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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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