Meshes of the Afternoon (1943)
By Maya Deren and Alexander Hamid
(NB the original film was a silent film, Deren later added a soundtrack by Teiji Ito available on Vimeo-on-Demand vimeo.com/ondemand/meshes.
There are also several versions of the film on-line with new soundtracks added by later musicians and filmmakers).
Maya Deren (1917-1961)
Avant-garde, filmmaker, photographer, dancer, writer, poet and theorist.
‘What I do in my films, is very, oh I think very distinctively, I think they are the films of a woman. And, I think that their characteristic time- quality is the time-quality of a woman. I think that the strength of men, their great sense of immediacy, they are a ‘now’ creature, and a woman has strength to wait, because she’s had to wait nine months for the concept of a child. Time is built into her body in the sense of becomingness….and, she sees everything in terms of it being in the stage of becoming. She raises a child knowing not what it is at any moment but seeing always the person that it will become. Her whole life from her very beginning, built into her, is the sense of becoming. Now in any time-form this is a very important sense. I think that my films, putting as much stress as they do, upon the constant metamorphosis, one image is always becoming another. It is what is happening that is important in my films not what ‘is’ at any moment. This is a woman’s time-sense and I think it happens more in my films then in almost anyone else’s.’ Maya Deren
The dynamic, relentless and volatile nature of Maya Deren’s character, career, life, work and sudden early death at the age of 44 in 1961, inextricably colour the complex and contradictory legend of a pioneer of avant-garde filmmaking and feminist inspiration. A writer, political activist, dancer, poet and photographer, it was film that freed her from the task of translating the visual images in her head into words. Her six short films forged with continuously evolving theories of the ethical responsibility, aesthetics and poetic principles of cinema as art did more than merely engage with an existing film movement. Through her lectures she became a spokeswoman for independent filmmakers and the innovative organisation, exhibition and distribution of her own films established a model for later artists, male and female. In 1956, emphatically rejecting the commercial film industry’s economic model, Deren founded the Creative Film Foundation to support independent avant-garde cinema. Her imaginative insights and insistence on the relationship between emotional experience, structure and form in film as related to dance, movement and ritual enervated her contemporaries and provided a complex, and at times controversial, legacy for avant-garde and feminist filmmakers to follow.
Deren never sought a specifically female space either in the art or political world and so found herself at times marginalised and exposed to hostility and derision in discourses still dominated by men. Most famously in 1953 at the Cinema 16 symposium her passionate proposition of a dual horizontal narrative axis and vertical poetic axis in film was humiliatingly dismissed by Dylan Thomas and Arthur Miller. Performing on-screen roles in her films, where she was also writer, producer, director camerawoman and editor, was both a solution to the financial hurdles of making a film and answered her insistence on the need of amateurism in securing artistic authenticity. Yet despite giving herself no screen credit for acting she was forced to defend accusations that her own mesmerising performances, often cited as a precursor to the work of Cindy Sherman, were acts of self-promotion rather than a legitimate attempt to create a de- personalised exploration of identity. Her public arguments with Jonas Mikas, the ‘grandfather’ of avante-garde filmmaking who later wrote dismissively of the subjectivity of the female filmmaker, convey not only the strength of her structuralist convictions but illustrate the position she claimed as an artist not separated as a woman.
The details of Deren’s life in many ways vividly amplify the tensions of her legendary status. Born Eleanora Derenkowsky in Kiev in 1917, the maelstrom year of the Russian Revolution, she fled at the age of five from anti-semitic pogroms with her parents to the USA where she went on to study journalism at Syracuse university before gaining an MA in English Literature at Smith College. Involved in a Socialist youth league she reputedly galvanised and led a wild-cat strike of lumberjacks in Oregon, briefly married then divorced a fellow activist and moved to LA to work as an assistant to the choreographer and dancer Katharine Dunham. While on tour in 1941 Deren met Alexander Hamid (a Czech emigre to America, photographer, film director, cinematographer and editor) who she married and with whom in 1943 she collaborated on her first film, Meshes of the Afternoon. Immersed in the Greenwich Village art scene she collaborated, more or less tempestuously, with artists, writers, choreographers and musicians such as John Cage, Anaïs Nin and Stan Brakhage. In 1946 she became the first recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship for filmmaking and wrote the formidable essay An Anagram of ideas on Art, Form and Film arguing not only for an aesthetic ethos but for the artist’s moral duty to confront social and political instability and make art that helps us to understand the human condition. This treatise arguably defined the New American Cinema movement for the next 40 years and in 1947 Deren became the first female and American to win the Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix Internationale. From 1947-51 she travelled four times to Haiti for an immersive film study of the rites, rituals and ceremonies of Voudoun culture. Returning to NYC as a priestess and advocate she boldly re-framed the artist as a cultural phenomenon as much misunderstood as ‘voodoo’ was misrepresented as ‘black magic’, and wrote a respected ethnographic study Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti. Footage she shot in Haiti remained unedited until after her death when it was controversially assembled into a film by her third husband the musician and composer Teiji Ito.
Charged with the rhythm and energy of movement and dance each of Deren’s films progressively dug deeper into the same themes of the body, ritual and transformation, her deeply held convictions often bringing her into conflict with her collaborators. Experimenting with camera movement, recording speeds and editing techniques to manipulate time, space and movement she sought to disrupt the narrative and documentary conventions of commercial cinema. She did not aim to imitate reality but strove for a new reality to emerge that could not be created in any other art form. For her film was an illusionary, magical and imaginative time-form tied to a ‘semi- psychological reality’ though she always strenuously denied surrealism as an influence choosing to call her films ‘choreographies for the camera’ or ‘cine-poems’.
Shot in black and white Meshes of the Afternoon was originally a silent film with a sound track by Teiji Ito only added in 1952. It is a beautiful noirish evocation of a nightmarish slippage of internal fears into the everyday culminating in a catastrophic unconscious act of violence against the self. Deren’s character walks through a serene sun-drenched landscape and enters the domesticity of the home she shared with Hamid. As she moves through the house an atmosphere of paranoia and fear seeps into the rooms and objects she finds abandoned in mid-use, a record turning soundlessly on a player, an open newspaper spread across the floor, a knife cutting into a loaf, a phone left off the hook, rumpled bedsheets on an empty bed. Sinking into a chair she drifts off to sleep. As she sleeps an un-nerving repetition of futile actions, perpetual movement without progress, disappearances and transformations becoming increasingly menacing so the viewer is unable to trust the husband’s caress. The absence of diegetic sound and mismatched eye-lines and extreme camera angles intensifies a sense of fragmentation as Deren’s character replicates, and gazes back at yet another replication of herself, floating to the ceiling to watch her own sleeping figure. The discontinuous spaces of the home, a field, a beach, a path are segued together in a ‘creative geography’ as she walks through the frame. Later the interior world of the house turns upside down, her body pushes against its walls, the frame of the film and arching out of the window is tumbled back in. It is possible to locate this work within the trajectory of autobiographical works by women artists and writers expressing the surging ache of the female artist’s relationship with home but Deren warns against a simplified psychoanalytical reading of specific objects and actions positing that the continual transformations are instead suggestive of ever-shifting meaning and interpretation.
It is in Meshes of the Afternoon that Deren explicitly lays out the key themes and methodologies that continue to preoccupy her work. It is here that we first see the extreme precision in designing carefully composed and juxtaposed repetitions and variation of images and movement that characterise a creative approach so at odds with the free-form improvisation and expressionism characterising the art, theatre and music of the era. It is here that we see her willingness to transgress the theories of her time. And it is here that we can begin to understand the importance of her profoundly felt acknowledgement of the woman artist as distinct from that of the male artist voiced in an era before feminism or feminist film theory.
- Meshes of the Afternoon 1943
- At Land 1944
- A study in Choreography for Camera 1945
- Ritual in Transfigured Time 1946
- Meditation on Violence 1948
- The Very Eye of Night 1952-55+
+ In Motion Pictures (week three of our Online Film Festival), Lisl Ponger chose The Very Eye of Night from Maya Deren.
Text © Ruth Grimberg
Featured Image : Maya Deren (1917–1961) / Public domain