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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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