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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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