Deren described it to Anais Nin,

The Universe assumes the initiative of movement and confronts the individual with a continuous fluidity toward which, as a constant identity, he seeks to relate himself.

Deren believed the duty of art is not merely to record or reconstruct chronology, but to evaluate and manipulate these elements or “celluloid memories” in order to illustrate new relationships between them, and thus create new realities. Although she talked a lot about technique, it troubled her that some believed technique was her primary consideration. She was concerned with much greater issues. As she wrote of Meditation on Violence, it wasn’t just about photographing the movements, but “an equivalent conversion, into filmic terms, of these metaphysical principles.” In another context Deren wrote of her rapid recovery from emergency surgery. In less than a month, she was dancing, “overwhelmed with the most wondrous gratitude for the marvelous persistence of the life force.”

She connected this incident with her filmmaking, calling the joyful dance

this most primitive, most instinctive of all gestures: to make it move to make it live. So I had always been doing with my camera, nudging an ever-increasing area of the world, making it move, animating it, making it live.

Photo courtesy of Nova deViator via this Creative Commons license. Its caption reads, “this is a script for the live [cinema] performance ‘retrospections/oziranja: maya deren’ as performed in KinoDvor nov/2007”

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Maya Deren in Meshes of the Afternoon

Maya Deren in Meshes of the Afternoon

The situation of American film in the early 1940s approached stagnation. The last major creative advance in the cinematic art had been the introduction of sound in the Twenties, and for a time it seemed as if Hollywood would rest content with endlessly repeating the same tried and true formulas. On the commercial side, newcomers were not welcome. The film industry was all but closed to young men and, except for actresses, nearly impenetrable to women of all ages. The divisions of function among writer, director, producer, etc. were jealously guarded. “Hyphenate” talent, except for a few towering figures like Chaplin, was virtually unheard of. Innovation was to be found only in the theoretical writings of male Europeans who had done their own most ambitious work nearly two decades before.

A gust of fresh air blew in when independent filmmakers, often at great personal sacrifice and with no prospect of recouping their investment, began to produce a radically different type of film. A maker of purposely non-commercial experimental films was the only American equivalent of the true auteur in the European sense: the single guiding force whose vision molds every aspect of the work.

Here’s where Maya Deren comes in: as the founding mother of both the avant-garde movement and the underground film. She was the first to perceive that, in the words of Gerald Mast, “a non-commercial, personal film could do something other than make a series of shapes dance around the screen.”

Deren’s first work, the short Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), is universally acknowledged as seminal. At Land (1944) is about the same length. Taken together, these two silent films, with a total running time of 29 minutes, signified the renaissance of the American experimental film. Anais Nin, in a March 1946 journal entry, described a screening where a large crowd gathered outside, causing a police officer to ask if a demonstration was going on. “It is not a demonstration,” yelled someone in the crowd, “it is a revolution.”

Noted critic P. Adams Sitney went so far as to declare that Deren’s first four films “rehearse in general outline the subsequent evolution of forms within the American avant-garde cinema over the following two decades.” She is credited with influencing all those early Fifties guys: Brakhage, Breer, Clarke, Conner, Anger, Markopoulos, Mekas and the Kuchars. We have the word of Anais Nin that Curtis Harrington was “devoted to” Maya Deren. She has never gone out of style. One generation after another, cinephiles and novice filmmakers have looked to her. In 1961, when the epoch-making Last Year at Marienbad was released, the Deren influence was remarked upon. In the 1990’s, Milla Jovovich’s music video, “Gentleman Who Fell,” paid unmistakable homage to Meshes of the Afternoon. And as with other silent films, contemporary bands persist in re-scoring Deren’s works with new music, preferably their own.

Meshes of the Afternoon is a psychodrama which Deren described as “concerned with the inner realities of an individual and with the way in which the subconscious will develop an apparently casual occurrence into a critical emotional experience.” Gerald Mast says of this film that it serves as a clear bridge between the prototypical Surrealist work Un Chien Andalou and the much later films of such directors as Resnais, Fellini, and Bergman.

Deren’s contribution to the theory of cinematic art consists of a coherent body of writings including pamphlets, program notes, essays in trade publications, columns in The Village Voice, and her significant book on aesthetics, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film.

The director’s energetic and indomitable temperament served her well, allowing her to leapfrog over obstacles of traditionalism and sexism. Her determination enabled her to ignore anyone who, to use her metaphor, thought a woman’s presuming to speak of technical matters as improper as a man’s analysis of the price of yard goods in a department store. She was, after all, a successful commercial photographer whose work appeared in several popular slick magazines and art journals. Harper’s Bazaar used a still from one of her films to illustrate an excerpt from Nin’s novel Ladders to Fire. When living in New York, both Deren and her husband Sasha Hammid were active in the Trotskyite movement. In the late Fifties she iconoclastically founded an anti-Bergman fan club.

Deren’s early training was in art and the dance, and her unfinished works included a film on Marcel Duchamp and a theoretical book on modern dance. Acting as secretary to the Katherine Dunham Dancers, she accompanied the troupe to Haiti where she became deeply involved with voodoo, this interest resulting in another unfinished film. Ritual in Transfigured Time was intended as the first of several cinematic investigations of ritual, and it won her the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever awarded for film work. With the aim of filming rituals and dances she returned to Haiti and produced instead a book on indigenous magic, Divine Horsemen (1952). She was also awarded prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. Her huge top-floor studio in Greenwich Village was filled with ornaments, furs, drums, mobiles and photographs, and exotic artifacts collected in her travels.

Maya Deren fought for her work. She arranged screenings at such places as the Bleeker Street Theatre and Provincetown Playhouse, and lectured at summer workshops in Woodstock, tirelessly explaining and defending the experimental cinema. Anais Nin once arrived for a lecture date at Goddard College, where Deren had been the previous visiting speaker. She found the students full of resentment because Deren “had insisted on talking about her films first, as if to make sure they would look at them in her way.” An indefatigable promoter of not only her own work but that of other avant-garde filmmakers as well, she helped found two support groups for their endeavors, Cinema Sixteen and the Creative Film Foundation.

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